Chattahoochee Valley Sports Hall of Fame: Jim Mackay parlays love of golf into a career

Mackay turns love of game into successful career

Special to the Ledger-EnquirerJanuary 30, 2014 

Golf for Jim Mackay was something he enjoyed at a young age and grew into something that would help him earn a college education.

But for the English-born transplanted Floridian, golf was to become so much more than an avenue to a college degree. It transformed a 7-year-old boy who used to "knock the ball around" into an internationally recognized figure -- a man who has achieved fame in the annals of professional golf without ever striking a shot in a tour event.

A man whose nickname, "Bones," has become to golfers everywhere as renowned as any man who has hoisted a bag onto his shoulders and trod the storied links of the sport's hallowed turf.

On Feb. 1, another chapter in Mackay's success story will play out in a banquet hall in the Columbus Convention & Trade Center, where he will be inducted into the Chattahoochee Valley Sports Hall of Fame.

His story is more than the tale of a golfer who set out to try his hand at being a professional caddy.

That may have been part of the genesis of Mackay's journey, but it became so much more.

Born in England, Mackay was 7 when his family moved to New Smyrna Beach, Fla., where he said there were always a few golf clubs laying about he could use to hit balls around the yard, and later at a nearby municipal golf course.

He was interested in other games, including soccer, but Mackay said it was "incredibly lucky for me to be involved with golf at that age."

"I didn't come from a family with a lot of money," he said. "I always looked at golf as something I thought could help me pay for college."

Even at the age of 13-14, when he enjoyed playing golf, he realized how competitive the sport was and how he would have to step up if he was to be accepted, much less be sought out by any college coach.

"I thought that if I could hopefully shoot 74 or somewhere around there (in competitions) it could help me get there," Mackay said. "I never thought about making a nickel in professional golf. Just help in going to college."

He enrolled in 1983 at the University of Central Florida, but the school dropped its golf program that fall. MacKay needed to find another program.

"UCF was hosting a tournament and I went out to watch," Mackay recalls.

Right place, right time

That's when good fortune intervened.

It just happened that Columbus State University was entered in that Winter Park, Fla., tournament. The team was coached by Earl Bagley.

"It was the first tournament I recall that I ever coached," Bagley said. "That's where he just walked up. I've always said Jim was my first recruit, but the truth is he recruited himself."

Mackay said he really went there only to watch, but he took the chance of introducing himself to Bagley, whose golf program was ranked and on the upswing.

"I met him and liked him a lot. I was given a chance to come up (to Columbus) and audition -- and I did well enough that he said I could come up and try to play on the golf team," Mackay said.

Because UCF had dropped its golf program, its golf team members were unrestricted, free to transfer to any school without being required to sit out a season.

"He came up that winter of 1984. He wasn't on the team then, but the following year he was," Bagley said. "He played four straight years and was the first player I ever coached who made it to four straight national championship competitions."

But Bagley said Mackay was more than a good team member and a good golfer.

"He's just such a great guy. His mother raised him right. He had unbelievable manners for a young man. I liked him very much," Bagley said.

Mackay, whose parents divorced and whose father had parted ways with his family, said it was Coach Bagley who "… has been one of the most amazing influences on my life."

That connection and influence continues today, with Mackay and Bagley regularly calling just to chat with one another.

But Mackay -- the realist -- knew his collegiate golf, while good, was not going to propel him to success in the professional ranks. He needed another route to open for his future.

Networking

Working in the pro shop at Green Island Country Club while a student, Mackay had become friends with Columbus' most successful resident professional golfer -- Larry Mize, who had moved from collegiate success at Georgia Tech straight onto the PGA Tour.

"I always thought the coolest job in the world would be to caddy on the PGA Tour," Mackay said. "I was fascinated by the professional game, so I must have asked Larry about a thousand times by 1989 if he would consider taking me out to caddy for him."

Mackay had been a spectator behind the 12th tee at Augusta National in 1987 when Mize made his famous chip-in to win The Masters in a playoff. He had helped Mize at his GICC practice sessions, picking up Mize's practice balls. The two played together.

Then in 1989, Mize and his longtime caddy, the late Scott Steele, split up and Mize needed someone on the bag.

"Jim found out and said he wanted to come to work for me," said Mize, noting that Mackay had only recently been hired to work for Synovus, the Columbus-based regional banking company. "I said, 'Jim, you need to stay at Synovus.' "

But when Mize went out on the tour in 1990, Mackay was on his bag -- and there was no turning back.

After two years with Mize, Mackay teamed up with Mize's friend Scott Simpson. He occasionally carried for Curtis Strange and Mark Calcavecchia.

"I was having a ball," Mackay said.

Taking a left turn

Then another fortunate turn in life went Mackay's way.

A boyhood friend and very good golfer was recruited in 1983 by then-University of Arkansas coach Steve Loy. Mackay met Loy during that recruitment pitch.

"Years later, he was the golf coach at Arizona State University and I was at a dinner in Arizona when he remembered me," Mackay said. He and Loy -- now Mickelson's manager -- began to talk.

