Loopy tales from the caddieshack

 

While at Pebble Beach for last year's US Open, I came across a story which removed any lingering doubt as to whether caddies are the same the world over. As Miles Byrne discovered at Royal Lytham, he and his brethren are often first in the firing line when something goes wrong with a player's round. And even the most successful ones are not protected from the cold winds of privation.

Locals in the Pebble Beach area still talk reverentially about legendary looper Ray "Foot" Mendis, who once worked for the actor James Garner and tour player Jim Simons. Yet during the US Open, he was a frail, bearded, 63-year-old resident of the Vagabond Motel, about 10 minutes down the road from Cannery Row.

"I don't think I have enough strength left to crush a grape," he said at the time, while adding, predictably, that he was also low on cash. "My legs are gone, my drinking habits aren't the greatest and I've got a bit of high blood pressure. Two months ago I was supposed to have been found dead in Carmel."

There was no question, however, of Portmarnock's members overlooking the tremendous impact of Peter Maguire on their golfing lives. So it was that when the much-loved caddie died earlier this year, a touching tribute was given at his funeral Mass by the club captain, Vincent Sex.

Golfers from far and wide have wonderful tales to tell about Peter, not least of the manner in which he imposed his authority on all matters relating to club and ball. If his instructions were questioned, he was liable to retort: "Listen Boss (everybody was Boss), if you reach the green with that f***ing club, I will take off my f***ing trousers and hang them from the f***ing clubhouse flagpole."

There was the memorable occasion when an American visitor wished to know if the hazard in front of the green at the short seventh was casual water. "Oh no Boss," said Peter, horrified. "You couldn't drink that f***ing water."

The plight of Mendis illustrated the other side of life in an area of great opulence. Indeed it was a sad commentary on the golfing community in general that he should have been moved to say: "It took me years to learn that the nicer I was to people, the worse they treated me."

His sobriquet stemmed from an incident about 26 years ago when he warned his player not to leave himself a downhill putt on Pebble's treacherous, 11th green. And when the 55-footer from the back edge duly careered off the front, the player blamed the caddie, naturally.

That was when Mendis calmly dropped a ball from his overalls and flicked it with his toe after it hit the ground. With the bemused player looking on, the ball rolled at breakneck speed down the slippery slope. As Mendis recalled: "Wouldn't you know it, the son of a gun went in." From that day on, he became known as "Foot."

The most famous story about him, however, is one he didn't care to recall. It concerned the occasion when, short-taken out on the course, he headed for a portable toilet and attempted to take the golf bag inside. There wasn't enough room.

After several attempts, Foot and his bag were wedged in and the more he struggled, the more the portaloo shook. Finally it tipped over, much to the delight of fascinated onlookers. And as Oliver Goldsmith might have written: and still they gazed and still the odour grew . . .

In the course of his recently-published book, Only Golf Spoken Here, Ivan Morris recounts some marvellous tales about John O'Reilly from Tallaght, which would rival those from caddieshacks anywhere in the world. Golfing characters don't come more colourful than this former looper for Peter Townsend, Des Smyth and Pβdraig Harrington.

His most famous escapade, much loved of the late Peter Dobereiner of the Observer, is given the full treatment in Morris's book. As O'Reilly recalled it: "I was caddying for Peter Townsend one season and he used to pay me a retainer a week in advance and then a percentage of his purse at the end of the tournament.

"The next tournament was in Berlin. Myself and three other caddies travelled across to Liverpool on the ferry and there was a blackjack game on the boat and I lost all my money. Facing a trip to Berlin, I hadn't a penny.

"We arrive in Liverpool and I get on the train to Southampton. The ticket collector was getting too close for comfort so I knock on a toilet door and shout 'Tickets!' The poor guy inside shoves his ticket under the door. That got me to Southampton.

"Now we have to catch the ferry to Holland. One of my caddie friends gets on the boat and then makes an excuse that he has to get off again. They give him a pass and he gives it to me and I'm on the ferry. In Holland, we have to catch the train to Berlin, so the lads put me into a golf-bag travel cover and lift me up onto the overhead rack.

"I was up there for hours without a smoke or even a drink of water. To get to our destination in Berlin, the train had to go through the communist sector. That was when the 'Gestapo' came around to stamp the passports. When they pass by, I jump out of the bag, get me passport, borrow a ticket and run after one of the guards and say 'You forgot to stamp me passport, sir!'

"Your man looks at me kinda funny but he stamps me card. I've made it. I'm in Berlin. Townsend has a good week; I make a nice bonus and I travel home in style."

They are special people, representing the very soul of the Royal and Ancient game. And despite O'Reilly's marathon journey to Berlin, many a golfer has discovered that they can become extremely useful allies in tight situations. And not necessarily on the golf course.