Friday, December 26, 2008

The culture of celebrity and the caddy

I’m sure everyone who plods through the multitude of golf websites and blogs has read several pieces about Steve Williams’ comments concerning Phil Mickelson. There is no shortage of expositors on the internet especially when a subject like this arises. Observations have ranged from “Tiger should fire him immediately and without hesitation” to actually granting Stevie victim status. (No comment on that one.) And if you haven’t read something you particularly do not agree with, just wait. There is probably much more to come despite the fact that Tiger says, “We have dealt with it. Stevie stays”

But, the root of all this has nothing to do with golf, but rather with personalities. This same scenario is continually played out on a variety of stages throughout the business world. This is now a golf personality situation and it should focus our attention on a much more curious state of affairs – the celebrity status of the caddie in today’s world of professional golf. This circumstance does have the potential to become a problem where the personality of the caddie overwhelms the game.

I became involved in the game of golf as a caddie. In the late 1950’s it was an expedient way to make a couple of bucks. And a couple of bucks in the pocket was big time then for a ten year old boy serving as a club caddie. And the financial status was doubled if one was fortunate enough to carry doubles. Of course, carrying doubles on a hot, humid summer day in New England meant you would spend a small portion of your hard earned fortune on some liquid refreshment. The point of all this is what was actually expected of the caddie. The answer is short and to the point – carry the clubs, be seen and not heard. My, my, how the fortunes of the caddie have evolved in just the past fifty years.

The fact is, unless you are a serious student of the history of the game, you probably never knew the name of a caddie until Tiger came on the professional golf scene. Perhaps you did a little golf reading and knew that Eddie Lowery caddied for Francis Ouimet in the 1913 U.S. Open. Maybe you followed golf in the era of Palmer, Player, Nicklaus and Trevino. You knew that Angelo Argea carried for Nicklaus and that Herman Mitchell was the man for Trevino. If you were just a sports fan and not into golf, the names of Jeff “Squeaky” Medlin and Bruce Edwards are still probably familiar to you.

Then along came the Tiger. First it was “Fluff,” on the bag, but he drew too much attention to himself for Tiger’s liking. So the switch was made to Steve Williams. But Williams has become larger than life just like his boss. In short he is always seen and always heard – the complete reversal of everything a caddie was meant to be.

Is this good for the game? No, I do not believe so. In an era when golf has gone flat and about to go flatter with the diving economy, this cannot be good for the game. If what draws people to golf is Tiger’s play and the controversy surrounding him, then the game will have problems expanding. Certainly attention will be focused on the game. Tiger and Stevie will generate plenty of press, but definitely not grow the game in terms of participation.

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