- Bob Verdi
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It appeared to be an alligator and it looked hungry, but you know Phil Mickelson. He's a high-wire act who doesn't frighten easily, and besides, this was only a pro-am before the 1996 MCI Classic at Hilton Head Island. So, Phil the Thrill took a step toward the carnivorous beast, then another step, while his caddie, Jim (Bones) Mackay, rubbed his eyes. "We're near the 12th tee, and this thing is five feet long," Mackay recalls. "Phil walks right toward the gator and dives on it. I'm screaming, 'Phil, you're crazy!' I'm trembling. I feel like I'm going to have a heart attack. He puts a choke hold on the thing and starts shaking it. I run toward him, out of my mind. Phil's about to be eaten alive! I have to save him! Then when I get near him, I realize I've been had. Unbeknownst to me, the day before during a practice round, he'd seen this gator in somebody's backyard. It was rubber, a fake, but very authentic. We still laugh about that."
They still laugh about that because they're still together. In a volatile PGA Tour existence where alliances between guys who swing the clubs and guys who carry them tend to be ephemeral, the M&M team not only endures, but thrives. Mackay (pronounced Ma-KAI) recites how "incredibly spoiled" he is to be working his 15th consecutive year beside a world-class performer who is also no less than a great friend. But you needn't peel through many layers of golf's biggest league to uncover reciprocals. Any player would be fortunate to have a sidekick as loyal, knowledgeable and conscientious as Mackay, who -- at 40, in a vocation that begets stress and burnout -- never seems to have a bad day. For sure, Mickelson needs no prompting. "I can't verbalize what Bones has meant to me," he says. "Besides admiring him as a good person, I respect his grasp of the game. He's right about 80 percent of the time out there ... to my 20 percent."
If you imagine modern PGA Tour caddies to be vagabonds who don't floss, think again. Mackay epitomizes the new breed. He has read more than yardage books, is well-grounded and isn't living from paycheck to paycheck. His financial arrangement with Mickelson is private, but if a caddie for a world-class golfer makes a flat salary, plus 10 percent of winnings, on top of other bonuses and perks, figure it out. Deep six digits is possible. Mackay, like many of his peers, is a family man: wife Jennifer, a successful real estate executive before they were married; Oliver, almost 2, who embodies Dad's energy and, according to Jen, "also sleeps like Jim ... 12 hours straight through"; and Emma Elizabeth, born Feb. 6.
The Mackays live in a gated community in Scottsdale, with a pool, and Bones belongs to the exclusive Mickelson-designed golf mecca, Whisper Rock, where he plays to a 3-handicap, but only logs about 20 rounds a year. The Mackays are building another house with a bigger backyard and presumably more room for Bones' collection of several hundred CDs. Favorite group: R.E.M., whose general counsel/manager, Bertis Downs, is among Mackay's closest pals. Another of Jim's regular listens: Drive-By Truckers. "That's Jim's other love, besides his family and golf," says brother Tom, 33, vice president of A&R (artists and repertoire) for Universal Records in New York. "He knows his music and helped me with my career, which is amazing considering Jim can't sing, doesn't play an instrument and is the world's worst dancer."
Indeed, if Bones weren't living his dream, he might be in Tom's line of work. But Bones isn't planning any career change."I'd like to caddie forever," he says, "because I've got the best seat in the house." For all the attention showered on Mickelson, however, Mackay opts to be background music. When asked for an autograph, he politely declines, saying he doesn't feel comfortable. At the recent FBR Open outside Phoenix, tournament officials sought constructive criticism on what they could do for caddies. "You might look into making larger bibs," he said. "The ones we have are a little tight for some of the bigger guys. Thanks for asking." Tom was at Baltusrol GC in August for Mickelson's second major victory, the PGA Championship. "When Phil finally won," Tom says, "it could have been a good time for Jim to think about narcissistic things. We did it. Nice paycheck. Instead, he saw this kid in the bleachers. He was severely handicapped. Jim walked up there, brought him and his wheelchair and his dad down through the ropes, past all that security onto the 18th green so the kid could have a picture taken with Phil."
Mackay was born in England, about 30 miles south of London. When Bones was 8 years old, father Reay, a Scotsman, and mother Sally moved to New Smyrna Beach, Fla. "There was a muni nearby, nine holes designed by Donald Ross," Bones says. "I could play there after 3 in the afternoon for free. I only played every day." Many swings later, he encountered Earl Bagley, the golf coach at Columbus (Ga.) College, now Columbus State. Bagley liked Bones' style and offered him a scholarship. In his senior year, Mackay was a third-team Division II All-American. "We had a match at the University of Florida's Gator tournament," Bagley says. "Jim was playing [Ohio State's] Gary Nicklaus, and Jack was in the gallery. I caught up with Jim and he said to me, 'Coach, I can't even bring the club back. Greatest golfer in history is here watching.' I told Jim, 'He's not watching you.'"
Mackay's aspirations of playing professionally were jolted when he ran up against Davis Love III in U.S. Amateur qualifying. "Ridiculous, how much better he was than me," Bones says. "I knew I had to get a job." He had seen his share of tournaments and found himself watching the caddies as much as the golfers. Bruce Edwards, the perpetually enthusiastic alter ego for Tom Watson, was a particular inspiration for Mackay. While in school, he took a job at Green Island CC, where tour pro Larry Mize was a regular. "I wound up shagging balls for him before or after class," Mackay says. "He was very good to me."
