Colin Byrne – The Bagman spills the beans

Mark McGowan

Colin Byrne

Mark McGowan

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As a 20-year-old with wanderlust and University summer holidays looming, Colin Byrne was trying to decide how to spend them.

Seeing that the European Tour was next headed for southern France, a flash decision saw him board a ferry and make his way to Biarritz to stand in the car park and hopefully pick up a bag for the week. And the rest, as they say, is history.

40 years on, he’s caddied for Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Alex Noren, Rafael Cabrera Bello and currently loops for Louis Oosthuizen, been part of numerous tournament-winning teams and helping with one of golf’s four Holy Grail titles back in 2004, but it’s a career spawned by accident rather than design.

Growing up on the fringes of Royal Dublin Golf Club in Clontarf, you might expect that Byrne began life as a bagman – that was also the title of his hugely successful 2004 memoir detailing exactly what it’s like inside the ropes – in the Caddyshack on Bull Island, but that wasn’t the case.

“My father was a really good golfer and I caddied for him, and he was inadvertently the best caddie coach I could ever have,” Byrne recalls. “He was a perfectionist, very fussy, very finicky, so I had to do everything perfectly or I wouldn’t be allowed back to caddie for him. He didn’t realise – that’s not what he was educating me for or to become – but he trained me very well and I ended up becoming a lifetime caddie which was definitely not the idea for him so it kind of backfired in a way.

“But I was really well grounded in the rights and wrongs of caddying – which again isn’t rocket science – but if you do the things and do them well, they stand to you. So my father was the only amateur I ever caddied for and he was the best teacher I could possibly have.”

There was a certain romanticism to the idea of heading off with a dream and a prayer, but these were different times with different practices and most players didn’t have a regular caddie. Picking up a stray, so to speak, on tournament week was a common practice.

Byrne was a long way from home, but much closer than Steve Williams – who’d go on to be Tiger Woods’ right hand man for 13 of his 15 major victories – but they found themselves side-by-side in the car park at Biarritz Golf Club. Williams, despite being the same age, had been on the circuit for five years and had his bag for the week secured. Byrne hadn’t, but he wasn’t concerned.

“Back then, there were more players than caddies,” he explained, “so I was always going to get a bag and in fact, you could get a bag for the morning and the afternoon back then. I ended up caddying for Philip Walton that week and afterwards, he asked me what I was doing for the rest of the summer. This ended up being the best summer of my life.

Different country every week, amazing cities, amazing experiences at the golf course without having too many demands, so I did that for the summer and went back to study. Came out the next year and caddied for David Feherty – actually caddied for David for the next three summers – so that’s how I learned my trade.

Somewhere along the way – and likely because he was good at it and had tasted success – he decided that the business career he’d been pursuing wasn’t for him and opted to take up full-time caddying duties. And as you can imagine in 1980s Ireland where recession was driving young people out in droves, abandoning the opportunity for a somewhat stable career at home didn’t sit too well with Byrne’s parents.

“They were a bit miffed to say the least,” he said, “because caddying back then, if you broke even at the end of the year you were doing well. It wasn’t something that you aspired to do forever because there was no money in it. But because of the recession at home, there wasn’t much going on, so I decided to start travelling further afield. Head to Australia, Asia, wherever it was and beat the winters. Caddie, make yardage books, do whatever you had to do to survive.”

“In the early days I used to share a camper van with a Canadian friend of mine who caddied and we’d drive around, set up shop wherever we were because we couldn’t afford a hotel. We’d hit balls on the range in the evening, cook in the camper van, it was a totally different way of doing things and it was fantastic travelling round Europe doing that.

“Then head off in the winter, and as I said, we used to make yardage books as well. I remember being run out of the army club in Bangkok at gunpoint because we’d used their photocopier and there was some confusion, language barriers, etc and the army were pretty uncompromising. But just living on a shoestring in those years, those were the best times.”

It wasn’t until the 1990s that there was a seismic shift of sorts for caddies, who were very much treated like second class citizens on tour, even at some of the biggest events on the worldwide stage.

“I hooked up with Anders Forsbrand who was part of the brave new world of European golf in Sweden, and they valued a caddie a lot more,” Byrne divulges. “When I started in the mid-80s, there was a clear divide, like players were over here and caddies were over there with clear separation, but the Swedes saw you as more of a team member along with the coach, the nutritionist, the physical trainer, whatever.”

A notable absentee from that list is psychologist, something that is virtually unthinkable nowadays, but was equally unthinkable on the opposite end of the scale back in Byrne’s early days on tour and in many ways, the caddies themselves, particularly those who have been shepherding the tour pro for a considerable length of time, moonlight as on-course psychologists for their players.

