What it's like at Augusta National when the Masters isn't in town
Editor’s Note: Our Masters Preview Issue was printed before the postponement of the 2020 Masters. Read more here.
I’ve been at Augusta National for years, but every day feels like my first. I imagine it’s how a pilot feels ascending into the sky, or when a skipper wakes up surrounded by the blue unknown. Some views never get old.
Of course, we’re working, not playing. No Magnolia Lane for us; we enter through a service road. Don’t get me wrong—we’re treated well. The club built us a caddie house not long ago, which has a TV room, computers, even a chef. They let us play the course the day before it closes for the season in May. And because a member, their family or a guest has to be accompanied by staff (which a majority of the time means us) anytime they’re on property—a round, a casual walk, fishing in Ike’s Pond—we have more juice than you’d think. Yet there is a hierarchy. We know where we stand.
Our mission is simple: This is the most special place on earth for golfers, and we have to deliver that world-class experience. Admittedly a high bar. But aside from a handful of events, most rounds involve a member entertaining friends or business associates. That means we’re not just “on” as staff to a member, but as an extension of that member to their guests. If you don’t understand the difference, well, there’s a reason only 7 percent of caddie applicants get hired here. Some guys have had to go through five to 10 interviews.
There are members who have their personal caddies, but most of our assignments arrive via lottery in the morning. The National is a no-cash facility, meaning members cover the payment for the entire group, so there’s not a lot of jockeying for one bag over another. That said, guests in the know will usually slip us a few bucks coming up the final holes. Most of them aren’t exactly hurting in the wallet, and the tip, weird as this sounds, is more for their peace of mind than ours. We’re not supposed to take it—you can make yourself paranoid worrying about getting “caught” by security cameras—but you don’t want to insult someone’s ego. It’s a fine line.
The most challenging thing about our job is keeping pace. Though members and guests have gotten considerably younger the past decade or so, it’s still an older crowd, and most don’t want to speed through a memorable round. And if a group is holding up the rest of the sheet, it’s us, not the players, who get in trouble. That means we’re walking well ahead of our players, getting everything set for their next shot so they’re ready to hit when they arrive.
Where we earn our money is on the greens. Because most lines look like they’re going one way only to break another, your equilibrium is constantly thrown off. (I’ve even fallen a few times because of it.) The club gives plenty of training, but nothing fully prepares you for it. One former caddie told me it took him 30 years to get the gist of the 17th green.
More so than any caddie house I’ve been a part of, the camaraderie here is tight. The old guard happily mentors the newbies, the newbies’ zeal keeps everyone energized, chops are busted without remorse. You might have a few personal quarrels, but nothing that’s not eventually settled over beers. We really are a band of brothers.
Bad parts of the gig? Not many. The caddie suits can be oppressive when it’s 90 degrees with 90 percent humidity. You don’t see too many good rounds, which can slightly wear on you. There’s also zero tolerance of shenanigans; you’re always on your best behavior. You’re thinking, "How does that differ from a normal workplace?" Well, I’ve had plenty of jobs but never felt like I was always being watched, or that one slip-up would lead to a dismissal. It can create tension, for sure.
There is an air of mystery to the National, yet when people find out what we do, two questions always come up: Have you caddied for anyone famous, and are the members jerks? I’ve carried for politicians, musicians, actors, athletes, more football coaches than I can remember. (If you work at a Power 5 school and haven’t been asked to the National, brother, you must be a horse’s ass.) As for the latter, absolutely not. I don’t know why people assume that; suppose that’s how we view the rich and connected. Fact is, I’ve worked at a handful of premier courses around the world, and folks who belong here are as respectful as they come. Maybe that’s why so many members are at the top of their profession: They know how to treat people.
Which is why I don’t have many horror stories. None of us really do. I tell my players the only way this won’t be special is a self-inflicted wound, so don’t beat yourself up over a three-putt or missed green. There’s the occasional arrogant guest, or member’s son who’s a bit big for his britches, but those are rarities. People tend to be happy when they’re in paradise, you know?
Which does lead to one notable experience.
I was in a group featuring a former president of the United States, although I had his friend. A caddie can learn a lot from someone’s golf setup, and this fella had a staff bag, weighed a good 50 pounds, with clubs that had never been hit. He also spent his range time talking about a house he bought instead of warming up. I knew I was in for a long loop.
Guy takes 10 before reaching the green on 1, top-a-palooza on 2 and 3. Things do not improve, and he’s not taking this in stride. Finally on 9, as a Secret Service guy gives me a glance that says, "I can take you out of your misery; just say the word," a hand grabs my shoulder.
“I just want you to know, he’s going to place the blame on you for this round,” Mr. President said. I was caught off guard but managed to joke, “Any chance you can grant me a pardon?” But he only smiled and kept walking. His friend? Was brothers with another guy in the group, who happened to be a regarded member at the club.
The former POTUS might have once been the most powerful man in the world. But at Augusta National, he was second in command to the almighty green jacket.
—WITH JOEL BEALL