Jordan Spieth's Masters secret: 'We go off Carl's reads' … so who's Carl?

Eric AdelsonColumnist

AUGUSTA, Ga. – After posting the best 36-hole score in the history of the Masters, Jordan Spieth was asked about his putting. After two rounds here, no one's been better.

"We go off Carl's reads," Spieth explained.

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Augusta National is a place that seeks out its legends every year, welcoming them and celebrating them. It happened again Friday, as everyone's attention turned to a white-haired Ben Crenshaw walking up the final fairway in his last Masters round.

Ben Crenshaw embraces his long-time caddy Carl Jackson after finishing his final Masters round.
Ben Crenshaw embraces his long-time caddy Carl Jackson after finishing his final Masters round.

Crenshaw, though, was looking for a different legend: one who wasn't always sought out or celebrated.

There he was, all 6 feet, 5 inches of him, standing at the end of Crenshaw's journey. It was 68-year-old Carl Jackson, the longtime caddie who spent a lot of his life dealing with struggle most of the members here could never fathom.

Jackson first caddied in The Masters in 1961, when he was 14. He grew up with a single mom who worked as a maid, and seven siblings. The family cooked dinner on a wood stove, and Carl had to leave school at 13 because his mom couldn't afford the school uniform.

"It was very hard," Jackson said after Crenshaw's round. "Very hard. But I never lived in a home that received welfare. I'm proud of that."

The Jacksons got by through unending effort, a lot of it coming on this golf course. Carl took on the role of the man of his house, quietly going to work at Augusta National even as a child. He would bring a frying pan out to Rae's Creek, which cuts through Amen Corner, fishing and then cooking his food.

"He's my love," said younger brother Bud, who caddied for Crenshaw Friday because Carl's ailing ribs prevented him from carrying the bag. "He raised me."

Bud was 7 when he started working at nearby Augusta Country Club. He made $1.50 for 18 holes. Soon, he too would move to this club, making $8 for 18. Bud said there were days when he would go for 63 holes.

"We all had to do a little something," Bud said, "to eat, to live."

Carl led the family on, studying at home enough to earn a high school diploma by age 17, and gathering golf expertise that would one day help top golfers like Spieth.

Back in the 1960s though, he couldn't even play the sport on the public courses here. Only a few years after he began caddying in the Masters, he was paired with Gary Player, who was quoted in a 1966 book praising apartheid in his native South Africa. Player called his country, "the product of its instinct and ability to maintain civilized values and standards amongst the alien barbarians." (Player later apologized profusely and insisted he didn't say or believe those words.)

Augusta National itself has often lagged badly on the issue of race. Club co-founder Clifford Roberts was once quoted as saying, "As long as I'm alive, all the golfers will be white and all the caddies black." Charlie Sifford qualified for the U.S. Open eight times from 1959 to 1974, and never played in this tournament. Lee Elder became the first African-American to play in The Masters, in 1975. He received so many death threats that he rented two houses that week. African-American members weren't invited until 1990.

Yet it was a club chairman who gave Jackson his big break, as Jack Stephens supported Jackson both on and off the course with encouragement and employment. It was Stephens who paired Carl with Crenshaw 38 years ago. The duo finished second in their first tournament together. They would go on to win two Masters, even after the club started allowing professionals to bring their own caddies rather than hiring club loopers.

Carl Jackson hugs Ben Crenshaw after putting out to win the 1995 Masters. (Getty Images)
Carl Jackson hugs Ben Crenshaw after putting out to win the 1995 Masters. (Getty Images)

One of the greatest moments in Masters history came in 1995, when Crenshaw dissolved in tears after putting out for the championship on the 18th green. He had just lost his mentor, Harvey Penick, and he was overcome even as he won. It was Jackson who immediately came over to Crenshaw to embrace him as the crowd cheered.

"Gentle Ben" didn't three-putt once in that Masters, and some of that credit goes to Jackson, who knows the greens here as well as anyone alive.

Before teeing off in last year's Masters, his first, Spieth sought the advice of Crenshaw, a fellow Texan, and his longtime caddie. The elders shared with the youngster their years of wisdom, and Spieth finished second.

Earlier this week, Spieth and Crenshaw played a practice round together, with the youngster once again leaning on the elder for advice. Through two rounds, Spieth – who ranks 20th this season in total putting – has the fewest putts and most birdies of anyone in the field. And a 5-stroke lead.

"They've [Crenshaw and Jackson] been incredible to myself and my caddie," Spieth said Friday after posting a 6-under 66.

Crenshaw was just as appreciative, holding Jackson on that 18th green in a long embrace. The famous golfer patted his old friend's back and told him he loved him. In the press conference afterward, Crenshaw told Jackson, sitting among the reporters in the audience, "It wouldn't have been any other way to end it without you being there."

Jackson's very appearance at the 18th green was a feat, as it was clear the discomfort from his rib injuries was great. He said one of the greatest challenges of his entire career was battling through his surgeries. "Sometimes with the pain," he said, "you just gotta command your body to fight."

They never really celebrate caddies in this sport the way they should. Even as Jackson spoke briefly to the media, talking a little bit about his amazing personal history and his charity "Carl's Kids," he was drawn away by an official in a green jacket.

But that was after he was asked about the emotion of the day: "On a scale of 1 to 100," he said, "it was a 100."

It was a 100 for everyone who understands what Jackson has accomplished in his long career – the tall legend who outlasted even the Eisenhower Tree. He came here in 1961, unable to play a round on a course anywhere in town. He stands here now, a trusted adviser to both a golf icon and a young star on the verge of winning the Masters.

"I don't think this place would be the same," said Crenshaw's brother, Charlie, "without Carl."

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