AUGUSTA, Ga.— On the first day of the Masters, the weather is absolutely perfect—the way it’s supposed to be. Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player hit the traditional opening tee shots and everybody oohed and aahed just being in the presence of two men who have combined to win the Masters nine times.
The ‘patrons,’ poured in through the gates as soon as they opened—most of them, or so it seemed—heading straight to the souvenir pavilion as soon as Nicklaus and Player’s tee shots were airborne.
For me, Masters Thursday is always bittersweet. It was 15 years ago this past Monday that Bruce Edwards died, after a brief, painful battle with ALS—Amyotrophic Lateral Scherosis—better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Bruce was Tom Watson’s caddy for 30 years. They were something beyond best friends—“closer than brothers," their mutual friend Neil Oxman once said. Bruce was the first person I ever interviewed at a PGA Tour event—the 1981 Memorial—and we became close friends.
Shortly after Bruce was diagnosed in February of 2003, he asked me if I would write a book about him and about his relationship with Watson; his experiences as one of golf’s first truly professional caddies and the ordeal he was going through with ALS.
By then, he was already having trouble talking. The disease had been diagnosed late because Bruce, like most caddies, didn’t have health insurance and didn’t want to go to a doctor. It was Watson who finally ordered him to go to the Mayo Clinic and told him, “have them send the bill to me.”
It was there that Bruce was diagnosed with what is still, arguably, the most deadly disease on earth. There’s no cure for ALS. It is a death sentence. Most people die within five years of diagnosis. They die painfully, their mind intact, their body betraying them as they lose the ability to walk, talk and—eventually—breathe.
Seventy-eight years after Gehrig first brought awareness to ALS, doctors are still not close to a cure. As Watson, who has worked tirelessly to raise money for research since Bruce’s death, says, “We’ve found the right city (in research) but we’re nowhere close to knowing what block we’re looking for.”
On the night before the 2004 Masters began, I had the honor of presenting the Ben Hogan Award for courage to Bruce’s dad, Jay Edwards. The plan had been for Bruce to be there to accept the award, but Marsha, his wife, had called me on the previous Sunday to tell me Bruce was too sick to travel.
The book Bruce had asked me to write—“Caddy For Life,”—had been published that week and Bruce, who still had some use of his hands, had sent me a note thanking me for beating our deadline—which was for him to see the book between hard covers.
A number of Bruce’s closest friends—including Watson and many of the caddies he had worked with on tour—were at the dinner. Watson had an early tee time in the morning and went home to bed.
The caddies went back to the house they were sharing and called Bruce and Marsha to tell them about the night. ALS never touches your mind and everyone, including Bruce, laughed and cried as they reminisced with one another until well past midnight.
I was scheduled to appear early the next morning on Don Imus’s radio show. I set an alarm for 6:25 so I could get up, get some water and be ready to go at 6:30. The clock was one of those where you have to hit the button to get to the right minute. Tired, I accidentally went to 6:26. Rather than go through the cycle again, I just set it there. Four minutes was plenty of time.
I woke up in the morning and glanced at the clock. It was 6:58.
The alarm hadn’t gone off. I’d forgotten to give Imus’s producer Bernard McGurk the phone number for the house where I was staying since I was supposed to call in.
Back then, Imus was as big as it got in radio. And failure to show for a scheduled appearance would undoubtedly get me banned forever.
Panicked, I dialed the studio. When Bernard answered, I began apologizing profusely. Bernard cut me off: “John, today is Thursday,” he said. “You’re on tomorrow. Calm down.”
He was right. I’d somehow lost track of the days. I hung up and was just starting to breathe normally again when my phone rang.
It was Marsha. As soon as I heard her voice, I knew. For some reason I said to her, “what time did he die?”
She’d had a hospice worker with her, so she knew the exact time: 6:26. I gasped in disbelief.
Watson was in the locker room at that moment, getting ready to go out and play. It was a dreary, rainy morning—which was exactly as it should be.
It was Tom’s wife, Hilary, who sent a guard in to the champions locker room to tell him she needed to talk to him. Just as I had known when Marsha called, Tom knew why Hilary needed to talk to him a few minutes before he teed it up in the first round of the Masters.
“It was Bruce’s favorite tournament,” Tom said later. “He picked his time to go.”
Watson played that day with tears in his eyes. He came in to meet with the media when it was over and, through his tears said, “We will beat this damn disease some day.”
To him ALS was a killer and he would stalk it until he killed it. He has been as good as his word. He and I founded The Bruce Edwards Foundation, and it has raised more than $10 million for ALS research. Tom also speaks all over the country at ALS fundraising events. He’ll be 70 in September. He’s never too tired to take part in almost any ALS-related event.
Often, when people die young—Bruce was 49—they become larger in death than they were in life. That wasn’t the case with Bruce.
He fell in love with caddying as a kid when the Greater Hartford Open was played at Wethersfield Country Club, where his parents were members. Bruce first caddied in the tournament when he was 13. By the time he graduated from high school he wanted to be a caddie.
His parents, both graduates of Penn, figured he would caddy for a year or two and then go to college. His older sister had become one of the first women to graduate from the Naval Academy. They were an academic-minded family.
Bruce never made it to college. He met Watson in the summer of 1973 and a one-week tryout became a 31-year friendship. He was part of the first generation of caddies who made a life-choice to caddy rather than—as in Bruce’s case—go to college or, after college, get a 9-to-5 job.
“Bruce always had wanderlust,” Watson liked to say. “He would never have been any good chained to a desk all day.”
Bruce became the role model for young caddies. He took many under his wing when they first came on tour and taught them the do’s and don’ts of the trade.
“He was the Arnold Palmer of caddies,” said Jim Mackay, who caddied for Phil Mickelson for 25 years.
Bruce always had time for people. That’s how we became friends. He knew everyone and everything in golf and we’d have long talks about what was going on in the sport. I’ve always said he was my first tour guide.
During those last 15 months, I was awed by his courage. I saw him cry once—talking about how his death was going to affect his parents; his sisters; his brother and his wife. It broke his heart to think about how broken-hearted they would be when he died.
When Bruce first asked me about doing the book, my instinct was selfish: I didn’t want to watch a friend die from up close. Then, within seconds, I realized I was being selfish, that a friend was making a dying request.
I’m so glad I did the book because I learned so much from Bruce during that time about real courage; about dealing with real adversity; about helping those around you deal with tragedy—the tragedy of your own death.
I was reminded often of something former vice president Walter Mondale said at the funeral of Hubert H. Humphrey, his political mentor: “He taught us how to live,” Mondale said, “And then, finally, he taught us how to die.”
Bruce certainly did that.
On the morning of his death, I called my wife to tell her that Bruce had died. Then I told her the story of my alarm not going off at 6:26—the moment of Bruce’s death.
“Bruce knew you needed to sleep,” she said. “He turned the alarm off on his way up to heaven.”
I’m not a big believer in things like that. In Bruce’s case, I made an exception. And, every year on Masters Thursday, I set my alarm for 6:26.
The alarm always works. I turn it off, look skyward and say, “thanks Bruce.”