After finishing college, Mackay was offered full-time employment at Synovus, a high-octane financial institution. But just about then, Mize mentioned that he was looking for a new caddie. Bones volunteered. Mize balked, noting Mackay's commitment to Synovus. "So I wound up going to the company and getting a two-year leave of absence before I ever spent a day there," Mackay says. "James Blanchard was the CEO. He's a member at Augusta National. Every April at The Masters, he asks me when I'm going to report to start work."
When he debuted as Mize's caddie at the 1990 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, Mackay admits he didn't know what he was doing. He also knew he didn't want to do anything else. At the start of 1992, he hooked up with Scott Simpson. Later that winter, Mackay bumped into Steve Loy, golf coach at Arizona State. "I knew him a little bit," Mackay says. "He was looking for someone to caddie for Phil Mickelson, who was going to turn pro after that spring." Within a month or so, Mickelson offered Mackay the bag. They first worked together at U.S. Open qualifying in Memphis. Mickelson opened with 69, then came back with a course-record 63. "My reaction was, 'My goodness, this guy is special,' " says Mackay. "That opinion hasn't changed."
Mackay is fiercely loyal to Mickelson. Critics of Mickelson, a lightning rod, would say to a fault. Mackay will have none of that. "Phil plays without fear, and that's one reason why he's achieved what he has," Mackay says. "He's so good that on so many of his shots, there are maybe three options." Mackay's function, in part, is to explore them. When Mickelson was in the left rough on No. 18 at Baltusrol last August, Mackay mentioned a safety maneuver. Mickelson was of a different mind-set: 4-wood to the green, 230 yards away. Mackay again trotted out his idea: wedge over the water. "Did you hear a word I said to you?" intoned Mickelson, chuckling. Television picked up what passes for an argument between them.
Mackay was in the front row of Mickelson's storied 2004 Masters conquest, and for the 1999 U.S. Open, when Amy Mickelson was expecting her first child. "I had the beeper in the bag," Mackay says. "Guys in the gallery at Pinehurst who had Phil in the office pool were yelling at me to lose the Duracells. But if it went off, Phil was gone. Phil is about family and is incredibly generous. He'd kill me if I told you about the thousands of dollars he gives away. He signs more autographs than anybody. When we go play golf socially, he won't let me touch his bag. It's my day off. I'm puzzled by some of the things he has to put up with. He got ripped for changing all his equipment before the Ryder Cup. In fact, he changed his woods. The spike controversy at last year's Masters, I thought was handled poorly [by Vijay Singh]. The public loves Phil. To those who don't, I would just say he's misunderstood. What you see is what you get. And, talk about my amazing luck, it was through Phil and Amy that I met Jen. She and Amy were classmates at ASU."
In 1990, while working for Mize in Paris, Mackay went to a group dinner that included Fred Couples. "I'm 6-4, 200 pounds now," Mackay says. "Back then, I was thin. Really thin, maybe 150. Freddie wanted me to pass the salt or something, but he didn't know who I was. So he just called out 'Bones.' It stuck. Did it ever stick." In 1993, on a whim, Mackay paid his way to watch the Ryder Cup at The Belfry in England. He bunked with Couples' longtime caddie, Joe LaCava. "He slept on the floor," LaCava says. "Knowing Jim, he figured Phil was going to play in them for the next 20 years. So, Jim was just preparing. He's always preparing. He's really into his job. Really into golf." Bones always has been. "As a kid,when The Masters came on TV, it was like Christmas morning," he says. "Now, I get to walk Augusta National with the best players in the world. If I wasn't doing this, I'd be a guitar tech for a band. Tune the guitars or change them between songs. A guitar caddie. That's what I do. I'm a caddie and proud of it."
Not until 2000 did Mackay secure U.S. citizenship. His parents had made plans, but then, as he says, "the family blew up" with a divorce. His mom, a retired guitar and piano teacher, is remarried. His father is another matter. "We haven't talked since 1990," says Bones. "I was 25 and had a meal with him in Ohio, at the Memorial. That was it. I don't know where he is now or what he's doing. He just wasn't much fun to be around." Tom, also estranged from Dad -- as is sister Lesley -- says his brother has turned it all into a positive. "With what happened, Jim wants to become the best father he can be," he says. "All you have to do is see him around his kids to know." When Bones became an American in Atlanta, in lieu of his father, Downs and his family attended. "There was an 82-year-old Russian man at the ceremony," Bones says. "He was crying his eyes out. I'll never forget that day."
Or the day when Mackay drove Mickelson into Congressional CC during the 1997 U.S. Open. They moved ever so slowly in search of a parking spot. Suddenly, a pedestrian turned into their van. "We're going maybe one mile an hour," Bones says. "The guy wasn't hurt, not even a scratch. No problem. Phil goes to change shoes, I go to the range. I'm cleaning his clubs when two cops show up. 'Excuse me, you'll have to come downtown with us. You left the scene of an accident. We're arresting you for hit-and-run.' I'm in a panic. They start taking me away. This is the U.S. Open. Then I look around, and there's Phil. Giving me the big wave. He put them up to the whole thing." Phil and Bones are still laughing about that one, too, and probably will for many more years together.
Bob Verdi is a senior writer for Golf World magazine.
If you think pro golf's not a team sport, you haven't been watching Jim Mackay, Phil Mickelson's man Friday on Sundays, writes Bob Verdi.