Colin Byrne: Crowning my career in a major way

 

I have caddied for quite a few major champions in the past. Last week I was caddying for the 2004 US Open Champion from start to finish. It was 'my' first major, my boss' second and an experience that crowns a long caddying career .

Walking around Shinnecock Hills early last week I was firstly impressed by the course and secondly pleasantly surprised by how it was set up. You learn never to be over-confident in a fickle game that can leave you down and out as quickly as you were on top of your game . But I felt like the course suited a player like Retief.

Retief is a long hitter, but Shinnecock would not require the driver more than six times in an average round, so length was not vital . This meant he could hit plenty of strategic irons off tees. He shapes his iron shots with ease. Shinnecock required that you 'held' the ball against the wind so that it came down on the greens as softly as possible.

My boss has got a vivid imagination around the greens. With the shaved areas around every green, you needed to use different clubs to chip or run the ball up to the greens. His bunker play is as good as any other top player. Of course he is a very skilful putter. Before last week I always marvelled at his delicate touch on the greens, especially with long putts.

I would observe him as he surveyed a twisting 40 footer, intense and calculating, computing every turn and undulation. Nothing happens by chance.

It was his putting that won Retief his second US Open, it took a deft and fearless touch to hole even a two footer in Shinnecock last Sunday and it took unlimited skill and belief to continue doing so in the final round when you could feel the negative energy hissing over the ropes from the patriotic American spectators.

We all know that a finished product can often be taken for granted. But preparation and honing are the basis of a good outcome. Retief's practice sessions were as calculating and scrupulous as his play during the four rounds.

If you are playing well in a major you will have one early tee-time and three late ones. We played two practice rounds at 3.0 in the afternoon and the third at 8.30 in the morning. Our early tee-time in the event was 8.30. Our lates were 1.30, 2.30 and 3.0. We couldn't predict the weather, but we were fortunate to play our practice rounds in different wind directions which was extremely helpful.

Retief is the type of person who will cautiously prepare himself for the worst possible scenario. So when he was putting to various points on the greens he took the extreme locations, mostly on the precipice of the abyss.

He understands the USGA very well. We had discussions in the practice rounds about where the holes would be cut. As it turned out, I was hopelessly naive when it came to just how severe the pin placements would be. My boss was not.

Playing in a major tournament is intense. It is the first time that I have been in a leading situation in a major. From the start of the week every simple aspect of the tournament is at a higher level of intensity.

Huge mouthy crowds and hyper-vigilant security. Getting from point A to B can be troublesome. The whole week just seems to take forever, getting into the course, getting from one hole to another, people, security and obstacles everywhere.

Playing in the final round on Sunday, I almost felt like I was outside the ropes, constantly battling to get close to my player.

There were TV crews, a legion of scorers, observers, officials, policemen and other security personnel. With many narrow walkways off the tees you had to be fast out of the blocks to try to beat the charge for the narrow exits.

Retief is a quiet man, very soft spoken. He is a man of gentle movements, and his calmness is infectious. There are no sudden movements; no forceful conversations between us. So after every mad dash off the tee to beat the surrounding posse, I then had to throttle back to Goose pace when it came to giving him the information required.

I found myself shifting from charged to tranquil on every hole. With all the surrounding noise, it was getting hard to hear each other towards the end of the round, so we had to speak louder, without allowing any sense of alarm to creep in to our exchanges.

So, between the mad rush all around me and Retief's Zen-like tranquillity at the eye of the storm, it was a constant balancing of pace and energy for me. Despite Retief's single-mindedness and clear focus, it turned out to be beneficial to play with his fellow countryman Ernie Els on Sunday.

He thought he would be, along with Phil Mickelson, the main challenger. As it became apparent that Ernie no longer had a chance to win by the back nine, he and his caddie Rickie Roberts gave us a lot of encouragement over the last few holes.

If you were the sensitive type the back nine at Shinnecock Hills last Sunday would not have been a good place for you. The mob were rooting quite vociferously for Phil Mickelson. They were audibly rooting against Retief. Comments like "go on three putt, make it interesting" and "all your's to lose now Retief" might have unsettled a more delicate competitor.

Retief manages to block it all out. In a game that has an abundance of etiquette left in it compared with many sports played at a top level, some spectators in the States would appear to want to drag it down to the lowest level.

There are two ways to approach such an event as a caddie. One is to get caught up in the emotion of the spectacle; the other is to stick your head down and get on with the job at hand.

Retief's calmness and serene manner were a very comforting influence on me as I was dealing with the relatively unknown pressures of major contention.

I opted for the head down strategy and avoided eye contact with anyone other than my boss. Even on the final hole with a two-shot lead, given the precarious nature of the course, the hardened pro and caddie are acutely aware of the perils of complacency.

I think it takes experience to be able to enjoy these moments.

As I look back I am only now starting to enjoy what were the most intense moments of my caddying career so far.

As I grappled with the pin on the 18th hole trying to figure out exactly how to detach the flag for a keepsake - a tradition for major winning caddies - I realised that I was hopelessly unequipped to extract the flag, so the souvenir stayed put as I left the green. No matter now long you have been humping a bag around the fairways of the world , most days provide a new challenge. I'll know the fine art of flag-snagging next time.