Mickelson, Mackay a true team effort

Pinehurst's First Family (3:19)

In his 71 years at Pinehurst, Willie Lee McRae has caddied for multiple presidents and famous athletes, and because of him, the McRae family legacy at Pinehurst continues to grow. (3:19)

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- This was in early 1992, years before anybody outside a PGA Tour caddie room would know who Jim "Bones" Mackay was.

Mackay was driving down Scottsdale Road to his favorite record store in Tempe. To get there, he had to go past the driving range where the Arizona State golf team practiced.

He noticed a left-hander on the range as he drove to the store. And later, after Mackay had browsed the aisles and eventually bought a handful of CDs, he noticed the left-hander was still beating range balls as he drove past again.

Mackay couldn't help himself. He pulled over to the side of the road, walked to the range, the whole time thinking, "This must be that Phil Mickelson guy I've heard about."

It was Mickelson -- the then-21-year-old amateur who had won the PGA Tour's Northern Telecom Open in 1991, won the U.S. Amateur in 1990 and had dominated NCAA golf. If there was a Next Big Thing, Mickelson was it.

"Hey, how are you?" said Mackay, as Mickelson glanced back at him. "My name's Jim. I caddie on the tour. Would you mind if I watched you hit balls for 15 minutes or so? I'll just sit over here on this bench."

"No, go ahead," said Mickelson.

Mackay watched -- and he instantly knew. He knew he was watching a golf savant. The ball sounded so stunningly different coming off his clubface. Mickelson hit the ball so hard. His swing had so much speed, so many gears.

At the end of the 15 minutes, Mackay got up from the bench, nodded to Mickelson, and Mickelson nodded back.

Twenty-two years and five major championships later, Mackay still marvels at the man who hired him several months after that first practice range encounter.

If you do the golf course math, Mackay and Mickelson have walked about 25,000 miles together -- the equivalent of walking around the waist of the world. They've been together longer than any active player/caddie combo on the tour. Longer than Derek Jeter has played for the New York Yankees. Longer than Mickelson and his wife, Amy, have been a couple.

They have been through good times as thick as the second cut of U.S. Open rough. And hard times as thin as a scorecard. They defy the caddie law of averages (nobody stays on a bag this long). They defy conventional wisdom (whattaya mean they're best friends, too?)

Only a few weeks ago, Mackay stood behind a podium at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale and delivered a brief speech to the international field at the prestigious Thunderbird International Junior tournament, which is partly underwritten by Mickelson's charitable foundation. Some of the junior players pointed their cell phones at Mackay for photos.

If you want to make Mackay self-conscious or uncomfortable, point a phone's camera at him and tell him he's special.

"I'm a 49-year-old guy," he told the juniors. "I chase down a couple of divots. What I do is really not that hard. But in the kind of job I have, one of the things I'm able to do is observe."

And during the next 10 minutes, Mackay gave them thumbnail observations from a three-decade-long career. When he was done, an ant trail of juniors followed him outside for more golf advice. They wanted to know more about Mickelson, so he told them, with pride, that he admired Lefty for his accountability, his humility, his loyalty and his appreciation of friendships.

Mackay can remember almost every shot Mickelson has hit, and what club he hit it with. And what he can't remember, he can find the answers in a Size 14 sneakers shoe box that houses about 60 yardage books he's saved from tournaments and courses around the world.

He has the book from the 2010 Masters, when Mickelson ignored Mackay's advice to lay up on the par-5 13th hole and instead hit a 6-iron 207 yards ... from the pine straw ... between two pine trees ... over Rae's Creek ... to 4 feet from the flagstick. He missed the eagle putt, but made the birdie and later that day won his third green jacket.

"I go up there [to where Mickelson hit that second shot on No. 13] every year and just say thank you to all the golf gods that hang around in that corner," said Mackay.

So many people have asked where Mickelson hit the shot, that Masters marshals put a stick in the pine straw.

He pulls out the yardage book from last year's didn't-see-that-coming victory at Muirfield, where Mickelson overcame a 5-shot Sunday deficit to win his first Open Championship. That's the one where Mackay cried like a newborn as he hugged Mickelson after the final putt, cried as he listened to Mickelson's awards speech, and cried as he sat alone in his rental car. That's also the one where Lefty invited him to fly back with the family on his private jet. Mackay fell asleep holding the Claret Jug.

"I just didn't want to let go of it," he said.

Only one major eludes Mickelson: the U.S. Open. The Open treats Mickelson like Labradors treat fire hydrants.

There's no need to excavate the memories from each of Mickelson's six runner-up finishes. Just know that of all the U.S. Open near-misses for Mickelson -- 1999 at Pinehurst, 2004 at Shinnecock, 2006 at Winged Foot, 2009 at Bethpage and 2013 at Merion, in particular -- the loss at Shinnecock, said Mackay, remains the most painful.

"Because he played so well," said Mackay.

If you thought Mackay was a one-man irrigation system with his tears at Muirfield, just think what would happen if Mickelson won this week at Pinehurst. Then again, if Mickelson won, you might not get the chance to see it.

"I'd probably duck out of there pretty quickly," said Mackay. "I'd probably head out the back door there on 18. ... But I don't know. I'd like to have that problem."