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A caddie for the ages celebrates his 50th Masters

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AUGUSTA, GA. (AP) - Everywhere he turns at Augusta National, Carl Jackson is asked to pose for a picture or sign an autograph.

No surprise there.

He's as much a part of this place as the green jacket or Magnolia Lane.

Jackson will be caddying in his 50th Masters this week, a link to a segregated past in which all the players were white and required to use black caddies who worked for the club.

He grew up just a few miles away, "right over that tree line," Jackson says, gazing toward the southwest from a spot beneath the famous oak tree next to the clubhouse.

Now, as he prepares to mark a half-century as a Masters caddie, he keeps remembering all those guys who came before him, the African-Americans who grew up and lived in tiny shotgun houses just like his in the Sand Hill section of Augusta.

"I tend to keep thinking back to the old days," Jackson said Monday, adorned in those familiar white coveralls that all Masters caddies must wear. "Pappy Stokes. Iron Man. Those guys are just on my mind right now."

He was only 14 when he carried the bag for Billy Burke in 1961. Jackson has been back every year since then except one.

Now 64, Jackson has long held the record for most Masters worked by a caddie. This one, though, is something special.

"Fifty Masters is more than a lifetime," marveled Ben Crenshaw, Jackson's longtime employer. "A lot of blood, sweat and tears go into those 50 years."

Jackson knows he's unlikely to be caddying for another Masters champion. By the weekend, players such as defending champion Phil Mickelson or Tiger Woods will surely claim the spotlight.

Mickelson comes into the year's first major as the clear favorite, having made 18 birdies over the final two rounds to win last week at Houston.

"It seems that everyone has pretty much got Mickelson in the green jacket Sunday evening and there's not much use in turning up at this point," U.S. Open champ Graeme McDowell said, grinning. "He's a great player around Augusta, and if you finish ahead of him, you've got a decent chance."

But before all the attention turns to someone who could actually win the tournament, let's honor someone who's spent so much time walking these historic grounds and "knows this place like the back on his hand," according to Crenshaw.

Jackson's first employer was Burke, who closed out his career playing in a white dress shirt and tie.

But the caddie will forever be linked to Crenshaw.

The Texan was a young stud trying to harness his erratic game when he first hooked up with the 6-foot-5 Jackson in 1976. Their temperaments meshed perfectly _ Crenshaw, outgoing and a ball of emotions; the caddie, quiet and steady. The result was a runner-up finish and a rest-of-their-lives friendship.

This will be their 35th Masters together, the only break coming in 2000 when Jackson was battling cancer. He beat the disease and intends to keep coming back as long as his health holds and Crenshaw keeps coming back.

"We are so lucky to have come this far and shared so many things," Crenshaw said. "I couldn't have accomplished the things I've accomplished (at Augusta) without Carl."

They worked together only one year on the Tour. Jackson had children to care for and didn't want to be away from home that often. Besides, the local knowledge he had at Augusta wasn't so helpful at other courses, so it has been largely a once-a-year partnership.

But, ohhhh, what a partnership it's been.

With Jackson on the bag, Crenshaw was a perennial contender at Augusta National through the prime of his career, winning his first green jacket in 1984 and posting nine other top-10 finishes over a 16-year period.

"A lot of near misses, and some really fun times, and some painful times as well," Crenshaw said.

Then, with his career in a downward spiral and mourning the death of mentor Harvey Penick, Crenshaw teamed with Jackson for his most memorable triumph in 1995. A tip from the caddie helped Crenshaw get his swing straightened out on the practice range. After returning from Penick's funeral, Crenshaw put together three straight rounds in the 60s to beat Davis Love III by a single stroke.

The picture of Crenshaw _ bent over and crying his eyes out on the 18th green, Jackson having walked up from behind to put his two large hands gently on the player's shoulders _ remains one of the most memorable in Masters history.

"It just happened," Jackson said. "I was going somewhere else, and something changed my mind. I turned around and there was Ben, boohooing."

These days, Jackson runs a caddie program at the Alotian Golf Club near Little Rock, Ark., hoping to lure people of color into the sport.

He was a pretty good golfer in his day, getting his handicap into the single digits. He might've made it to the Tour himself with the right instruction and access to the best courses, and he certainly knows of other African-Americans who were even more skilled but never got the chance to advance beyond the caddie ranks.

Times have changed, of course. Augusta National has black members. Tiger Woods has won 14 major titles. The days of being forced to use club caddies ended nearly three decades ago.

But there are still few African-Americans in the golf pipeline, something that Jackson hopes to change. The first rule of being a good caddie, he says, is being a good golfer.

"If you're going to make suggestions, you've got to have an understanding of what you're trying to suggest," he said. "I can't see myself making a suggestion to a surgeon."

Jackson wants to help ensure the next Tiger Woods doesn't fall through the cracks.

He can think of no better way to honor those who came before him, like Pappy and Iron Man.

"They just adopted me," Jackson said. "They thought I had some instincts for the game, and they helped me bring them out. Those are the guys who did it."

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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