Everybody who has been marginally associated with the PGA Tour over the past two decades knew that Jim Mackay kept a treasure trove of anecdotes, war stories and deep-background intel locked away regarding guys who plied their trade on the PGA Tour over that span.
Yet when Golf Channel hired him as a roving analyst over the summer, there were murmurs as to whether he’d take off the media muzzle that he had worn for so long while serving as Phil Mickelson’s caddie, confidant and sergeant-at-arms.
After all, the guy nicknamed “Bones” was infamous among the beat writers for often offering non-quotes and oatmeal-flavored observations, when he wasn’t running in the opposite direction. True story: After Mickelson came up just short at the British Open in 2011 following a memorable closing round, Mackay was speaking to two writers when Lefty finally appeared from the scorer’s hut. In mid-sentence, Mackay abruptly blurted, “There’s Phil. Gotta go,” and bolted for the parking lot, golf bag on his back.
In another oft-told instance of walking on employment eggshells, Mackay once was asked about Mickelson’s performance and said, “Phil played great, but that’s off the record.”
Often, he was reticent, bordering on paranoid. So, it wasn’t so much a matter of whether Mackay could become a decent analyst, but whether he’d lift the apparent gag order. That notion was answered with absolute clarity this week at the Presidents Cup, where Mackay proved his worth as the best hire NBC/Golf Channel has made in years.
It took all of one day at his new gig for Mackay to stop biting his tongue. In his NBC debut a few weeks back, he finally related the story about a trash talk-laden practice round that Mickelson played years ago with Bubba Watson, while the latter was still in college at Georgia, which resulted in the two making a wager. Watson, popping off the entire day and getting on everybody’s nerves, would wash Mickelson’s jet if he lost. (Mickelson won, and Watson reneged.)
It’s a story I’d tried to get Mackay to confirm on at least two occasions, years ago, when Watson had first become a budding star. He declined. “It’ll just get me in trouble,” he said.
Finally working solo for the first time in 23 years, Mackay can tee it high and let it fly. He shined during an otherwise forgettable week at Liberty National Golf Club, where the Americans overwhelmed the Internationals, 19-11, in what by Friday night already had been dubbed the Snore on the Shore, Romp by the Swamp, and worse (scores: http://bit.ly/2xzUKfk).
Mackay, though, has been a welcome revelation. The oldest adage for caddies is show up, keep up and shut up. Mackay has carried that admonition into his new vocation. He speaks in succinct bursts, making his point with panache and getting out of the way. If only some of his brethren would adopt the same mantra.
He caddied in 22 U.S. team matches alongside Mickelson, a five-time major winner and decorated Hall of Famer. Although NBC has plenty of former tour veterans on the broadcasting roster, nobody has had his nose closer to the glass of late than Mackay, whose caddie tenure spans two or three generations of players.
Given Mickelson’s quirks and misadventures over a quarter-century on tour, there’s little that Mackay hasn’t seen. When Si Woo Kim was forced to stand with one foot in a lake on Saturday, Mackay was reminded of a similar circumstance in a team event with Mickelson.
“His caddie can take off his shoe and give it to the player to wear, so you get the caddie’s shoe wet and not your own,” he said. “That’s an option here if they want to take it.”
Who knew? Bones did. He not only has been inside the ropes with the current cast of stars but in the team rooms, too.
“I’ve often said, if you could have a couple of hidden cameras in those team rooms, the folks at home would have a lot of fun with it,” he said Sunday. “Whether it was the ping-pong games, the ribbing, conversations about football rivalries, it’s absolutely the best part of the week. Other than the golf.”
In fact, his knowledge of the players on both team rosters has been impressive. Friday, he correctly predicted the club selection and ball flight of all four players in one group as they played a par-3 hole, rightly predicting where the balls would end up once they were airborne. Too bad that Mickelson didn’t listen more often to Mackay’s advice, right?
Mackay, who was born in England and raised in Florida, even added a smattering of sarcasm, which was needed while watching Anirban Lahiri and Kim butcher the 13th hole on the weekend.
“After using all my fingers and toes to keep track of what’s happening here, I think this is for par,” he cracked after the duo finally reached the green.
When Jason Day hit a ball so far foul Saturday that he cleared a greenside lake and landed atop an event scoreboard situated perhaps 50 yards off-line, Mackay noted that no looper’s powers of triangulation could divine the distance to the pin from there.
“The greatest caddie in the world doesn’t have this yardage,” Mackay said. “So, when your player looks at you, you go, ‘Trust your instincts, pro.’ ”
Perhaps the most prescient call came when Jordan Spieth sliced a tee shot on Thursday and his ball came to rest in the rough above a fairway bunker. Spieth’s heels hug over the lip of the steeply sloped ground above the bunker, and it was a 3-foot drop into the sand.
“This is all kinds of stress,” Mackay said. “Jordan has looked at this shot for a couple of minutes and thought about hitting it left-handed. He has to be really careful that he doesn’t hurt himself, because it is quite a ways down into the bunker that’s behind him.”
Spieth took a mighty slash, missed the ball completely, and needed all of his athleticism to keep from doing a faceplant into the sand.
As for Mackay, his hiring was anything but a whiff.