Unsolved mystery: How did the flag at 18 become the caddie trophy?

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No caddie has enjoyed his winning flag quite like Ted Scott, who posted a video of himself with the 18th-hole flag and pole from this April’s Masters on his tractor, motorcycle and while brushing his teeth among other random things.

Jim “Bones” Mackay was on the bag for his sixth major at the PGA Championship in May, but this flag likely means the most to him and will get top-shelf status. Then there was England’s Billy Foster, who finally tasted victory at a major after 40 years on the bag and kissed the flag in the lower right corner as Matt Fitzpatrick was victorious at the U.S. Open in June. New Zealand’s Sam Pinfold made off with both a Players Championship and British Open flag this year working for Aussie Cameron Smith. And who can forget Japan’s Shota Hayafuji’s beautiful gesture: removing his hat and bowing his head after claiming the flag at Augusta National last April following Hideki Matsuyama’s triumph. From all four corners of the globe, caddies know the routine.

“As a youngster watching golf tournaments on TV in Japan, I saw that it is a tradition for caddies to take home the 18th-green flag,” Hayafuji says. “My heart was full of gratitude, and it was the natural thing for me to bow and show respect for the Masters.”

It has become a tradition unlike any other. Every week on virtually every tour, the winning caddie grabs the flag on 18. It has become the caddie’s trophy, as much of a ritual as players removing their hats and shaking hands after the round. But what is the origin of this tradition and who started it? No one seems to know.

“I don’t know how it happened,” says Scott, who earned his third Masters flag working on the bag of Scottie Scheffler to go with the previous two he pocketed with Bubba Watson in 2012 and 2014. “But it’s a cool tradition, a huge reward and a special thing. Whoever started it, I’m grateful for it.”

Golfweek did some digging, hoping to get to the bottom of this unsolved mystery, and along the way the stories we heard about caddies and flags were too good not to share.

Pete Bender

Pete Bender, caddie for Aaron Baddeley, looks on during the final round of the 2019 Valero Texas Open. (Soobum Im/USA TODAY Sports)

The starting point seemed obvious. Start with some of the old-timers on the theory that if anyone knows, it’s going to be one of the crusty veterans who has seen it all. Someone like Pete Bender, who worked his first tournament for Frank Beard at the 1969 Lucky Strike International in San Francisco.

Next to every great player walks a great sidekick and over the next five decades, Bender shouldered the bag for Hall-of-Famers Raymond Floyd, Jack Nicklaus and Lanny Wadkins as well as Greg Norman during his run at World No. 1 from 1985-87. He steered two of his bosses to victory at the British Open, the first with Norman in 1986 when he shot a second-round 63 at Turnberry, and with Ian Baker-Finch in 1991 when he shot 130 on the weekend at Royal Birkdale.

“I don’t know when it started, but now it is a big deal with caddies.
When I won my first tournament in 1970, I didn’t even think about that,” says Bender, who then told a story that makes it sound as if the flag already
was the caddie’s prize at least as far back as the mid-1980s.

“At the British Open at Turnberry in 1986, Greg had a five-stroke lead and we’re on 18 and I went to grab the flag and a greenkeeper came up to me and said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘It’s a tradition to take the winning flag and for the caddie to keep it.’ He ripped it from me and said, ‘You’re not going to keep this one,’ and he ran off with it,” Bender recalls. “That night, I came back to the bleachers at 18 with Greg and his wife and I told Greg what happened. He said, ‘Go down there and grab the cup out of the green and that will be your souvenir.’ So, I did, and I use that cup in my house all the time to practice my putting. I didn’t get the flag, but I got the cup.”

Bender only kept a couple of flags. He did secure the flag when Baker-Finch won his British, and he has some Ryder Cup flags, too. He asked Nicklaus to sign one and got the signatures of Tiger Woods and Sam Snead on separate yellow flags from the Masters.

Mike “Fluff” Cowan

Tiger Woods talks with his caddie, Mike “Fluff” Cowan, before teeing off during the final round of the 1998 PGA Championship.

Bender, and others, directed me to Mike “Fluff” Cowan. His mustache didn’t move as he racked his brain for an answer and agreed with Bender that it’s a more recent phenomenon. Fluff has won 23 times on Tour. He doesn’t have the flag from his first win in 1980 nor does he have many of his other victories.

