When it was over at the PODS Championship last Sunday afternoon, Mark Calcavecchia celebrated by embracing his wife, Brenda, while his caddie, Eric Larson, latched onto that bright yellow flag from the 18th green. As to which guy in the winning tandem had a tighter grip, call it a tie. It is not unusual, after the scores are final and your boss has posted the lowest of all, for the looper to snag such a memento. Often it goes home with the golfer, sometimes it goes with the sidekick who carried the clubs, but it inevitably goes somewhere. That's how this moment under the sun veered from routine, though, because earlier in the week, well before Calcavecchia prevailed by a stroke, he had been chatting up the idea of a flag for his pal.
"Gotta get another one of those for Eric," said Calc, upon joining the hunt with Friday's 67 and unpacking the clothes he had packed after Thursday's 75. "If I can be in it and win it, that would be great. A flag for Eric would be great."
They triumphed together in 1995, but that was the same year Larson got himself into a heap of trouble, and not for misreading a putt or doing a bad rake job. Short on funds every so often, Larson found easy money by dealing in cocaine. He says he was just a conduit between seller and buyer and that is what he told the feds when they found him. "I never used the stuff, never brought it out on tour, but it is what it is," said Larson. "I was stupid. What I did was illegal."
Larson, 45, went to jail for almost 11 years, more than enough time for him to disappear in Calcavecchia's rearview mirror. A lot of celebrity athletes perspire 24/7 about their image, the elbows they rub, the jewelry they wear. But at 46, Calc isn't much different than he was at 26, except for fresh scars on his pear-shaped frame. He is so blunt and so honest, he surely doesn't lay his head down to sleep each night wondering which lie he told to whom. He revels in Calc-deprecation, joking about how he plops his aching body that belongs in the Smithsonian Institute on the floor for 15 minutes of stretching each day and how, on good days, he can even get back up to hit the infernal white ball. He views fitness trailers suspiciously, and while flat bellies leave the course with fruit drinks, Calc still defines nutrition as a golden lager or three.
Lesser men than he could have washed themselves of a pal who went wayward to prison, but Calc isn't about doing the convenient thing, only the right thing. A friend is a friend, even when mistakes interrupt the laugh track. So he stayed in touch with Larson, visiting him at four different penal institutions, shooting the breeze for hours, not minutes. Larson was all ears because there's a lot of Calc in him. No angel, Larson has yet to begin, end or insert into a conversation any self-pity, any bitterness, any why-me. When he reunited with Calcavecchia at the PGA Championship last August, Larson did finally point a finger, but it was toward a 48-ounce steak on the menu.
"He went for the big piece of meat every night. I guess he didn't get that kind of food in the joint," said Calc, who was joined in Chicago by other caddies in welcoming Larson's return to green grass and blue skies. Alliances on tour are forged in pencil, not ink, because golfers will change caddies for the sake of change. The purses are extraordinary, but the anxiety can be, too. Calc has had his share. In fact, he already has promised another chum some work soon, so Larson will enjoy at least a couple weeks off. "That's why it's also good Eric made a nice check here, before I fire him," quipped Calc. There is no telling what portion of the $954,000 booty from his 13th tour title will be allocated to Larson because it's none of our business. But given Calc's penchant for largesse, the financial reward will represent a bond that couldn't be arrested, even when half the team was.
"The only reason I'm standing here is because of the support Mark showed me," said Larson. "A lot of people have helped me. But he's been unbelievable. I waited for 11 years to get back out and do what I like doing. And he was there waiting for me. When you go away for that long, you come out and you've got nothing. You gotta start all over again."
After Heath Slocum missed a putt that would have meant a playoff, Calcavecchia hugged Larson, then brought him toward the NBC camera for a postgame interview. You won't see that too often, either. When Tiger Woods cleans everybody's clock, Steve Williams is starting his engine. But Calc, an emotional type, wanted company. "At my age, you never know when you've won for the last time," he said.
An hour later, Larson was hanging out, waiting for Calcavecchia to conduct one more raid on the beer cooler. "What can I say?" concluded the caddie, clutching the first flag of the rest of his life. "If you have a friend like Mark, you have a real friend."
Bob Verdi is a senior writer for Golf World magazine.