There’s an old adage among PGA Tour caddies: You never want to be a great player’s first looper.
Jim “Bones” Mackay told GOLF’s Subpar co-hosts Colt Knost and Drew Stolz on this week’s episode that Tour caddies have noted a trend of great players quickly replacing their loopers after starting their Tour careers. Take, for example, Tiger Woods splitting from Mike “Fluff” Cowan after less than three years.
That’s why Mackay had low expectations for the pairing with his famous most boss: Phil Mickelson.
“The reality of that job and that situation is that he’s going to now come out on the Tour, he’s going to play, there’s 150 other caddies out there,” Mackay said in the clip from the podcast you can watch above. “He’s going to run into some guy who thinks he’s the greatest guy ever who’s very, very capable and that’s who he’s going to want to have caddie for him.
“So I didn’t have any illusions when I went to work for him. I thought this might last a year or so.”
The partnership, which would eventually last 25 years and become recognized as one of the most famous player-caddie duos in golf, started off exactly how you would have expected: Bones stopping to sit and watch a random, left-handed college player hitting balls on the range one evening as he was visiting his favorite record store in Tempe, Arizona.
“Before I took a right to go to the record store, that’s where the range was, the private range for the ASU golf teams. And this one evening there was a left-hander hitting balls,” Mackay recalled of the first time he met Mickelson. “So I went into the store, bought my CDs, drove back the guy was still hitting balls. It was Phil, and I got within 20 or 30 feet of him and said, ‘Do you mind if I watch you hit a few?’
“He said, ‘Not really. Help yourself.’ I sat on a bench, watched him hit balls for 10 minutes and just got in my car and left.”
Even from that short sample size, Mackay, who was then looping for Scott Simpson and Curtis Strange, knew he had just seen something special.
“You could just tell,” Mackay said. “You could just look at the way his hands went on the club, you know, in terms of like how [Seve] Ballesteros did — that he looks like he was born with a club in his hand and the speed and, the wedges and whatnot. The guy was a world beater when, at this point, he was 20, 21.”
Mackay never seriously considered taking on the college star’s bag when he turned professional, until then-Arizona State coach Steve Loy approached Mackay at the 1992 Tucson Open about finding a caddie for Mickelson. By that point, Mickelson had already won on the PGA Tour in 1991 while still an amateur. Mackay said he had to leave the conversation abruptly when Strange emerged from the locker room and headed out to the range, meaning Mackay had to go with him.
Mackay didn’t get any contact information for Loy, so he sent a note with his contact information to the Arizona State athletic department apologizing for the abrupt end to the conversation and offering his help to find Mickelson a caddie.
Mackay doesn’t remember if Mickelson ever told him he actually saw the note, but Lefty offered him the job during a practice round later that year at the Players Championship. Mackay was caddying for Simpson, who was playing with the still amateur Mickelson and Gary McCord (because why not?) that day.
“It’s Simpson, McCord and Phil on the 10th tee at the Players and we’re waiting for the fairway to clear and this conversation happens between Phil and I,” Mackay recalled. “I said, ‘Can I think about it while we’re out here for a couple of hours?’ You know, because it completely caught me off guard.
“And, of course, every atom in your body is screaming: You got to do this.”
It was an easy yes for Mackay, and when Mickelson turned pro that June at the U.S. Open, Bones was on the bag. The partnership resulted in 42 PGA Tour wins and five major titles.
Check out below to listen to the entire episode as Mackay discusses his nickname, caddying for Justin Thomas and more.