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Undercover Caddie: Why Jim Mackay is the best of our era

February 08, 2022

Illustration by GLUEKIT

Stacy Revere

It starts with the nickname: Bones. Even by the lofty standards of caddie handles, that is pretty darn strong. Rest assured, though, we are talking about a man—Jim (Bones) Mackay, who has returned from broadcasting to team with Justin Thomas— who is way more than a moniker.

Any caddie under 45 has been influenced by Bones. He changed the landscape of the profession simply by the conversations he had with Phil Mickelson. Those two were on television all the time, and caddies heard their exchanges even more intently than fans. It was a master class in communication skills. What we heard was not a caddie who was subservient but someone who was on equal footing with his player when talking over a shot while keeping his ego out of the way to ensure his player’s confidence never wavered. That’s a lot jammed into one sentence, but that’s how delicate and deep the dynamic of a player-caddie relationship is, and Bones was one of the first guys to understand it. When you hear a caddie-player conversation on TV now, we caddies, in a way, are trying our best Bones impersonations.

The respect for those communication skills grew when Bones would pick up temporary bags after transitioning into on-course reporting. He helped Thomas grab a win at the WGC in Memphis in 2020. A few weeks before that, Bones guided Matt Fitzpatrick to a third-place finish at the Memorial. Fitzpatrick has played, what, 90-something events on tour? And he has only one better finish in those other starts than he did with Bones. If that’s a coincidence, well, that’s a hell of a coincidence.

Mickelson, Thomas, Fitzpatrick: not much overlap in personality and playing profile. That’s part of the beauty of Bones. He’s part chameleon. You have to adjust your personality to your bag. Caddies are coaches, in a way, and you need to figure out which guys need to be brought along and which need to be pushed—or when they need to be pushed. Players have their own language for firing themselves up, and you need to figure out what those trigger words are. But you also have to be yourself. Players aren’t dumb; they know when you’re being real and when you’re trying to play a part, and if they sense you’re acting, everything falls apart. Bones? He’s able to maneuver while staying true to who he is as a person.

Then there’s Bones the person. A lot of caddies will help younger caddies out when asked. Bones goes out of his way to make sure the new guys feel welcome. He’s honest and open. He can build you up when you’re down. He has encouraged younger caddies to come follow him during a practice round to pick up on what he does and to ask him questions about it afterward. He also doesn’t mind setting guys straight when they need it. That included me, once upon a time.

Early on I could sense I wasn’t fitting in with the other caddies. However, I didn’t know how to make it better. Luckily one night after a practice round, I got a chance to speak to Bones, and before I could bring the subject up, he sort of let me have it. “You know, I think you’re a good guy,” he told me. “But you don’t spend any time with the other caddies. If you want relationships with them, you have to put the work in. They shouldn’t have to get to know you; the onus is on you to get to know us.” You know what? He was right. Caddieing can be long days at the course, and after those days I wanted to go back to the hotel. But I started coming to the course earlier and hanging out later strictly to socialize, and by the end of the year I felt like one of the gang.

Bones and his wife open their house to caddies every year in Phoenix. That kindness extends to players, too. About a decade ago, my player was really good, but he was relatively new to the scene. One round we were paired with Phil, and let me tell you, no matter how good a tour player is, he gets nervous around two players: Tiger and Phil. My guy was visibly ruffled and started off rough. But then he played the final 14 holes in six under. Afterward, Bones came up to my guy. “I just want to let you know, I’ve seen a lot of people fold in that situation,” Bones said. “You showed a lot of moxie and character. You should be proud.” That player has gone on to some really big things in his career, but that moment with Bones still means the world to him.

Only so many caddies become household names, and the rank-and-file like me are often asked about those famous guys. Truth is, a majority of them aren’t the most well-liked. Part of that is jealousy, absolutely. If you’re a known caddie, it means you’re with a known player and that means you are making bank. But part of that disfavor is because some of those guys have let their standing get to their head. They think they’re better than the rest of us now that they have a little celebrity. Frankly, some of them are just jerks.

But Bones? Bones is beloved because he is the real deal.