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Bruce Almighty

A review of John Feinstein's "Caddy For Life: The Bruce Edwards Story."

12:00 AM, Jul 14, 2004 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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IN GOLF, there are two chronic afflictions. One is the yips and the other the shanks. I occasionally suffer from the latter when the extreme heel of my club sends the ball off on a 90 degree angle, placing whoever is standing to the right of me in jeopardy. My father recently escaped one of my shanked drives, but just barely. Others have not been so fortunate. Once I smacked another player on his knuckle. On the driving range, I actually struck a man on his lower back. It doesn't happen to me as much today, but once it starts, it's hard to stop. As soon as it enters your head, even before the club is pulled back, you already know it's coming. You brace for it. And for the embarrassment that is sure to follow--as well as the waning confidence in your game.

But I hear the yips are worse. They occur on short putts, when, even at a distance of three feet (or less) a mental block prevents the player from sinking the ball. It sometimes takes several putts back and forth to finally get it right, and by then it's a double or triple bogey. Sometimes the yips can last years. They certainly did for professional golfer Tom Watson during the early 1990s. As he recently noted, "You miss a couple you think you're going to make and you start to think more about them the next time around. The next thing you know, it's inside your head, and people start whispering that you have the yips."

Luckily, Watson had the support of his caddy of almost 30 years, Bruce Edwards, who would tell him to "knock this in for birdie" even if it wasn't. Or say to him, "Okay, that's out of your system now. It will be the last one you're going to miss all day." And even if Watson didn't respond, he had heard him loud and clear. By 2003, Watson would cherish every word his caddy had to offer, not just because the two had become close friends, but also because their relationship was nearing an end. Tom Watson was not retiring--on the contrary, he was thriving on the Senior Tour. Bruce Edwards was dying.

THIS RELATIONSHIP between a pro and his caddy, and the caddy's courageous struggle with a terminal disease is the subject of an intimate portrait by John Feinstein called Caddy For Life: The Bruce Edwards Story (Little, Brown, 300 pp., $25.95). The book was Edwards's idea and Feinstein, author of such bestsellers as Open and Season on the Brink, was wary at first of writing a book about his good friend. It would mean "spending time with him as his health deteriorated"--and initially he turned Edwards down. But "the look on his face told me he knew a blow-off when he heard it. . . . If he had punched me in the stomach, I think I would have felt better than I did at that moment. In that instant, one thought ran through my mind: You have to do this." Readers everywhere should be grateful.

On the one hand, Caddy For Life offers an inside look into the often less-than-glamorous and less-than-lucrative life of a caddy, especially in the early 1970s when Edwards decided to make a full-time living by carrying somebody else's clubs. Caddying back then, he says, was much different than it is now: "Basically your job was to carry the bag . . . maybe be encouraging at the right time, have a sense of humor. And never be late. If you could do those things, you could caddy." Edwards had all of these things plus time on his hands--he was the only student in his high school class not to apply to college, much to the concern of his parents.

According to Edwards, "Most people thought of caddies as drunks or people who were down and out or people you couldn't trust or long-haired kids like me who you probably didn't want hanging around your house for a week." But over the next few years, that image would change, in no small part due to Edwards's dedication and commitment. "Bruce tried to leave nothing to chance," writes Feinstein, "walking the course . . . early in the week to check yardage markers (usually on sprinkler heads) to make sure they were accurate and to look for hidden hazards. He was one of the first caddies to do what is now standard procedure for caddies--walking the golf course without player or bag early in the week."

In 1973, while looking for work at a country club in St. Louis, Edwards first met Tom Watson, a recent Stanford graduate and an up-and-coming golfer. "Okay, we'll try it for a week and see what happens," was Watson's response, thus beginning a long journey lasting some three decades and including five British Opens and a win at the Masters. But most memorable was his 1982 victory at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. Feinstein gives a thrilling account of how it unfolded on that final Sunday: Watson was locked in a head-to-head battle with Jack Nicklaus, when, on the ominous 17th hole, Watson put his ball into the weeds, left of the green. The problem was the distance: 18 feet from the flagstick. Writes Feinstein, "The ball would come out of the high grass hot (moving fast), and getting it to stop quickly once it hit the green would be almost impossible." Trying to be the optimist, Edwards said, "Come on, Tom, get it close," to which Watson responded, "Close? Hell, I'm gonna knock it in." He did.

The moment was captured on television, Watson pointing at Edwards and yelling, "I told you! I told you I was gonna make it!" (Nicklaus, having watched the shot inside the scorer's tent, calmly remarked, "Just another tap-in for Tom.") Watson then went on to birdie the 18th and win, in Feinstein's words, "one of the most extraordinary finishes in the history of the U.S. Open."

BUT CADDY FOR LIFE is also a deeply personal reflection of Bruce Edwards's life, including its share of tragedies, such as his first marriage, which ended in 2000 when his then-wife suffered a breakdown and burned down the house, making especially sure his golf memorabilia would be the first to be immolated. As for his souvenir 18th hole flag from the 1982 U.S. Open, says Edwards, "[my wife] had smashed the frame, pulled it out, and set it on fire in the kitchen sink. All that was left was the three ringholders that held the flag in place." Edwards took pity on her, thought of her family, and simply asked for probation and a restraining order.

In 2002, another woman returned to his life, Marsha Cummins Moore. She and Edwards had dated 20 years earlier but went their separate ways. Moore was also divorced, but determined to set things right with the man she had been in love with all along, and on New Year's Eve, they got engaged.

Two weeks later, at the Mayo clinic in Minnesota, Edwards was diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. He was given between one and three years to live.

FOR SOME TIME, Edwards had been slurring his speech (so much so he was refused service by a bartender who thought he was plastered). He also found himself unable to grasp a golf ball, noticing a growing cleft between his thumb and index finger. He was losing weight during the off-season. It was Watson who urged Edwards to go to the Mayo clinic to see his doctor, and when he learned his caddy had no medical insurance, arranged to pay for the care himself.

Knowing that Edwards's days were numbered, both he and Watson entered the 2003 tour on emotional overload. Both were aware that each passing tournament could be their last together. Crowds surrounded them, cheering them on, hoping for just one more win, especially after a glorious first round at the U.S. Open. Feinstein recounts those final months in unflinching and powerful detail.

But in this tragedy there is courage and inspiration. Both Edwards and Watson became crusaders for ALS research. Scholarships and fundraisers were established in Edwards's honor. And rather than waiting for the disease to get the best of him, Edwards defied it every step of the way, caddying for Watson through most of the year, walking when he could, driving a cart when necessary.

It is fitting that Edwards's fellow ALS sufferer was Lou Gehrig, a man who also fought courageously and shared a similar view on life. In 1939, before 62,000 fans at Yankee Stadium, Gehrig called himself "the luckiest man on the face of this earth. . . . I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for."

Bruce Edwards would agree.

Victorino Matus is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.