Picture this evolutionary timeline: Jack Nicklaus-Angelo Argea, Tom Watson-Bruce Edwards, Nick Faldo-Fanny Sunesson, Phil Mickelson-Jim Mackay, Jordan Spieth-Michael Greller. In the evolution of player-caddie dynamics, the last duo is light years away from the “show up, keep up, shut up” looper law of old.
But within the context of all the pre-shot dialogue, yardage-book arithmetic, and first-person plural that characterizes 21st-century golf, teamwork should have its limits. If, in four years, when The Rules of Golf is published the next time, the governing bodies haven’t acted on an obvious affront to the spirit of the game and its fundamentals, they will have failed.
Except in competitions among visually impaired golfers—for whom having a coach assist with alignment is essential to participation—a player shouldn’t be allowed help lining up a shot once he has placed “his feet in position for and preparatory to making a stroke,” which is the definition of “the stance” in the Rules.
Get the caddies away from the line before a stroke is about to be made. Golf will regain a measure of self-reliance, and the caddies won’t have to hustle out of the frame after correcting or confirming their golfer’s alignment.
I don’t blame the players—including two of the LPGA’s best, Lydia Ko and Lexi Thompson—who are doing what is currently permitted. Still, it was jarring to hear Thompson, who can struggle on the greens, talk about putting with her eyes closed after winning a tournament this year. “I pick a line, have my caddie Benji line me up, then just stroke it and trust it,” she told GolfChannel.com. “It gives me more feel.”
The aesthetics of this practice, which occurs more often in the women’s game, aren’t great, but its essence is worse: Proper alignment is part and parcel of a good shot and should be the province of the player alone. “It shouldn’t be allowed. It’s a basic part of golf,” says Hall of Famer Laura Davies, who along with Stacy Lewis, Catriona Matthew, and Dottie Pepper, is a prominent voice advocating a prohibition.
“What’s more fundamental than aiming at the target?” Johnny Miller wrote in his 2004 book, I Call The Shots. Miller, ironically, was a catalyst for a 1976 Rule change that forbids a player on the putting green making a stroke while his caddie is positioned “on or close to an extension of the line of putt behind the ball.”
For several years and more than a dozen victories on the PGA Tour, Miller’s caddie, Andy Martinez, crouched a few feet behind his man while he putted. Miller claimed his caddie wasn’t there to help him line up but to tell him after a putt if it had started on the chosen line. Martinez told Golf Digest in 2010 that his presence had been a “security blanket” for Miller.
Regardless of Miller’s motivation, he made a point in his book relevant to the half-baked logic of the current situation. “What difference does it make if the caddie is there when the player hits the ball?” he wrote. “The caddie has already helped line up the player.”
Compared to legislating against a putter touching sternum or stomach, tweaking the Rules to outlaw caddie-assisted alignment ought to be easy enough. Once a player settles over the ball, a caddie shouldn’t be anywhere near the line of play. By then it’s the golfer’s stage and should be a one-person production.