While strolling across a practice green at the Keowee Falls golf course in Salem, S.C., Scott Tolley
ticks off the critical points in the caddie’s code of conduct. “Keep out of the
way, keep quiet,” he says, before pausing to look me over from head to toe. For
a moment, I feel like a racehorse being assessed, although, considering the
circumstances, the analogy works better with a packhorse or, to my lament, a
The South Carolina sun and humidity are conspiring to cook me within my caddie uniform, and I am gulping water though I have not yet walked a yard. Despite being labeled as cotton, the suit (known as a jumper) feels like a thick canvas tent draped over my shoulders. On the back of the uniform, bright green letters spell out a name that adds gravity to the situation, as well as to Tolley’s admonitions, as if they were commandments being recited by a priest.
Having made his appraisal, Tolley, who serves as director of communications for the Nicklaus Companies, issues a third directive: “And keep up.” Then, with a grin, he adds, “But seriously, just have a good time out there.”
His final gesture puts me at ease, but not for long. “Here he is,” says someone standing behind us. Tolley turns and smiles again. “Mike,” he says, “your day is about to get a whole lot busier.”
Truer words never have been spoken on a golf course. The image of a professional golfer and his caddie sauntering proudly along a fairway, flanked by cheering throngs, is one for the tournaments. Today, however, no purse is at stake, and no one is even keeping score. It is the official opening of Keowee Falls, and the course’s designer—winner of 18 majors—has arrived to play the inaugural round.
Keowee Falls is the newest golf course at the Cliffs, a series of seven gated communities in western North Carolina and South Carolina (see “The Front 10“). The course is the development’s second layout designed by Jack Nicklaus, and nearly 1,000 property owners and other spectators have come out to see the Golden Bear christen his latest creation. At the moment, these fans—some might better be described as zealots—are clustered around the practice tee, where Nicklaus is beginning his warm-up routine. After mentioning to me that he plays “maybe once a month,” he starts crushing balls in a manner belying his 67 years.
Prior to offering his final words of wisdom, Tolley had informed me, to my relief, that Nicklaus did not expect me to make club recommendations. But he would need yardages. “Be precise,” advised Tolley, who, as the person who arranged my one-day caddying gig for his boss, might have been as anxious as I was about my performance. “If you say ‘about 200 yards,’ he is going to rib you about it. There’s going to be a conversation. So even if you are not entirely sure, you’re better off saying 202.”
To assist with my calculations, I have a yardage book and fairway markers, as well as Nicklaus’ ever-present entourage. (Even so, on more than one occasion, my figures will draw looks of amusement from Nicklaus.) My main concern at the moment is how to hold the golf bag, an oversize model that is approaching 45 pounds. While my golfer hones his swing on the range, I attempt to find a comfortable spot on my shoulder for the strap. “When was the last time you carried one of those?” asks Nicklaus. I consider telling him the truth—”about the time you won your fifth Masters” (1975)—but instead allow that it has been a little while.
It does not take long for me to find myself in danger of violating Tolley’s third commandment (“keep up”). Nicklaus drives his ball to the middle of the fairway on the first hole, just beyond a large trap that my yardage book says is 275 yards from the tee. By the time I retrieve the club and shoulder the bag, most of the gallery is blocking my path, queued up along a narrow bridge that spans Falls Creek just beyond the tee. I begin winding my way through the good-natured crowd, but I am slowed by some of the faithful. Several people ask me how long I have been with Nicklaus. (“Almost an entire hole.”) Others hand me ball markers, which they have made out of a variety of objects, to pass along to Nicklaus. But my patience is put to the test when a man blocks my way and pleads with me to let him touch the 2-iron in the bag. Although tempted at this point to wield the club as a weapon to clear my path, I decline politely and hustle down the fairway.
After missing a 15-foot putt for par on the first hole (“These greens aren’t ready,” he explains), Nicklaus discusses his design philosophy. “You try to get to the point where the land tells you what to do,” he says. At Keowee, his approach is evident. Falls Creek winds from the first tee to the 11th green, where it plunges into Lake Keowee. Construction of the course included a restoration of the creek, during which workers brought in 4,900 boulders, each weighing more than a ton, to stabilize the waterway. The hilly topography also necessitated extensive earthmoving in places, but Nicklaus for the most part displayed restraint. “We didn’t want to take down any mountains,” he explains.
By the second hole, I begin to question this decision. Keowee’s first three holes play uphill tee to green and—as is particularly noticeable when you are carrying clubs—continue uphill from green to the next tee. The 582-yard, par-5 second hole requires a lengthy trudge to a green perched atop what appears to be a bluff. Its height prompts me, between gulps of water, to ask a Cliffs representative if the peak has a name. Nicklaus, taking his putter from me, laughs and asks, “Are you going to make it?”
I am wondering the same thing. I recently scaled an 11,500-foot-high peak in Patagonia, but I was carrying a backpack, not lugging the Bear’s bag. Soaked with sweat, my left thigh throbbing, I finally come to terms with one very uncomfortable fact: The caddie is only 12 years younger than the course designer, who won his first major in 1962.
The heat and humidity continue to take their toll at the third hole, as black-bottomed clouds build in the west. The crowd becomes still while Nicklaus, who seems unaffected by the heat, bends over a 20-foot putt for par. After sinking the putt, he looks at me and says, “We’re riding the next hole.”
Sirens sound as we come off the sixth green. Thunder crashes from the west, and soon a convoy of golf carts is ferrying participants and spectators to a large, open-sided tent where food and drinks will be served. While a terrific storm rages outside, Nicklaus, with microphone in hand, stands in front of a large screen displaying diagrams of the holes we did not play. As he begins his presentation, he looks in my direction. “Well, I know one guy who is happy the rains came,” he says, “and that’s my caddie, Mike Nolan.” I raise the bourbon I have secured (in honor of being just a few miles from Tennessee) and toast Nicklaus and a short and satisfying round.
The Cliffs Communities, 877.254.3371, www.cliffscommunities.com