PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FLORIDA | Henry Watson Fowler, the grammarian whose Dictionary of Modern English was a staple in British schools in the past two centuries, is unable to comment on a linguistic tic that once was common in golf. We can give the old pedant a pass on that score because if he were around he would be 161 years old.
But Rickie Fowler is in the room and is a witness to the discussion as to when players stopped blaming their caddies, as in “I birdied the 10th and 12th and then we bogeyed the 13th” and instead started talking about “we” in all things.
Today, there are those such as Jordan Spieth, Danny Willett and the aforementioned Fowler who use the first person plural pronoun – we – almost as much as the first person singular pronoun – I. “Not sure how many more full PGA Tour events we’ll play this year …” Matt Wallace, the Sawgrass rookie who is up to 35th in the world, said on the eve of the Players and “… and we’re here now and we’re playing in my first Players …”
Henrik Stenson is another one who uses the “we” word more than most. As in, “there were signs last week of some good stuff, so yeah, we just carry on, we got patience, we have done this long enough to know there’s going to be some ups and downs and … we just stay with it.”
The truth is, you would not have heard such comments years ago when times and mores were different and golfers had no compunction about pointing the finger of blame at their caddies and by doing so appeared to be looking down on their bag carriers. “I didn’t want them (my caddies) talking to me,” Andy North said. “They’re working for me. I am not working for them. I didn’t want them telling me what club to use. Shut up! You’re the bag carrier.”
Years ago it was not disrespectful to look down on caddies, though it certainly seems so now. Then, caddies were prone to appear to be down at heel and impoverished. One caddie in Britain used to commit a minor crime each autumn in order to spend the winter in the care of His or Her Majesty’s prison, where food, lodging and heat were free. Another was famous for wearing spectacles with no lenses; yet another for saying of a putt: “It’s fairly straight, sir, fairly straight.”
Once, a golfer’s relationship with his caddie smacked of the master/servant relationship that was so present in the many layers that made up British life. The butler in many of PG Wodehouse’s books is, simply, Jeeves. His first name may have been Algernon or Humphrey, Percival or Peregrine but none was ever used. He was a butler, albeit a top-hole one, never flustered and always available with sage advice. But he was below the salt, below stairs, not considered on the same social level.
It is not just bad man management to be disrespectful of a caddie. It is downright bad manners and some of the younger generation stand as testimony to this.
In Britain, the many layers in our class system had something to do with it. Golfers thought themselves better than their caddies. And why not? Who hit the shots after all? And the idea of a player having a team surrounding him, a masseur and or acupuncturist, a sports psychologist, a physical trainer, well, that was unheard of. “People ask me if we had coaches or trainers back in my day,” 89-year old Don January said. “Hell yeah, but I had a different name for them. I called them ‘bartender.’ ”
Now the caddies’ image has undergone a transformation. “They’re more like assistants to the president of a large corporation,” North said.
Caddies work harder and are better rewarded than many of their predecessors. Some turn left when they board an aeroplane. They earn sums undreamed of by their forebears. It would be totally inappropriate to treat them with anything less than complete respect.
Listen to Paul Azinger talking at Sawgrass last week: “… I bogeyed the last hole to lose the Hope in a playoff. I bogeyed the last two holes to lose the British Open and I bogeyed the last hole at Doral to lose …” Not much blaming of his caddie in there.
This change in language has something to do with the times we live in, when we are urged to show respect to one another, not to say anything that might cause offence, be courteous to one another and to take responsibility for one’s own actions. Now that players have teams of employees there is no future in publicly bawling out one such as the caddie or any other team member for that matter. Not good man management.
Publicly blaming someone else has gone the way of the 10-iron and the balata ball, to the Bermuda-grassed graveyard in the sky.
Azinger again: “Rory took a birdie chance away last week when he hit too much club and drove it in the bunker. God dang. Two people made that mistake. That caddie and the player. That’s a team effort right there.”
Tommy Fleetwood always uses the word “we” whenever it is appropriate because he believes that Ian Finnis, his caddie, the tall man who walks alongside him during each round of golf, deserves such an accolade.
“I have a big team and Ian is a most important part of the team,” Fleetwood said. “He knows me so well. He knows my personality. We have played a lot of golf together. I want him to feel he is involved. I wouldn’t blame him even if it was his fault, because he didn’t do it deliberately. He knows if he made a mistake. ‘We’ not ‘I’ just seems the right thing to say.”
Said Finnis: “It’s all about Tommy. He likes talking through every single shot. That’s why he says ‘we.’ I like it when he asks me about the shots – means I am not just carrying the bag for him. I hate it when he doesn’t involve me. It’s part of the job isn’t it. He trusts me, which is the main thing. He has never said to me, ‘You got it wrong.’ Not once in three years. He is the most responsible golfer out here. Caddies get a lot of grief. I don’t get any.”
It is not just bad man management to be disrespectful of a caddie. It is downright bad manners and some of the younger generation stand as testimony to this. “I can only speak from my own experience, but I tend to say ‘we’ when things have gone well and ‘I’ when things have gone bad,” Eddie Pepperell, the young Englishman, said. “This is the opposite of traditional. Maybe it is a sign of modesty. I only ever feel comfortable using those terms.
“It might be symptomatic and as much a reflection of a wider society in the sense that we are seemingly more and more unwilling to allocate responsibility. If the caddie makes an error on the fifth and you ask me in an interview afterwards what happened on the fifth and I say the caddie messed up, then that’s the truth. But I wouldn’t say that a) because I wouldn’t be sure how it would affect him, and b) I wouldn’t be sure how it would come across in the media.
“There are some guys certainly of the older generation that border on bullies. That never sat well with me. I don’t think I could ever talk to a caddie like that and if I did I would employ a female caddie the next week because I know I would never talk to a woman in the same way I could ever potentially talk to a man.”
Phew! What a change the use of a two-letter word instead of a one-letter word has wrought in golf.
Tommy Fleetwood and his caddie Ian Finnis during the first round of the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills. Photo: Darren Carroll, Copyright USGA
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