“I remember David Feherty showing up with a guy called Alan Fine who had been a tennis player but had embraced the The Inner Game of Golf, the psychological book written [by W. Timothy Gallwey] about tennis originally and I remember heads turning and asking, ‘who was this guy?’ And when word got around that that was Feherty’s shrink, eyebrows were raised, and everybody asked ‘is Feherty mad?’ And that was the perception, of course, now if you arrive on the range without one, you’re mad.

“That’s what a few decades have done to change the recognition that, of course the game is in the head. And increasingly, my job as a caddie – the main area where our job has expanded – is the mental game because that’s the main thing that separates at that level. A lot of guys have taken psychology training of some sort, but we’ve all had interactions with sports psychologists that various players we work for have worked with and we learn an awful lot by the seat of our pants and practical experience. So, when it comes to what we’re paid for, apart from the service, it’s back nine on a Sunday and that’s where your man management and psychological expertise separates.”

There are very few instances in life where two things are identical, and of course, that stretches to people. From his early experience caddying for his father right through to Oosthuizen in the present day, Byrne has had to tailor the service he provides and the way in which he provides it to best suit the player who, at the end of the day, needs to perform their best to ensure that both parties are well compensated for their efforts on any given week.

And that service can be drastically different from player to player.

“Absolutely, everybody is different,” he responded when asked about the magnitude of change required. “We’ve probably seen over the years when Jim McKay [better known as ‘Bones’] worked for Phil Mickelson in his heyday, a 23-year relationship or something like that, the information was overwhelming. I mean, I was out there with them, but you’d have picked up a lot of it on microphone, but there was an awful lot of input there. For some players, that just wouldn’t work.

“Someone like Ernie Els just wants to know what club it is. He doesn’t want to know why, he doesn’t want to know why it’s not another one, he just wants to know the club. The dialogue between Mickelson and McKay was bamboozling but that’s what Mickelson needed. Some players you have to almost tell them how high to tee the ball, you have to give them weather reports to make a decision.

“You spend an awful lot of time with your player, so it’s important that you don’t irritate them, that they’re comfortable being around you and you’re comfortable with them. And then you’ve got to tap into what it is that makes them tick – and some of them don’t even know what makes them tick. It’s only when you do something that irritates them that you realise it.

“One thing I’ve always seen is that a lot of them are very good observers of characters. It’s a small little circus, everybody knows each other, knows what kind of job you do, so the players are looking at you the caddie even though you don’t know it, so it’s not a surprise that certain players would ask certain caddies because they just think they would suit them. It’s subtle little things that are very hard to articulate, but a bit like any relationship, you don’t exactly know why you get on, but you do and it just works.”

Mickelson ended up being a major player in what Byrne now looks back on as the highlight of his career which came at Shinnecock Hills in 2004. The U.S. Open’s identity has always been to provide the toughest test in golf, meaning from the opening tee shot on Thursday, tensions are high. And since the caddie is often the first available punching bag for a player who’s underperforming, the added strain on weeks such as that are palpable.

And few of the U.S. Opens – certainly few this century – have provided a sterner test than Shinnecock did in ’04 where dry, windy weather and greens not being watered early in the week stretched the course to its limits and arguably beyond.

“It was hot,” Byrne recalls, “and it was more a policy of the USGA – and this seemed to mark a turning point until they came back [to Shinnecock] a few years ago and did virtually the same thing, because in between that they’d seemed to learn their lesson and not make a mockery of the great event and the course hosting. Pushing the boundaries that much worked against them. I remember Shinnecock being unprecedented where they were watering the greens in between play and I have vivid memories of the trepidation I had waiting – and you always have late tee times when you’re last out, I think it might have been three o’clock when we started – and I remember sitting outside the locker room – still outside the locker room in those days – waiting to meet Retief and I see these scores coming in. 84, 86…. And I’m thinking ‘what the hell is going on?’”

Goosen was the outright leader and paired with fellow South African Ernie Els – this was prior to Byrne caddying for the ‘Big Easy’ – but Phil Mickelson, tied with Els in second place, and coming off his Masters victory in which he’d finally managed to shake the ‘best player never to win a major’ moniker, was the clear fan favourite for the typically boisterous New York crowd.

“Anyone who’s played on the east coast of the States knows that if you’re not American, playing for a US Open, they’re pretty hostile,” Byrne reminisces about going up against Mickelson who’s still yet to win a US Open, “and this is the one he should’ve won according to the adoring fans there. It got to a point on the back nine where you were walking from green to tee and they were getting in his face and shouting ‘all yours to lose Goosen’ and ‘c’mon Goosen, choke and make it interesting’, stuff like that. And anybody who knows Retief knows that that’s the worst thing you could do because he’s tough and that’s only going to make him tougher

“There was a Buddha-like calm to Retief and that made it easier to be there with him because normally it works the other way. The player starts feeling the pressure and the heat comes on you to try to calm him down. And in the end, the toughest man won, and the crowd actually helped him by effectively abusing him.”

