Published: 14:10, 16 July 2003
IT comes as a surprise to learn that Keith Atkinson, Caddie Master at Royal St George's Golf Club, has never actually played a round of golf.
The jovial 66-year-old former Royal Navy warrant officer retires at the end of July after 18 years, and one hobby he won’t be pursuing during his retirement is golf.
The game has never “hooked” Keith, even though he started caddying when he was a schoolboy.
He said: “I have messed around hitting some balls on the practice ground, but I have never played a round in my life. It has never grabbed me, but I can ‘club’ anybody around this course because I know it like the back of my hand.”
Although Keith was eligible to retire last year, the club asked him to stay on until the Open because of his experience of working at the last two Opens held at Royal St George’s, in 1985 and 1993.
He knows, however, that there will be little call for his services this time. The top players employ their own full-time caddies while the “smaller fry’’ among the professional ranks and the amateurs get friends or relatives to carry their bag.
“When the Open was last here in 1993, I provided caddies for just two of the players, one for a Japanese gentleman and one for Justin Leonard, who was still an amateur then,” Keith recalled.
The full-time caddies on the European Tour have their own travelling Caddie Master, who acts as a kind of “union convener”, taking up any gripes a caddie may have about the tournament.
Atkinson added: “I have to keep an eye on the travelling Caddie Master to ensure that he is doing his job properly, for example not letting any of the caddies get too near to the clubhouse, because they aren’t allowed in there.”
Keith’s main role during the championship is as the official “starter” on the first tee during the three pre-tournament practice rounds, responsible for making sure that the players tee off on time and in the right order.
“When I first started here in 1985 it was just as an ordinary Caddie Master,” Keith said. “But over the years I have been given extra jobs such as ‘starting’ big competitions, taking all the green fees from visitors who come to play here, organising their start times, and also patrolling the course on busy days in a ‘buggy’ to look out for any players who are playing too slowly. If I find any are, I tell them to get a move on!”
Apart from the winter months, the job of Caddie Master at Sandwich is almost a seven-days-a-week occupation, with golfers from all over the world making pilgrimages to play a course hosting the Open for the 13th time.
Many will employ a caddie but the days of the wonderful variety of misfits and ne’er do wells who used to hang around have long gone.
“Nowadays, it’s mostly kids who act as caddies,” says Keith. “Years ago you used to get men doing it, and there were some rogues among them, but that was already falling off when I started here.
“I have a few old boys who I can still call on but, with all the full-time caddies that are about, there just isn’t the demand for casuals.”
Professional caddies usually receive 10 per cent of their players’ winnings and a caddie for stars like Tiger Woods or Ernie Els can expect up to £500,000 a year.
It’s a far cry from the “two and six”, or 12.5p, which Atkinson used to earn when he started as a 12-year-old at Royal Cinque Ports Golf Club.
“I used to do three rounds a day at Deal and think nothing of it. I couldn’t do that today even if wanted to. The child protection law says that a kid must be at least 14 before he can caddy, and they are only allowed to do one round a day.”
Atkinson, who lives in Mill Hill, acted as a long-term “bag man’’ for two of Kent’s best-known golfers -- George Will and Roger Chapman.
He caddied for Will, a one-time Ryder Cup player, when he won the Kent Open and Professional titles and for Chapman in the Walker Cup and in the 1981 Open at St George’s.
“I still remember Roger getting a hole in one at the 16th during the third round in the 1981 Open, but because he was still an amateur at the time he wasn’t entitled to prize money and all he got was a bottle of bubbly from the Kent Golfing Union!
“The atmosphere at the Open is always special and as the top players walk past my hut they often shout out ‘Hello Mr Caddie Master!’
“Greg Norman is always immaculately turned out and as he walked past before the last round in the ’93 Open, my wife Sylvia shouted out ‘Looking good Greg!’ and he went out and shot 63 to win the title.
“But Jack Nicklaus and Fuzzy Zoeller were my two favourite players, Nicklaus because he was so unassuming and Zoeller because he always had a laugh and a joke.”
Atkinson, whose son Kevin is a single-figure handicap member of Royal Cinque Ports, sees the Open as the perfect way to bow out.
But he admits that he won’t miss cycling to work every day. “It’s 12 miles there and back, and someone worked out recently that I had done 56,000 miles since I started the job.”