But Cowan made a point to keep flags from wins alongside Jim Furyk at the 2010 Tour Championship and 2003 U.S. Open – that one, however, isn’t from 18. He gave the 18th-hole flag from their major together to Furyk, and the club presented him with the flag from the eighth hole at Olympia Fields in Chicago. Both are lying around in a closet. What about the Masters flag from 1997 with Tiger Woods? That one is framed and hanging in his downstairs TV room.

“If you’re finishing in the last group, it’s easy to get the flag,” Fluff says. “You just take it.”

Linn Stricker, “The Growler”

Greg Norman of Australia pulls a club as his caddie Linn Strickler looks on during the third round of the 137th Open Championship on July 19, 2008 at Royal Birkdale Golf Club, Southport, England. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

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Linn Strickler, aka “The Growler” for his distinctive voice, isn’t sure who made it popular, either. I bumped into him at the Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf a few years ago, where he was toting for Ben Crenshaw for old-time’s sake. Strickler carried for 13 Tour winners but only kept six flags, four of them with Crenshaw but neither of Gentle Ben’s two wins at the Masters (Carl Jackson handled those duties).

“I never took a flag until the 1990s. (Former PGA Tour rules officials) Slugger White would probably slap a fine on you if he saw you taking one,” says The Growler, who started caddying in 1973 after he got out of the service. “Kept the bibs from the other wins and collected badges in a box at my house. I must have 600-700 of them, laid them out once and it was the size of two king-size beds.”

They’re on display in the pro shop at Cove Cay Golf Club in Clearwater, Florida, where he still caddies. His best guess on how the flags took off? “I think it might have been a European thing,” Strickler muses. “The Euro Tour guys with Seve, Faldo, Langer.”

Mike Hicks “Hicksie”

Mike Hicks, who has a signed and personalized flag from winning the 1999 U.S. Open with Payne Stewart, also proved to be little help.

“I wish I could tell you,” says the 40-year veteran of the caddie yard. Then he adds, “Back in the day it was just the majors. I don’t know who started this every week stuff. I wouldn’t bother.”

Payne Stewart picks up his caddie Mike Hicks after sinking his putt on the 18th green at Pinehurst No. 2 during the final round of the 1999 US Open Championship twin the title. (Steve Schaefer/TBEN via Getty Images)

Steve Williams

Tiger Woods talks with caddie Steve Williams during a practice round prior to the 2009 World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship. (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

Every third caddie suggested asking Williams, the most prolific winner among caddies. According to The Growler, Williams, who retired to his native New Zealand, carried a 3/8-inch wrench in the bag.

“He tired of screwing with the nut,” growls The Growler. “He got so many flags. At that time Tiger was winning six to seven tournaments a year. Remember when Hal Sutton beat Tiger at the Players (in 2000) with the ‘Be the right shot today’? Well Freddie Burns (longtime caddie for Sutton) struggled with the screw on the flag. Stevie says, ‘Wait a minute, mate,’ and got his wrench so Freddie could unscrew the flag.”

Williams displayed his flags, which include 13 majors alongside Tiger Woods, on the ceiling of his man cave. Asked for a picture of them, he apologizes and says he recently renovated his bar area and had not put them back up on the walls. As longtime caddie Steve Hulka put it, “Stevie could’ve made a helluva quilt out of them.” In an email correspondence, Williams claimed 151 worldwide wins and 120 victory flags in his collection.

“I’m not certain where the tradition of caddies removing the flag from the 18th green started,” Williams says. “But I’d be keen to know myself if you are able to find out.”

Tiger Woods grabs a flag from his caddie Steve Williams at the 139th Open Championship on the Old Course, St Andrews on July 13, 2010 in St Andrews, Scotland. (Photo by Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)

Joe LaCava

Tiger Woods hugs caddie Joe LaCava after winning the 2019 Masters. (Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports)

Next up, I asked Joe LaCava, who started his career on the bag of his cousin, Ken Green, and went on to win a Masters in 1992 with Fred Couples and bagged a second yellow Masters flag in 2019 with Tiger Woods.

