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Scottish Caddies: A Dying Breed?

No offense to the good people of Scandinavia, but many of them are new to playing golf in Scotland and haven't yet grasped the golden rule of traveling to the birthplace of the game. Sure, they know the usual stuff about loading up on golf balls and packing enough warm clothing to last a lifetime in Oslo, but when it comes to tackling the mighty challenge of Royal Troon or Prestwick or Muirfield, there is but one essential ingredient to the authentic Scottish golf experience: an authentic Scottish caddie.

"They never take any of us," a craggy-faced caddie told me as we contemplated the craggiest landscape in golf. We were standing behind the first tee at Prestwick, watching four broad-shouldered sons of Norway begin their round. "And the Norwegians are the worst, the penny-pinchin' fools."

As I watched our gallant golfers stagger into the gale, heads bowed, looking like Amundsen and his men leaving base camp for the South Pole, I couldn't help but see his point. After all, would Hillary have made it to the top of Everest without Tenzing, his trusty Sherpa?Would Armstrong have taken his one giant leap for mankind without Aldrin behind him in the lunar module?

Hiring a Scottish caddie isn't just a matter of paying someone to carry your golf bag (though he will do that, obviously) or to help teach you a language you thought you already knew (this will happen, too); it is a matter of common sense. If you have never played a links before, trust me, you will need guidance. It takes years to memorize the breaks and borrows that will confront you on Scotland's legendary courses. And that's just the fairways.

But more than any of that, it is a matter of fully enjoying the ultimate golf experience before it is too late. That's because the traditional Scottish caddie is a dying breed. Literally.

Once upon a time, being a caddie in this part of the world was a career option. You started off as a youthful ingénue full of enthusiasm and energy and ended up a wizened old curmudgeon full of whisky and reproach: "Ah telt ye it wiz a five-irn, seerrr." In between were endless afternoons in the great outdoors, time spent in the company of interesting strangers and the chance to play the hallowed course for free on caddies' day.

These days, caddying is a summer job. It is something to do before disappearing off to university life or delving into the corporate world. Call this transformation the awakening of a more ambitious generation of Scots or the death rattle of a noble profession, but the effect is still the same. It can be felt at Royal Dornoch, where a request for an experienced caddie—"someone who has been around for years and knows the place like the back of his hand"—is met with an apology from the club's main office: "If you'd asked me five years ago, I might have been able to help."

The end of an era is felt, too, at the Home of the Game. In the caddie shack next to the Old Course, the older bag men tell a story about the golfer from New York who'd saved hard for the trip of a lifetime and whose dreams of having a Scottish sage guide him on his journey were shattered when he was greeted in the shadow of the R&A clubhouse by his looper, a twenty-two-year-old student from New Jersey. Like the weary pilgrim who made it all the way to Rome on Easter Sunday only to find a priest from Hoboken waving from the Vatican balcony, the visiting golfer was crushed. After a brief negotiation, the poor student's place was taken by a man better suited to the arduous task of making a golfer's dream complete.

That man was Jimmy Bowman, who turned seventy this summer and is the longest-serving caddie at the Old Course. Jimmy is a quiet man, but what he lacks in volume he more than makes up for in wit and wisdom. In short, he is the perfect companion for a day on the links. If you ever happen to find yourself in St. Andrews, be sure to look him up. Or better yet, hire him as your caddie.

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