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The man behind the bag

They say that behind every great man there is a great woman. That is not an issue I wish to debate, but one school of thought that does fascinate me is a similar parallel that is drawn between the success of a professional golfer and the role of his caddie.

Branden Grace felt he owed much of his extraordinary success in 2012 to his now well-known bagman, Zack Rasego. The same man who “helped” Louis Oosthuizen to the Claret Jug in 2010. I don’t mean it scornfully, and having played some competitive golf I do accept that the caddie can be more than just a bag carrier. Some golfers in no way wish to engage with their caddie, and consider input or advice a distraction. But others depend on the help of their right hand man, and consider their opinion on club selection and the break of a putt invaluable. Not to mention the importance of having an ally in those pressure situations - which can make a golf course feel like the loneliest place on earth.

But my opinion was that ultimately you, as the player, still have to hit the shot. Like with football managers, I felt that too much praise is heaped on caddies when things go well, and too much blame when things go awry. How many times have you seen a professional throw his arms in the air when he misses a putt and glare at his caddie?

At the same time, Steve Williams is reported to have earned more than $12 million during his tenure as Tiger Woods’s caddie. This of course excludes the many endorsements he had, which are believed to be well in excess of this figure. In 2007, it was announced that Williams was New Zealand’s highest earning sportsman for the year. Sportsman? Really? And how on earth could he be the highest paid “athlete” in his country? It seemed like lunacy to me, and I felt vindicated when I watched old footage of the 2006 Ryder Cup and saw him drop Woods’s nine-iron in the water at the K Club’s seventh hole.

But I decided to ask some reputable professionals at last week’s Africa Open in East London to weigh in on the matter, and they all seemed united in their view on how important caddies are to them. Portugal’s Ricardo Santos claimed his maiden European Tour victory in his rookie season during 2012, and currently sits 10th in the Race to Dubai standings. Jorge Gamarra has been his companion on the bag ever since he gained his card.

“Jorge flies with me around the world and he’s on my bag for every tournament,” Santos said. “We are a team. He helps me a lot, and I will always trust what he says because already he knows my game so well.”

“We speak a lot, and it’s great to have him there. Especially when things are not going well, he calms me down. He doesn’t necessarily give me advice – he’ll just talk to me and I’m able to get back into the moment. Also when you are in contention and the pressure is a lot, he keeps my emotions under control,” he added.

The dynamic of the relationship between player and caddie is another thing that interests me. In the example of Williams and Woods, the relationship seemed purely business. Woods attended his caddie’s wedding in 2005, and would occasionally have him over for dinner. But general consensus is that they weren’t what you would term “friends.” Well, they certainly aren’t anymore.

James Kamte, one of South Africa’s brightest golfing prospects, has opted for the services of John Sangqu, who is a long-time friend of his, and he believes this makes him a good fit for the job.

“John knows my game because we’ve played a lot of golf together. That allows it to be a team decision when it comes to club selection, or whether I should hit driver off the tee. If someone doesn’t know my game, then I wouldn’t want them to get involved with that,” Kamte explained.

He continued: “We take it very seriously when we have to. But between shots we share a lot of jokes, which is what I enjoy most. If you try too hard, you put yourself under extra pressure and that’s no good, so we always make sure we have a few laughs out there.”

Sangqu, who is a former Sunshine Tour player himself, was able to provide some insight into the subtleties of his job, and the fine line between having a positive impact and a negative one.

“There are times when you need to get involved and calm James down – maybe give him some water. I just try talk to him and get him to relax. The best way to do that is to take his mind away from what he is doing, so we’ll just chat about other stuff,” said Sangqu.

“When he’s playing well I sometimes get involved as well. You have to make sure he stays focused and doesn’t get too carried away, but at the same time you need to keep him settled and relaxed. You just have to read the situation and how he is feeling, and think carefully about what you do or say.”

Not every professional has a fulltime caddie though. Some simply can’t afford it, but others have their own reasons for rotating the bagman. Sunshine Tour veteran Adilson da Silva is one such player.

“I don’t have a permanent caddie, because usually I like to have a caddie that knows the specific course,” the 41-year-old Brazilian said. “Especially when I go to Asia – I’m often playing courses blind so I place more value on having a caddie who is familiar with the greens.”

Salaries or remuneration packages for caddies vary considerably. Freelance caddies will generally receive a daily or weekly fee. Those employed on a more regular basis sometimes receive a commission on winnings, with the norm being five per cent (7.5 per cent for a top 10 and 10 per cent in the case of a victory). Others get a combination of the two.

As a result, Darren Fichardt, who won the showpiece in East London last week, might have had to pay his caddie up to R200 000. Not bad for four days work! Then, of course, there are the extraordinary amounts of money Williams earned with Woods. Is it too much for the job that they do? Da Silva thinks not.

“Tiger made so much money with Steve there, and I think Tiger would admit that he helped him a lot. Steve was a part of the team, and I think he deserved every cent,” he said.

I was unconvinced before last week, but the unanimous agreement among the players is hard to argue with. From the outside, it may seem that the role of the caddie is exaggerated. But that’s just it – we’re on the outside, and we don’t know what it’s like in those pressure situations. These guys do, and if they say the caddie is that important, then who am I to argue?

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