“That’s a good question. I honestly don’t know,” he says. “When I got out here in 1987, that was already a thing. I’ve got most of mine.”

For his two majors, LaCava took the flag and the stick. The Tiger flag is tucked away in a safe deposit box, “in case the house burns down, which could happen,” says LaCava.

As for the flag and pole from 1992, it is proudly on display in his bedroom.

“Freddie didn’t want that?” radio host Dan Patrick asked him during an interview last month.

“He didn’t have a choice, I have news for you,” LaCava said before breaking into a story about what happened after he walked off the 18th green with the flag and pole in 1992.

“I was so jacked up,” LaCava recalls. “A Pinkerton (security guard) said, ‘You can’t have that, it’s private property.’ I was baffled that he’d say that. I was so jacked up at the time, I said, ‘I’ll tell you what, if you can get it from me, you can have it.’”

Jim “Bones” Mackay

Justin Thomas and his caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay share a laugh before the trophy ceremony in the aftermath of Thomas’s victory at the 2022 PGA Championship. (Adam Schupak/Golfweek)

Not every player lets his caddie keep the flag. Phil Mickelson, for one, had a tradition where he gave his winning flag from 18 not to Bones, his caddie of 25 years until their breakup in 2017, but rather to his grandfather, Al Santos, one of the original Pebble Beach caddies, who hung them on his kitchen wall. Shortly before he died, Mickelson’s grandfather famously told him no more regular flags – he wanted a major.

Mickelson’s first major flag from the 2004 Masters went there, four months
after his grandfather’s death. As detailed in Alan Shipnuck’s unauthorized biography of Mickelson, “Phil: The Rip-Roaring (and unauthorized) Biography of Golf ’s Most Colorful Superstar,” “Mackay understood and respected that gesture, but 19 more Tour victories would follow, including four majors, and he never got to keep a single flag.”

During the week of the WM Phoenix Open, Bones hosted a dinner party for players and caddies at his home and without fail he would be asked, “Where are the flags?”

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“That’s a giant f— you to a caddie,” says someone described as very close to Mackay in the Mickelson biography. “When Phil wins the Masters, he gets the green jacket, the trophy, the big check, all the glory. He had to take the flags, too? … For Phil not to follow the tradition was hugely disrespectful.”

Not long after Mickelson and Bones parted ways, Shipnuck reports that Mickelson mailed him the flags from his majors.

“But Phil autographed them in comically large letters, which Mackay felt disfigured the keepsakes,” Shipnuck wrote.

Bones never displayed them in his home.

Bones didn’t participate in Shipnuck’s book, and when asked to confirm these details from the unauthorized biography, he declined. But he also didn’t refute them.

After his current boss, Justin Thomas, clinched the 2022 PGA Championship in a playoff, Bones tucked the 18th-hole flag into the left pocket of his shorts. When asked if he knew where he would display it, he smiled wide.

“I’ve got a spot in mind,” says Bones, who at press time told Golfweek the flag was at the framer’s and not yet on the wall. “Somewhere that my friends can come around and see it.”

Fanny Sunneson

Former caddie Fanny Sunneson says Nick Faldo used to claim the flag at his major wins, too. She has 17 flags, but primarily collected caddie bibs, tickets and yardage books, which are stored in boxes at home. “I want to make a collage of them someday,” she says.

Nick Faldo prepares to hit the ball as Fanny Sunneson looks on during the 1996 Mercedes Championship at the La Costa Spa & Resort in Carlsbad, California. (J.D. Cuban /Allsport)

Ken Comboy

Graeme McDowell celebrates victory on the 18th green with his caddy Ken Comboy during the final round of the 2013 Alstom Open de France at Le Golf National in Paris. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

But not every caddie is enamored with keeping the flag at 18. Ken Comboy, who has been on the bag for 25 wins over his 30-year career, including the 2010 U.S. Open for his current boss, Graeme McDowell, is of the school of thought that his check is his trophy at the end of a successful tournament.

“I have the memories. No one is going to take that away,” he says.

