How a Hong Kong craft brewer got on the bag of European Tour event winner and earned a shot at a fortune in the Middle East
- Amateur caddie George Bigelow answered the call and struck up a partnership with Hong Kong Open winner Aaron Rai
- It was Englishman Rai’s first win on the Tour and propelled him to 123rd in the world rankings
Only a dedicated follower of professional golf, probably living in the English Midlands, would have recognised the name of the Honma Hong Kong Open winner in November. Aaron Rai lifted the trophy and pocketed the US$333,330 cheque on a rainy Sunday at Fanling.
The first-day video highlights showed the big names, Sergio Garcia, Patrick Reed and Tommy Fleetwood, with their insouciant swing, their precision on approach, their unerring putting.
The last part of the clip was of some golfer I didn’t recognise. Standing behind him, shouldering a golf bag, was someone I most certainly did. It was George – George Bigelow!
Over the next three days I developed a curiosity as to how an unheralded golfer with a stranger on his bag – one with limited experience – saw off the other 130 competitors.
Bigelow, a 50-year-old Californian and resident in Hong Kong for 25 years, got a phone call on the Monday before the Open from Dean Nelson, director of golf at Hong Kong Golf Club.
Bigelow is on a roster of local caddies having been on a bag in six Hong Kong Opens (making the cut only twice).
Most pro golfers are partnered by their regular caddie at every tournament, but Rai’s bagman was on paternity leave.
The fee for local caddies, paid by the player, is US$1,000 per tournament. Most established pro golfers pay their regular caddie 10 per cent of their prize money, though actual terms of a contract can vary.
As far as can be established, no ‘local caddie’ has ever partnered the winner at a European Tour event.
When the two strangers walked to the first tee on the Tuesday, for six hours of intensive practice, money was the last thing on their minds.
Bigelow soon realised his partner was meticulous to an almost obsessive degree in his preparation – all deep concentration and detailed notes in his course yardage notebook. GPS devices are not allowed.
The pair approached the last hole in fast-fading daylight. Bigelow suggested the conditions were ideal as they could well prevail on the 18th hole in the final round. Rai took on board this local knowledge and, as if to reassure his caddie, played it for a solid par. He then marched off to the floodlit putting green.
Bigelow went to the operations shed, where he had a beer with course maintenance staff. Bigelow was asked whose bag he was on this year.
“A guy who’s going to go very deep into the Sunday,” he replied.
Thursday was warm and sunny, setting a pattern for the weekend to follow. On the way to the first tee, Bigelow asked Rai whether he wanted advice about yardage (how far to the pin from the current lie). They agreed that Rai would handle it.
Bigelow soon realised he was on the bag of a golfer who didn’t need too much advice, except when asked about the important minutiae of wind conditions and other local knowledge. There was no fist-pumping after sinking a 25-foot putt, no ‘great shot, man’ from Bigelow after a pin-high approach shot.
Such restraint must have been hard for an American, but the unspoken protocol was for the caddie to keep the rhythm of the round uncluttered as Rai approached every hole, every shot with a clear mind.
Rai finished the first round in a three-way tie for the lead. The next day, the Friday, he blazed a course record 61 to give himself a four-shot lead.
“I had the best seat in the house,” Bigelow said. “A few steps to the side and behind Aaron as he plotted another bogey-free round with no fireworks, no incredible recoveries from deep bush; just steady, accurate, calculated execution.”
Interviewed afterwards, the softly spoken Rai stuck to the platitudes: “This is a great event, the course suits my style of play, there’s still a lot of golf to be played yet.”
Then the Wolverhampton-born 24-year-old with Kenyan/Indian origins, was asked: “You’ve got a local caddie. How’s that been going?”
“He’s a very chilled character. Helps me a lot. He’s perfect.”
After another steady round on Saturday, Rai went into his final round on Sunday with a six-shot lead. Such a cushion probably only adds to how much the leader board can play on your nerves. Among those bearing down on him, and as a playing partner, was Tommy Fleetwood, a hero of Europe’s Ryder Cup victory two months earlier.
On the Sunday, it rained. A caddie in these conditions has to be an octopus with a degree in psychology, says Bigelow. Managing the umbrella, wiping the club heads, keeping the golfer calm and focused, protecting him from the leader board.
On the 11th green Bigelow turned to Fleetwood’s caddie and told him he was bloody exhausted.
“We all are, mate. Caddying in these conditions is tough for all of us.”
There is a brotherhood among caddies but no one will tell you the initiation rights, particularly to a “pickup” bagman like Bigelow. Only observation of etiquette can gain you respect among the elite bag-carrying class.
Bigelow says he has no memory of being under pressure in that final round. They stuck to their understanding of their roles in working together to get the job done. His final on-course memory is of Rai pulling a mid-iron from the bag on the 18th fairway and seeking a hint of affirmation. Bigelow just nodded.
“I’m two ahead, right?’
The ball landed on the upper shelf of the green, safely avoiding the water on the right of the approach. From there he lagged two putts to tap in for a bogey five. Enough to win. The unheralded golfer with the out-of-his-depth caddie won by one shot.
Rai’s reaction on sinking that final putt?
He turned to Bigelow and smiled.
A few days ago, Bigelow put his job at a craft brewery in Fo Tan on hold. Rai, who is now 123rd in the world rankings, has invited him to be his caddie for a month in the Middle East, beginning with the Abu Dhabi Open on January 27.