It turned out a young Arizona State golf phenom named Phil Mickelson was looking for a caddie. Mickelson had won the 1991 Northern Telcom Open as an amateur while playing for the ASU team.

"In 1992, I met Phil for the first time," Mackay said.

Mackay was caddying for Simpson while Mickelson's father carried Phil's bag during a practice round at the Players Championship in Ponte Vedra, Fla.

"… At the end of the practice round, Phil said, 'Hey, man. Why don't you come caddy for me?' "

"It didn't take me long to figure out that was absolutely what I should do," Mackay said.

A team was born. While most caddy-pro relationships last about 18 months, the Mickelson-Mackay team will have thrived for 22 years this June.

During every one of Mickelson's 49 worldwide victories -- missing only the 1991 win as an amateur -- Mackay has been by his side, step for step, calling out yardages, wind directions and shot advice hole after hole.

"We just seemed to click," Mackay said. "We find the same things to be funny and share a lot of interest in what's going on in the world, in the NFL, whatever. I've thoroughly enjoyed our time together."

And Mickelson is more of a prankster than most people realize, Mackay said. He has pulled a number of practical jokes over the years, sometimes with Mackay the victim.

During the 1997 U.S. Open, Mackay said he was driving as he and Mickelson approached a parking spot at the course.

"There was a guy walking along parallel to the car, in his own world. Then he turned and walked sideways into the car," he said. "I was only going about one mile an hour or so, so there was nothing to it."

About half an hour later, Mackay said he was on the range when a couple of police officers walked up and told him they were investigating a hit-and-run incident -- and he was going to have to "come downtown to be interviewed."

That was just 45 minutes before Mickelson was to tee off and Mackay was beside himself.

"All the other pros on the range were stopped, looking at these guys in blue and me," he recalled. "I said, 'Are you kidding me?' ''

"I was about out of my mind when I noticed over the shoulder of one of the guys, there was Phil hiding behind a tree and laughing."

Everybody had a good chuckle except Mackay.

"But you have to also know how hard this guy works," Mackay said of Mickelson. "This is a guy who came out of college with tremendous pressure on him, a lot of expectations.

"And he has come out and delivered, winning a lot of tournaments in the era of the greatest competition of all time on the tour."

Off-the-course friends

Theirs is a friendship that transcends the golf course, however.

Mackay became friends with Mickelson's wife Amy, who introduced Mackay to an ASU classmate, Jennifer Olsen. She's now Jennifer Mackay and the couple have a son, 9, and daughter, 7.

They were married in the Mickelsons' home and the two families often are together, sometimes venturing to parks and recreation areas together; sometimes just enjoying one another's company.

But it wasn't Mickelson who gave Mackay his now-famous nickname. That sobriquet was the work of Fred Couples.

Mackay said in 1990, still early in his caddy life, Mize went to a tournament in France and Mackay was there at a restaurant with some other golfers. Tall, lanky and very thin -- "skinny wouldn't be wrong" -- Mackay was sitting at the table with a group, few of whom even knew his name.

"Freddie Couples was trying to get my attention to pass something down, and he didn't know what my name was, so he was calling out all these names -- Bob or Steve or Tom or whatever -- and he finally just called out, 'Hey! Bones!' and I turned around.

"He called me that the rest of the time there, and it stuck," Mackay said.

Mickelson has praised Mackay over the years for his part in the success he has enjoyed, once saying that having Mackay at his side was "one of the most fortunate things to happen" in his career.

How much of a team they have become was obvious after Mickelson won the British Open at Muirfield last year. After Michelson fired a stunning final-round 5-under-par 66 on the final day, a now-famous photograph shows Michelson walking from the 18th green with Mackay as tears stream down the caddie's face.

"I was just blown away by his performance," Mackay recalls.

"I was kind of emotional because it meant so much to him -- to have this kind of career-crowning win, coming from 5 back going into Sunday and winning by 3 in a 20-mile-an-hour wind, to play the best golf of his life on the biggest stage he'll ever play on - it meant the world to me."

What does the future hold for Mackay?

"I'd like to work with Phil as long as he would like to have me out there," he said. "It's in my blood. It's what I love to do."

That's likely to be "several more years, for sure," he said, if his physical stamina holds up.

Having enjoyed so much success for so long, Mackay hasn't thought a great deal about the "what ifs" of life.

What if he had not landed a spot caddying for Mize, Simpson and, ultimately, Phil Mickelson? What if he had gone to work for Synovus in the banking and finance field?

"I probably would have struggled to work in an office," Mackay said.

"I'm much more of an outdoor person. The banking business would have been tough for me."

Mackay said he's still reminded annually at The Masters by former Synovus executive Jim Blanchard that he was given a 2-year leave to go try out life as a caddy on the PGA Tour.

"He always asks when I'm going to show up for work," Mackay said.

JIM MACKAY

College: Columbus State

Local tie: Played golf for four years at Columbus State

You need to know: Before caddying for Phil Mickelson, Mackay worked for Larry Mize and Scott Simpson. … It was golfer Fred Couples who gave him the nickname "Bones." … He was voted the No. 1 caddie on the PGA Tour in a recent Gold Magazine player poll.

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