Gareth Lord

Justin Rose caddie Gareth Lord looks over the yardage book from the third tee during the first round of the 2020 Masters. (Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports)

Even those caddies that do admit to cherishing them say that they often wind up in a tube, unframed, stuffed in a closet or in the case of Gareth Lord, who worked for Henrik Stenson during his British Open triumph in 2016, in a drawer in a one-bedroom apartment in Monaco.

“My plan is when I buy a proper home in Portugal, I’ll have a game room and all the stuff I’ve got, I’ll stick there,” he says.

Ricky Elliott

Ricky Elliott holds the caddie trophy for the 2017 U.S. Open. (Adam Schupak/Golfweek)

Ricky Elliott, longtime caddie for Brooks Koepka, is one step ahead of him. He’s got a pool room in Northern Ireland and has hung his major flags in the four corners of the room. What will he do if he wins a fifth major someday? “Stick it in the middle of the room,” he says with a laugh.

“I have no idea how it started,” says Elliott, who won his first major with Koepka at the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills.

Elliott recalls the USGA asked him if he wanted the flag. That year, the 18th-hole flag at the Open commemorated Arnold Palmer, its 1960 champion, with a silhouette of him flipping his visor in the air as he famously did after clinching the title. “Of course, I wanted it,” Elliott says. “Then they were like, ‘Do you want the pole?’ I said there’s no way I can take it home with me. The USGA sent it to me. So, now I’ve taken the whole pole.”

Cayce Kerr

Vijay Singh (right) and his caddie Cayce Kerr at the 6th tee during the third round of the 2015 Barclays at Plainfield Country Club. (Eric Sucar-USA TODAY Sports)

So many interviews, so many stories but little in the way of a lead let alone a definitive answer on how this became a thing. Surely, someone in the caddie yard could help piece the back story together. As I continued to
ask around, one name kept surfacing: Bruce Edwards, the long-time caddie for eight-time major winner Tom Watson, who succumbed
to ALS at age 49 in 2004. Hicks, Strickler and Kayce Kerr each mentioned him during separate conversations. Kerr, who brags that he has caddied for 35 years on Tour, at over 125 majors, for 14 major winners, including nine Hall of Famers and six former World No. 1s, took it upon himself to investigate my question and called around trying to piece the puzzle together. Yet, Kerr was never a flag collector. “There are some caddies who think they won the golf tournament. That’s the biggest joke,” he says. “I gave all my flags away. I enjoy sharing them with people.”

Some hung in bars, others in the man caves of friends, and occasionally he’d present it to a caddie master. When Couples rallied to win the 2012 Senior British Open at Turnberry, Kerr took the flag into the caddie shack and said to longtime caddie master Willie McDine, “This flag belongs in bonnie Scotland.”

Bruce Edwards

Tom Watson’s caddie Bruce Edwards who is stricken with Lou Gehrig’s disease takes a break during the second round of the Champions Tour Jeld-Wen Tradition at the Reserve Vineyards and Golf Club. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Kerr tells the story about how Edwards commandeered the 1982 U.S. Open flag from the par-3 17th hole at Pebble Beach. That’s where Watson had a delicate chip in the final round from the rough left of the hourglass-shaped green. Imagining the best-case scenario, Edwards optimistically left his boss with the parting shot, “Get it close.” Watson famously replied, “I’m not gonna get it close; hell, I’m gonna make it!” Watson did just that, and the birdie lifted him to the title. Edwards framed the flag and displayed it on his wall at home as if it were a trophy. To caddies of his era such as his pal Neil Oxman, that flag was golf’s version of the Honus Wagner baseball card, a priceless object of affection.

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“How much do you think that signed flag by Watson would go for today at auction?” Oxman wonders. “Not that he’d ever have sold it, but I bet he could’ve retired on that.”

Eric Schwarz, a down-on-his-luck caddie, saw the U.S. Open flag on the wall at Edwards’s house and was inspired. “Man, I hope I get one of those
sometime in my career,” he said.

In 1991, Schwarz hooked up with Corey Pavin at the Greater Hartford Open, and that week they lost in a playoff. They’ve been together ever since. “We’re very close, and he’s probably my best friend,” Pavin says. “He can put an arm around your shoulder or sock you in the face, depending on what I need at the time.”

