It was Doral, 2009, on Wednesday between the practice putting green and the first tee.
Phil Mickelson and Jim “Bones” Mackay had just arrived, late, for the World Golf Championship event after taking a scouting trip to Augusta National. Stroking a couple putts before heading out on a practice round, Mickelson said hello to a few writers and gave a cursory assessment of whatever changes he saw at Augusta.
Bones then tapped me on the shoulder and asked politely if we could talk. He grabbed Mickelson’s bag and led me to the back of the first tee, out of earshot of anyone else. His demeanor suddenly changed.
“I’ve got a problem with something you wrote,” he said.
What I had written exactly a month earlier, Feb. 11, was buried in a column about Alex Rodriguez and Michael Phelps and the difference between “stupid” and “mistake.” Specifically, the 12th paragraph, where I used Bones’ boss to illustrate a point.
“Phil Mickelson hitting driver on the 18th hole at Winged Foot with a one-shot lead at the U.S. Open was a mistake. Mickelson not carrying a driver in his bag for the first two rounds on the longest U.S. Open venue in history at Torrey Pines was stupid.”
Oddly, it wasn’t the stupid example Bones objected to. It was the mistake part. He made his point. He listened to my reasoning. We agreed that it was the second shot on 18 at Winged Foot that was both a mistake and stupid. We laughed, shook hands and moved on just as a smiling Mickelson showed up to tee off.
I bring this up because this illustrated the brilliance of the Phil and Bones player/caddie partnership that lasted exactly 25 years before Tuesday’s surprising mutual announcement that they were splitting up. There was no detail too small for Bones to handle in the most professional manner. Even something as small as the 12th paragraph of an unrelated column that ran a month earlier in a small newspaper thousands of miles from where either of them lived.
From the moment in 1992 when a rookie Mickelson asked Bones “You want to give this a try?” it’s been a partnership built on trust, respect and friendship. They won 44 PGA and European Tour events, five majors and walked together in 22 consecutive Ryder and Presidents cups.
“Phil and Bones” have always gone together as naturally as ham and eggs, Bert and Ernie, Batman and Robin. But like Simon and Garfunkel or Sonny and Cher, even the best duos can break up.
Whether it was Mackay’s recently replaced knees or the fact that they haven’t won together since the 2013 British Open, they decided “it’s the right time for a change.” Mickelson’s brother, Tim, will take over the bag. Bones, 52, says he hasn’t retired, but whether he teams up with another player or heads into the broadcast booth remains undetermined.
In the golf world, Tuesday’s breakup news was bigger than Tiger Woods seeking treatment for prescription drugs or the PGA Tour announcing that it would make failed drug tests public. It’s hard to imagine either one of them working without the other by their side.
It speaks to the magnitude of their relationship that when Mickelson won his third Masters Tournament in 2010, The Augusta Chronicle decided that the next year’s cover package would be on Phil and Bones. Mackay, always careful in what he said to the media, cleared it with his boss first. He never took anything for granted.
For the interview, Bones invited me to his club in Scottsdale, Ariz., in December, where he made sure we played the Whisper Rock course that Mickelson designed. He told story after story during a three-hour conversation over dinner in the locker room. His strongest stuff was a passionate defense of Mickelson against critics who often labeled him “a phony.” He cited numerous examples that disproved the premise. The material was so good, it warranted a separate story.
Three months later, at Doral again, Bones asked me to walk with him from the range. He had been having second thoughts about those personal comments and was worried it would dredge up unwanted dialogue. Despite repeated assurances that it was all positive material, his unease remained. He didn’t take anything back and understood that it was all on the record. I agreed not to run the story in our preview section, but reserved the right to use it another day.
That kind of professionalism isn’t universal in the caddie ranks. Some play the role of bad cop a little too convincingly. Some refuse any attention, preferring to remain just part of the equipment.
For 25 years, Bones has been a complimentary extension of the Mickelson brand. They’ve often been described as “a perfect match.”
“I think the three most important people in a golfer’s life are their wife, their manager and their caddie,” Mickelson said. “I’ve been fortunate to have the same three throughout my career.”
Mickelson still has the same wife, Amy, and same former college coach as manager, Steve Loy. But the most visible partner in his career will change.
It’s hard to believe that the caddie Mickelson hugged and told “we finally did it” after they won that first major in 2004 won’t be there if Mickelson – as Bones predicts – wins another green jacket.
“There’s something very special sitting here thinking about caddying for Phil at the Masters when we’re both quite old,” Mackay said in 2010. “I think that would be the coolest thing ever.”
It really would have been.