Masters: Three elite loopers discuss the greatest challenge in golf: taming Augusta

April 4, 2016

[This story originally appeared in the April 2016 edition of GOLF Magazine.]

Congratulations — you’ve punched your ticket to Augusta National Golf Club. It’s essential to putt well, play big on the par 5s and pick the right club at the mercurial par-3 12th hole. Thus, a seasoned caddie is a must. Jim “Bones” Mackay (bagman for Phil Mickelson), Colin Swatton (Jason Day) and John Wood (Matt Kuchar) all fit the bill.

They know Augusta’s secrets, quirks and charms. Mackay, 50, has logged 25 Masters with Mickelson, including three wins. As Lefty’s trusty sidekick, he’s one of golf’s most recognized caddies. Swatton, 46, coached Day as a junior in Australia before becoming his full-time looper. Part statistician and still Day’s coach, he heads into his sixth Masters. So far, so good—Jason tied for second in 2011 and was third in 2013. Before making the switch to Kuchar, Wood, 46, helped Hunter Mahan grab three Masters top 10s and has worked the tournament 15 times. In a lively roundtable, our trio share what they’ve learned about taking on (and sometimes not taking on) Augusta, the hardest shot you never hear about, and why No. 12 offers the sweetest moment of silence in the game.

All three of you have caddied at the Masters multiple times. What will distinguish this year’s tournament from the others?

WOOD: Bones, start it off. You’re the one with all the hardware. [Laughs]

MACKAY: There will be as much or more hype and excitement heading into this Masters as any Masters I’ve ever caddied in. The game is in such a great place right now with the Big Three, Big Four, Big Five, Big Six—whatever you want to call them.

WOOD: You’ve got so many young guys who could be considered favorites: Jordan, Jason, Rickie, Rory, Bubba, Justin Thomas. One interesting thing is what the Augusta members will think of all this length. You’ve got guys hitting 8- and 9-irons into par 5s again.

What does it feel like to help your guy pick a club at 12, the scariest of par 3s?

MACKAY: That’s why we all caddie. It’s a tremendous challenge. Every club selection out there is of such paramount importance, none more so than on 12. There’s a lot of heat on everybody involved. You just hope the winds are friendly and go from there.

Bones, you’ve made some successful decisions on 12. Phil kick-started his closing run with a birdie there in 2004, leading to his first green jacket.

MACKAY: It’s one of the coolest moments when your player makes a 2 there and there’s that delayed crowd noise. It’s the only hole in golf where you can make birdie and hear the ball rattle around the cup, because there are no people around the green.

SWATTON: That two-second delay is awesome.

WOOD: It’s one of the best par 3s in the world. You can do everything right, your player can make a perfect swing, and you can be completely wrong. You’ve got to be patient, and then quick to hit when you get the wind you planned for. You’ve got to be bold and go for it.

SWATTON: The biggest thing is making sure your man is 100 percent convinced he’s got the right club and the right yardage, so he can execute without any doubt.

WOOD: When my guy hits the green, anywhere, I put my head down and give myself a little fist pump, like, All right, that was good. I did my job. That’s one of the only places in golf I do that.

How is Augusta different from when you first caddied there?

MACKAY: For the longest time you heard people say short hitters were at a huge disadvantage. My personal theory was that it wasn’t because of the course’s length. For the first 18 to 20 years I went there, they didn’t have a lot of grass on the fairways. The ball would kind of sit down. It was a lot harder for guys who didn’t have a lot of strength to hit a shot of, say, 180 yards from a lie like that, where it was unlike what they saw on Tour. But the coverage has changed in the last several years—there’s much more grass.

WOOD: The coverage is thicker. There’s more turf. It doesn’t seem to be cut as tight as it used to be. When I first started caddying there, if your ball kicked off the green on 15, it was in the water. A lot more balls stay up than used to. Same with 10—a left miss is not going to roll 30 or 35 yards down the hill.

SWATTON: I thought it was longer around the greens last year. The biggest thing for me when I first went there is that you’d play your practice round and do your work and know how everything reacted, and come Thursday the course would be completely different—they’d mow it from green to tee. But last year I thought the greens and collars and surrounds were a bit longer and that the ball set up better around the greens.

Some people said Augusta needed to be “Tiger-proofed” after Woods shot a record 18 under in 1997. Jordan Spieth shot the same score last year. Should it be Spieth-proofed? Is that even possible, given that he doesn’t overpower courses?

MACKAY: Jordan’s a total badass. There’s no Jordan-proofing anything. As mentally strong as he is, there’s nothing anyone can do to rein him in.

SWATTON: You look at last year’s 18 under, Jordan was 12 under on the par 5s alone. At the [2016] Hyundai TOC at Kapalua, he was 16 under on the par 5s. On those two courses, you don’t have to be a bomber; they’re shorter par 5s that allow the medium hitters to get home in two. That’s where the majority of his scoring is coming from.

Johnny Miller used to refer to the Masters as the Augusta Spring Putting Championships. Is that an oversimplification?

MACKAY: Oh, God, yes.

WOOD: While the greens are big, the playable parts of the greens are small. On 15, you’re standing there in the fairway with a 5- or 6-iron, and you’re talking about a three- or four-yard window you’ve got to land that in.

MACKAY: Folks at home have no idea how precise you have to be to hit it pin high to, say, that back-right pin at the first hole. You hit it over that green and you’ve got huge, huge stress. There are so many points on that course where you have to be unbelievably precise.