In 1995, Pavin won the U.S. Open at Shinnecock and Schwarz got his flag. Schwarz built his own shrine in his Palm Springs pool room, with framed memorabilia of Joe Montana and Willie Mays mixed in. Soon, the idea of the flag as the caddie trophy must have spread like wildfire – in the case of Edwards, literally. His most cherished flag, which some believe started this craze, was used to set his home ablaze. On April 16, 2000, Edwards’ estranged first wife, Susan, angry at the couple’s pending divorce, lit the 1982 U.S. Open flag on fire. St. Johns County (Florida) Sheriff’s investigators said the fire started in an upstairs storage room where he kept part of his collection of golf memorabilia. Edwards was with Watson, working at the PGA Seniors Championship in West Palm Beach, Florida, at the time. Deputies took his wife to a mental-health facility that day, and she was charged with arson upon her release. She was sentenced to probation.

Tom Watson hugs his caddie, Bruce Edwards, after his final round, 18th hole birdie and victory in The Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio.

According to the police, other collectibles hanging on walls in other parts of the house were found damaged or smashed, including an autographed flag from the 18th green at Augusta National, which Watson had signed after winning the 1981 Masters. The house was gutted in the blaze, and a State Fire Marshal’s investigator estimated damages to the building and its contents at more than $150,000.

When Edwards began dating his second wife, Marsha, she once lit a match too close to him. “I don’t want to say anything,” said Edwards, “but I’ve been burned before.”

After Edwards, Nick DePaul, who caddied for Seve Ballesteros from 1982 to ’87, claimed flags from the 1983 Masters and 1984 British Open. So, too, did another Edwards pal, Greg Rita, who was on the bag for three major victories in less than a 10-year span (Curtis Strange at the 1988-89 U.S. Open and John Daly at the 1995 British Open).

Terry Holt

Bernhard Langer with caddie Terry Holt on the 4th tee box during the first round of the 2015 Masters. (Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports)

Veteran caddie Terry Holt, who is best known as Bernhard Langer’s loyal sidekick, first came to caddie in the U.S in the 1980s and doesn’t recall the flag being treated as a trophy at the time. He and his fellow caddies had their own tradition: If your boss won, you bought dinner. (Some say this is where the saying “Winner, winner, chicken dinner” was coined.)

“There was Nick DePaul, Big Brian (Bellenger) who was caddying for Isao Aoki, Dave Musgrove who was with Sandy Lyle, Peter Coleman with Bernhard Langer and Andy Prodger with Nick Faldo,” Holt recalls.

Red Lobster was the destination of choice for several of those victory celebrations after Big Brian raved about the all-you-can-eat shrimp.

“In those days,” Holt says. “That qualified as an upscale restaurant for us.”

Holt didn’t win a tournament between 1993 and 2003. He remembers going to the home of caddie Paul Fusco, who has looped since 1993 and works for Sei Young Kim on the LPGA these days, in the late 1990s, and his walls were decorated with flags from tournaments he’d won with Vijay Singh (1993 and ’95 Buick Classic among Fusco’s 27 victories).

“That’s the first I’d seen of it,” Holt says.

Langer has won a remarkable 43 times on the PGA Tour Champions, and Holt grabbed the flag every time. He calls it a good way to remember the week. And what exactly does he do with all these keepsakes?

“Life is so busy that I don’t foresee me doing anything with them. In fact, I’ve started giving them away,” he says. “I’ve enjoyed having other people get joy from them rather than just collecting them.”

Neil Oxman

Neil Oxman caddied for Tom Watson in 15 Masters during Watson’s career.

How the 18th-hole flag evolved into the caddie trophy may have made a good episode for the show “Unsolved Mysteries,” but Kerr is convinced it was popularized sometime in the 1980s with the likes of Edwards, DePaul and Fusco counting them as prized possessions. Oxman, who first caddied on the PGA Tour in 1972 and kept only Watson’s three Senior British Opens, knows this: “I have not seen somebody not get a flag now.”

As for the mystery of how it started, he says, “Maybe there isn’t an answer. Mungo Park may have started it in 1903 in Prestwick. It was Allan Robertson in 1850. It is a mystery. I’ve got to believe someone did it a long, long time ago.”

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek