Friday, April 10, 2015

The Course Whisperer

Much ado will be made today at The Masters as two-time champion Ben Crenshaw plays his final competitive round in the storied tournament.  Crenshaw is beloved at Augusta National as much for his knowledge of the history of the game as for his emotional win in 1995--which came just days after the death of his long-time instructor Harvey Penick (he of the Little Red Book fame).  But I hope that just as much attention and adulation are paid to the man who has walked beside Crenshaw for nearly every one of his trips around Augusta--his long-time tournament caddie Carl Jackson.

Jackson's story is amazing.  He had to drop out of school at the age of 13 because his mother could no longer afford to buy the school uniforms for him to wear.  He went to work as a caddie at Augusta National and carried his first bag in The Masters at the age of 14.  He first caddied for Crenshaw in 1976 when the club policy was that even the pros had to use the local guys on the bag--instead of their regular caddies during the tournament.  The relationship continued even after the membership started allowing the pros to bring their own caddies--even though they were giving up a huge amount of local knowledge.  And it was Jackson who was there to console the emotional Gentle Ben on the 18th green as he broke down at the end of that '95 win.

Crenshaw is always quick to credit Jackson for his success at Augusta.  He has relied heavily on the caddie to pick out spots on the rolling fairways to hit drives, which small section of the green to aim for on approach shots--even if they aren't close to the hole--and to read the putts on Augusta's lightning-fast and nuanced greens.  Jackson's stature became legendary--he is a sort of "Course Whisperer" with encyclopedic knowledge of every square inch of the property. 

Budding superstar Jordan Spieth has played Masters practice rounds exclusively with Crenshaw and Jackson--and his caddie has spent hours talking with the old looper trying to gain some of that wisdom.  The results so far?  Spieth led midway through the final round of his first Masters last year and ended up finishing second.  And in yesterday's first round of this year's tournament, Spieth finished one off the course record with an 8-under, 64.

Unfortunately, it appears that Carl Jackson will not get to make that final walk around Augusta with Ben Crenshaw today.  Jackson is recovering from prostate cancer surgery--and yesterday was in too much pain to carry the bag.  (His brother, also a life-long caddie at Augusta National handled the duties--and Crenshaw shot a 91.)  But I hope that as the patrons lining all 18-holes give Ben Crenshaw one final standing ovation for all that he has meant to the tournament and to golf as well, they honor the man who walked just a few feet behind for all of those years.

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