SWATTON: No. 1 is maybe the most underrated hole out there. Even if you hit it three bills off the tee, that second shot is tough.

MACKAY: And it’s a very awkward angle. Miss your line by 10 yards on the left and you go from hitting off the short grass to being in there with the patrons. It’s so tough right out of the chute.

Who’s the greatest Augusta caddie ever?

MACKAY: Carl Jackson.

SWATTON: I’d put Carl as well.

WOOD: I don’t know how you go against him as far as course knowledge, but also temperament. He remains calm no matter what’s going on. If you stand around Carl Jackson for 10 minutes, even if the two of you don’t say a word, your heart rate goes down.

MACKAY: Not to mention that one of the years Ben [Crenshaw] won it, he wasn’t playing well early in the week, and Carl told him to move the ball back in his stance.

RELATED: Ben Crenshaw’s First Masters Win & What He Dealt With Behind the Scenes

Do you prepare differently for Augusta than you do for other events?

SWATTON: We prepare differently for the majors. We get there a week early, work out a game plan for each hole, look at the forecast for the week, the wind conditions, and come up with the best formula. We take the week off leading into it to take that extra time.

MACKAY: I work for a guy who likes to do just the opposite, to play his way in. If the week before the Masters was the Anchorage Open, Phil would be playing in it. As for playing Augusta National, you develop theories over the years and try to stick to them, hoping they’ll pay off.

WOOD: I might do wedge numbers that I normally wouldn’t do. The house we stay at, we’ll talk more about the course and how it’s playing. I typically don’t watch a lot of golf, but that week it’s all I’ll watch.

What do TV viewers not get about Augusta?

WOOD: The precision factor is elevated, especially in a dry year, when you get that big first bounce. In a regular Tour event, you might have seven or eight yards to land the ball and it’ll be in a decent place. At Augusta, it’s two or three feet. You have to be dead-on with plan and execution more than any other course.

RELATED: Understanding the Elevation Changes at Augusta National

SWATTON: The elevation change is just crazy. Walking up nine, how much pitch is on that walk up to the green and back down to the crosswalk, it’s incredible. People don’t understand how precise you have to be to get to that front-left pin location.

What’s your greatest Augusta memory?

WOOD: Bones, you’ve got most of them.

MACKAY: [Laughs] Obviously some of greatest moments of my professional career were at Augusta. Other than those, one of my favorite things about that tournament is how incredibly well the members treat us. You become friends with some of these folks for the rest of your life.

WOOD: My favorite memory is from when Phil won his first in 2004. I was back at the house when Phil was putting on 18, and the second it went in I sprinted out the door and ran out to the course. I’ll never forget walking through this little corridor past the champions’ locker room and seeing Bones, by himself, with a flag in his hand, and giving him a hug. I’ll never forget the look on his face. His head was kind of down and you could tell he was in thought, trying to come to grips with it. It looked like a mixture of relief and disbelief, like, Did that really just happen?

MACKAY: Thanks, John.

SWATTON: I proposed to my wife, Lisa, on Sunday of the 2010 Masters. I carried the ring around all day while I was walking around with her. I was going to do it at Amen Corner but chickened out. So I actually proposed to her at the lighthouse at Harbour Town that night. Every Sunday of the Masters I think about that.

What’s your best piece of advice at Augusta?

WOOD: Be brave. You don’t win any tournament by managing misses. If you’re brave enough, Augusta gives you the opportunity to be rewarded for great risk shots. No one embodies that more than Phil—the shot he hit [in 2010, through the trees] on 13 comes to mind.

MACKAY: If we get immaculate, receptive greens, you’ve got to go get it. Jordan shot 18-under. I don’t care who you are—you’ve got to go get it, if conditions let you.

SWATTON: I’d tell Jason to treat it like any other major. I don’t want him putting too much pressure on himself. He’s done well there, and everyone expects him to do well at Augusta.

John, you brought up Phil’s miracle recovery shot on 13 in 2010—that famous 6-iron off the pine needles and between two trees. Bones was there, of course. John, you and Hunter were in the vicinity, too, right?

WOOD: Hunter played well, so we were a few groups in front of Phil, maybe on 16. Everybody knows the roars at Augusta sound different, right? Well, that one—the ground shook. Something crazy just happened. You could feel it in your femurs from a thousand yards away.

SWATTON: I was watching on TV. It was an incredible shot at the right moment. It’s difficult to walk on that pine straw, let alone hit a shot off it through the trees and have to curve it as well.

MACKAY: The next year, early in the week, I went down to 13 by myself just to have a thank-the-golf-gods moment. When I got to where Phil had hit the shot, there was something stuck in the ground. When I bent down to check it out, it came right out of the ground, and these guys down the fairway started yelling, “Hey! What are you doing?” It turned out that the hole marshals had gotten so tired of people asking where Phil hit the shot from, they’d found a stick and marked the spot.

Finally, the white jumpsuit. Is it the pinnacle of your profession or just a pain in the rear?

WOOD: [Laughs] I don’t mind it. I love being able to wear a T-shirt and gym shorts every day.

MACKAY: I’ll second that.

SWATTON: I’ll third that. It’s the uniform that week, and it’s part of what makes that tournament special.

MACKAY: And let’s not lose sight of the fact that it is an honor and a privilege to caddie there. We have friends who do what we do for a living who will never get to caddie there. People at home won’t get to caddie at Augusta National, either. We are very, very lucky to do what we do.