Given the week that’s in it, with the Ryder Cup dominating the sporting landscape, former tour caddie Alan Kelly shares some of his colourful stories from the five years he spent chasing the dream. Tiger, Seve, Nicklaus, McGinley, they’re all there, as KIERAN McCARTHY found out
ALAN Kelly once ate a hamburger with Tiger Woods.
Alan even bought the hamburger, along with some chips, from the caddie-player burger van parked up near the driving range at Carnoustie at the end of the 1995 Scottish Open.
The Bantry man was a caddy on the European Tour for several years during the 1990s, and the ’95 Scottish Open sticks out in his mind.
It was wet and windy, often at the same time. Not ideal conditions for golfers, hard work for caddies.
Sunday evening, the calm after the storm in many ways, Wayne Riley fending off the charge of Nick Faldo to win, and Alan was packing up a lot of golfers’ bags, along with fellow caddie Joey Jones.
‘I had a lift arranged with Joey from Carnoustie to Lytham and St Anne’s as we were dropping off the trailer with over 25 players’ golf bags in a trailer van for the golfers who flew home for a few days,’ Alan explains.
‘This van is parked up beside the practice range at every tournament for the players to collect as it saved them carrying it on and off flights.
‘While we were packing up everything at the driving range next to the caddie-player burger van, I said I would have a burger and chips for the road down.
‘There was only myself, ‘Turnberry’ George (another caddie) and Joey was back and forth to the club.
‘It was late Sunday and the Scottish Open was just finishing so George told me to ask the young fella on the practice range does he want anything before they close up.’
Alan did. The young golfer said he’d have some food. And he’d join them in a few minutes.
The range was empty, bar this young golfer.
Alan and George watched him hit balls, analysed his swing and came to the conclusion that he’d need to change it if he wanted to survive in the world of professional golf.
It turns out this young amateur was American.
He was also the United States Amateur champion. He was on an invite to play at Carnoustie. And shot a closing 78 to finish 17 back from the leader.
Turns out too this was a young Tiger Woods, the boy who would become king and transform the world of golf.
But back then, to Alan, he was a young American kid trying to climb the ladder.
‘He came over to us and we sat down for 30 minutes and had great craic talking about everything from Charles Barkley to Walker Cup golf,’ he recalls.
‘We thought nothing of it because for us he was just a nice American, down to earth, humble and funny.
‘Needless to say as the years went by I treasured that half an hour eating a burger with Tiger.’
He knows the Le Golf National course in Guyancourt, southwest of Paris, better than most.
This is the battlefield where the Ryder Cup is being contested this week. Tiger’s there. Twenty years on from Alan writing him off, he has reinvented himself and is back on the winning trail. But if he wanted any advice on the course, then that six-foot four-inch West Cork man he shared a burger with all those years ago could have helped.
‘I caddied there for five years. I walked the course over 30 times. I know it as well as my home club of Bantry Bay,’ he says.
Rewind 25 years and Alan was working at Bantry Bay Mussels. Mike Keohane gave him four weeks off to join the European Tour and see some of the world.
Soon he had linked up with a few more caddies, bound from Hamburg to the French Open course at Le Golf National.
‘When we arrived at the course it was like a ghost town with not one person in the clubhouse, shop or on the course,’ he recalls.
‘As some caddies were just dropping off a caravan before heading off to Jersey, myself and three others decided to stay at the course for a week before the French Open as the chances of a bag in Jersey were poor.’
For seven days, he walked the course. The only people there were the four greenkeepers and the caddies.
The life of a caddie is hard but Alan lived his life as a caddie to the full.
There were highs: he caddied for Paul McGinley at Kiawah Island in 1997 when McGinley and Padraig Harrington won the World Cup. Alan was 27 at the time, a replacement caddie that stepped into the breach when needed that week after McGinley’s regular caddie missed his flight. His pain was Alan’s gain, picking up a sizeable cheque at the end of the week.
He met Philip Walton, too. Alan’s aunt Mary Critchlow used to run the Jack Mulcahy Classic with Pat Ruddy in Waterville in the 1980s. A golf-mad 15-year-old, Alan stayed with his aunt and helped out.
‘That was stuff that dreams were made of,’ he says.
‘I got to stay in the Butler Arms Hotel (in Waterville) and sit in the snooker room and watch and listen to all these guys I saw on TV, David Jones, Jimmy Hegarty, Philip Walton, etc.
‘I’ll never forget walking the tenth watching the playoff between Andrew Sherbourne and Philip Walton.
‘I got to know Philip ten years later on tour, he became a regular visitor to Bantry Bay with Greg Fogarty. We’ve had some great nights out since our days on tour.’
There are highlights and then there are real highlights.
‘I caddied for Jose Manuel Carrilles for a while and he was a gentleman, but the real bonus for caddying for him was that we got to play practice rounds with Seve Ballesteros as Seve and Jose come from the same village,’ Alan says.
‘On one practice day, Billy Foster’s flight was delayed and Jose pulled a trolley while I caddied for Seve. But everything was a blur. Even though I spent many practice rounds in his company, every time or anytime I met him and he said “Hola Alan”, I mumbled something back like “How’s it going Seve?”’
‘Seve was a tough cookie and I would never dream to say I knew him but I did spend hours in his company and could recount every detail of trick shots he would do now and again.’
The legendary Jack Nicklaus was another Alan found himself in the company of. It was the 1995 British Open. It was the stuff of dreams.
‘I got to sit with Jack Nicklaus for ten minutes in the locker room with no-one else there and he was just talking about the course at Turnberry,’ he says.
‘Then to top it off Jon Robson was playing with Sergio Garcia in the first two rounds, he was 15 playing off plus five and hit the ball a mile.’
It really is a small world after all.
There was that time when he was caddying in Morocco when he took a walk one night for a smoke and heard a familiar voice.
‘Alan Kelly, is that you?’
It was a familiar face too. Eileen McGrath and her husband Brian. With them was the late O’Donovan Rossa and Cork footballer Mick McCarthy and his wife.
‘They were out there with the Cork GAA football team end-of-year holiday, a lot of the players came to the course the following day and followed John McHenry for a day,’ Alan explains.
‘John McHenry, for me, was the best amateur I ever saw playing growing up. He had everything. I caddied once for Pat Buckley who played John in the Senior Cup in Monkstown, and Pat was two under and lost on the 13th hole.
‘I got to know John on tour. He was a gentleman with a big game and serious intellect. It was only fractions that he could have gone on to greater things as a player but has still so much to give as he is a bit of a genius when it comes to all things golf.’
These are all memories Alan collected as he caddied on tour from 1993 to 1998. Some stories he can tell. Others he can’t. Some golfer he likes. Other’s he doesn’t. Greg Norman falls into the latter category. Don’t meet your heroes, they say, is what springs to mind when Alan thinks of Norman.
‘My last tournament was Greg Norman’s competition in Sydney in 1998. I had no bag but went up anyway to see if there was any going,’ he explains.
‘On the Wednesday I was at the course and walking into locker room I accidentally bumped into Greg Norman and I said, “God, I am so sorry”. He just glared at me, looked me up and down and walked away. It didn’t work out too well.’