20 years later, he didn’t get the opportunity to mark the anniversary of that victory at Shinnecock by guiding Louis Oosthuizen to success at Pinehurst as Oosthuizen, who was one of the first wave of PGA Tour players to join LIV, opted not to compete in Final Qualifying and thus missed out despite finishing in the top-10 at the U.S. Open on five occasions and being one of the players best suited to the tough grind.

Prior to working for Oosthizen, Byrne’s last loops were for Cabrera-Bello who was playing a 30+ event annual schedule and with the guts of 40 years on the road behind him, he was finally growing weary of the long-haul travels, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, but when the South African came calling, the offer and conditions were too good to refuse.

“I was working 30-odd weeks a year, all jetlag trips across the Atlantic, to China, South Africa, and I said to my wife that the only way I could keep doing this was bag sharing which is effectively where you do half the year, but you need to find a player who actually likes having two caddies,” he explained.

“So it was almost like a miracle when I got the call from Louis to ask if I’d be interested in helping him out and I said ‘yeah, absolutely.’ It was just what I needed at that stage, and then along came LIV which was even better for me personally because I could travel less and still keep at it. So it’s worked out great.

“LIV is obviously the most controversial crossroads in modern golf and certainly, you kind of tiptoed into it knowing that there was going to be a backlash which there certainly was for the players. Although it was really attractive for me, the moral question was raised pretty quickly about the Saudi regime, and you can’t stick your head in the sand. You’re socially aware and somewhat morally aware of getting involved in things, but then you look at the bigger picture, it’s global business and everyone is complicit in something that isn’t exactly as they’d like it, such is the nature of globalism, so I managed to convince myself fairly well that it’s not such a bad thing to get involved with.

“The way they treated us, particularly that first year, was exceptional. I’d talked about waiting for Retief outside the clubhouse of Shinnecock Hills in 2004 and things had changed slowly over the years only because of the kicking and screaming from the Caddyshack, not because the people at the top thought it was the right thing to do. They’d changed because they were pushed and had to do it. And I think it was through Greg Norman – I knew Greg well from back in his playing days – and he’d always treated his caddies very well. Tough to work for, but such is the nature of high achievers, but he treated them well in terms of professional circumstances and I’m sure he was instrumental in having really good conditions for the caddies on the LIV Tour and we’re very much part of the whole event.”

It would be remiss not to ask somebody who, in many ways and quite often had a front row seat to Tiger Woods at the very peak of his powers, just exactly what Woods was like, the aura that he possessed and how that affected both the players and caddies who occupied the same fairways.

“It’s something I’d relay to some of the younger players now who might never have been around him,” Byrne explains, “but you’d almost choose your schedule to play in what he wasn’t playing in because you knew if he played well you were playing for second place.

“And if he did play badly, and he was anywhere near the cut line, you knew he was on the right side of it. He had a supernatural presence, supernatural existence on tour and it was amazing. We would’ve played with him a lot, we beat him in the singles in the Presidents Cup when I was caddying for Retief, we had victories against him.. you wouldn’t have many in competition, but we had some.

“He loved chatting, and you’d have a good relationship with him and he had total respect for people inside the ropes. It was also a tool for him because you can’t concentrate for four or five hours, so he was really good at switching off and switching on. In fact, he was a bit miffed at Retief who, for the want of a better word, as a very tacit man. I remember one time we were playing with him and we got to about the fifth hole and Retief hadn’t uttered a syllable. Tiger looked at me and asked, ‘is this guy ever going to say anything?’ I just said ‘probably not. You’re going to have to get used to it. He’s like this with everyone’.”

These days, when he’s not on Tour with Oosthuizen, you might find Byrne running a caddie training course at various golf clubs throughout the country which is where I caught up with him when conducting such a course at County Sligo Golf Club. Whilst nobody is expecting tour level caddying from a regular club caddie, the caddie can leave a lasting impression and add to the enjoyment of a round far beyond just carrying the clubs and telling a player where to hit the ball.

“One of the points that I was trying to say ad-nauseum to the caddies,” he explained after conducting a class for 30-odd, “was that the manager or the guys in the pro shop get to spend a couple of minutes with the green fees, but the caddie gets to spend somewhere between four and five hours with them and the caddies can leave a lasting impression, both good and bad.

“And people have high expectations now of the caddies. It’s like a microcosm of what’s happened on tour. 40 years ago, if I showed up, that was good enough. Now, it’s not because the whole expectation levels have changed and that’s the same for amateur caddies.” If your club is interested in having Colin Byrne and David Marmion conduct a caddie training course, contact training course, email or phone 0818 919 310.

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2 responses to “Colin Byrne – The Bagman spills the beans”

  1. Mark Coates avatar
    Mark Coates

    Good article. Thank you.

  2. Douglas BROWN avatar
    Douglas BROWN

    Hi Colin. good to hear you’re still at it with Lpuis on the LIV Tour. If you’re over here near Galway Bay, drop me a line and call by. Douglas

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