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The end of an era

I've always been fascinated by player-caddie alliances, and few are more intriguing than that of Jordan Spieth and Michael Greller. Always animated, always entertaining, and their celebration on Sunday evening at the Travelers Championship erred on the amusing too. Wonderful scenes, especially given that Greller takes his share of flak when things go wrong, too.

More generally, player and caddie really is the most unnatural of employer/employee relationships, with such unreasonable accountability being placed on one party's shoulders, while the other almost gets a free pass from blame when things go wrong - even though it is he (or she) who is performing the primary task.

Some player/caddie tenures end acrimoniously; others just conclude with a natural parting of ways. Few, though, exceed five years, and the trend seems to be a diminishing one - rather like football managers these days, I suppose.

It's what makes the split between Phil Mickelson and Jim 'Bones' Mackay - who enjoyed an uninterrupted 25-year partnership together - such a landmark event. To borrow the football manager analogy again, a vague equivalent to Alex Ferguson's decision to retire in 2013.

Because this marks the end of an era we may not see again in the professional game. While the Spieth/Greller exchanges make for interesting viewing, it was Mickelson and Mackay who were the pioneers of the box-office, on-course verbals. In the build-up to even mundane shots, it often bordered on the intense.

Mackay was engrossed in the politics of tour life, and was never afraid of the limelight. Yet he always knew the limits of his role, and never sought to exaggerate its importance. Unlike the common modern trend, he never used the word 'we' in a single one of the many interviews he did. His job was to carry the bag, do his homework about the course, point in the direction of the wind, and ultimately help to get Phil into the best possible frame of mind before each shot. No more, no less.

Mackay also knew the importance of giving his boss space. He'd usually travel separately on commercial airlines to and from events, rather than on Phil's private plane. And on the course, he completely understood the need to let the maverick mind of this gifted player run free. Mickelson could visualise each shot in many different ways, and very rarely did Mackay seek to rein him in. But when he did, Phil trusted him.

This trust flowed far deeper too, enabling him to become Lefty's true confidant. Mackay was central to numerous important career decisions, such as a switch of equipment from Titleist to Callaway. It was Mackay who encouraged him to turn to Butch Harmon as coach, despite the fact that he had an established relationship with another instructor, Rick Smith.

Mackay was also instrumental in bringing in a sports psychologist to the camp back in 2011. And he was always willing to take the bullet of speaking to reporters in dark times - not least of all following six heartbreaking runner-up finishes in the US Open.

Right until the end, Mackay's enthusiasm and work ethic never wavered either. He was at Erin Hills early for the US Open, pacing out the course, studying the yardages and surveying the undulations - even though the chances of his boss playing that week were slim. And the two parted ways on good terms, grateful for their time together, and appreciative of the part each man played in building the most successful player-caddie union of all time - if not in terms of titles, then certainly longevity.

Rickie Fowler's caddie, Joe Skovron, tweeted this last week: "This relationship helped change caddying. Bones' professionalism and Phil's respect for him was unmatched. What a run they had."

You couldn't really have said it better than that. These two added a new dynamic to watching golf on television, making the build-up to each shot all the more compelling. Like him or not, Mickelson is one of golf's great artists. But it was Mackay who allowed us to see the wheels turning inside his head, and to get a front-row seat to the finest of golfing imaginations running wild.

Unlike Steve Williams, Mackay isn't a household name - nor was that his ambition. It underlines his knack for knowing when to step back into the shadows, and probably an ounce of humility too. Maximising Phil's success was all that mattered, not maximising his own slice of the credit.

Yet even though it would not have been his primary goal, Mackay now has a 50 percent share in a legacy which no other caddie can boast - one which has made golf profoundly more captivating to watch, and one that has made the workings and personality of a golfing great accessible to the whole world. In addition to making a tidy living, that was probably more than he could ever have expected a quarter of a century ago.

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