'Freddie & Me' by Tripp Bowden

By: Jeff Shelley

Boy, did I ever read this book at the right time. The 2009 Masters starts tomorrow and the author of this enjoyable book gives us a rare glimpse inside Augusta National Golf Club, the hallowed place where the year's first major traditionally starts the golf season.

Bowden's subject is Freddie Bennett, the revered caddie master at Augusta National who was the behind-the-scenes ruler of the ultra-private club for decades. The first-time author's voice is accessible and conversational, making the book informative and easy to dig into. Bowden also manages to debunk some of the exclusivity of the club, which for one week each April is revealed to the world.

Bennett was not only a crucial figure in Augusta National's history, but a major influence on a young Tripp Bowden, who first met the man at age 10 when his father, a respected doctor in town whose patient was Freddie, introduced the two. Their first experience together was not on a golf course but on a fishing expedition at the club's Ike's Pond. Needless to say, the uncontested bream - "The fish here are big, so hold on with both hands," advises Freddie - were yanking hooks when they hit the water.

Soon, Bowden, who as a youngster cared little about the game, was shown the proper golf grip by Bennett on a fishing pole. "Grip it in the fingers, just like you would a baseball. That's where all the power hides. And if anyone ever tells you to grip the sonofabitch like a baby bird or a tube of toothpaste with the cap off, walk away - fast as you can." Such adages - called "Freddie-isms" - are sprinkled throughout, giving considerable depth to the 205-page book.

On another fishing trip a few days later, Bowden gets to hit a real golf ball - the first in his life - after the two make a detour to the fourth hole on the club's Par 3 course. Shortly after, Bennett surprises Tripp with a set of clubs - a knock-down set of Walter Hagens, along with a bag, balls, glove and tees. But no shoes. "No shoes until you break fifty, man," Freddie says, adding: "Ain't no clowns out there breaking fifty."

From that point forward, Bowden makes frequent visits to Augusta National to visit Freddie. The two - the privileged white kid and the imposing black man - quickly create a strong bond. The author goes on to take golf lessons and play nine-hole rounds on public courses in an attempt to break fifty. All the while, Freddie's words ring in his head: "Play fast man. Hit it and get it. Play fast, and people won't care how bad you are. Not saying you're bad. You're just a beginner. Hell, even Shakespeare was a beginner."

As expected, the author (who later played college golf and reached the final stage of a British Open qualifier) shoots nine holes under the magic mark and Freddie buys him a new pair of Footjoys. The friendship blooms even more, with Tripp getting a gig as a forecaddie in the 1982 Masters.

The first half of the book is galore with historical references, including trivia about the club's co-founders, Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts. On their tours of the course Bennett shows Bowden out-of-the way and obscure landmarks. Thanks to Freddie the youngster gets to try his grip on Arnold Palmer's 4-iron and Jack Nicklaus's vaunted 1-iron (what a difference there is between the two clubs!). He hears Freddie predict - correctly - that Ben Crenshaw would don a green jacket in 1984.

Freddie asks Bowden to become the first white caddie in the history of Augusta National, and here, the book really takes off, giving us a glimpse into the club's back-room culture and the loopers supervised by the no-nonsense but benevolent Bennett. There are mentions of members and guests, one of whom is so impressed with Bowden's caddie work that he later offers the author a job at a New York City advertising agency.

The book is ultimately a multi-decade reflection on a seminal influence in Bowden's life. Bennett helps the author mature from a nave pre-teen to adulthood, where he lands a real job and engenders a family of his own. All the while, the wisdom of Freddie Bennett echoes throughout the author's life and this book.

After Bowden leaves Freddie's roost, things changed at Augusta National. Bennett receives the confounding title of "Club Director of Outside Personnel" and his office is moved to a sterile building, physically close but far from the colorful, inclusive environment of the old caddie shack. Freddie, who was inducted into the Professional Caddie Hall of Fame in 2000, starts slowing down.

I won't give away the ending, which is revealed in the prologue in the first few pages. In sum, Bowden's journey - and yours for reading his ode to one of the game's true originals - is quite worthwhile.

Postscript: The book's cover shot is of Angel Cabrera walking up the 10th hole during a previous Masters. The photo and the book went to press six months before the Argentine won the 2009 green jacket. Via email, Bowden wrote to me: "Hows that for a little foreshadowing? I like to think of it as Freddie working his player/caddy relationship magic one last time."

"Freddie & Me," by Tripp Bowden. 2009. $19.95. Skyhorse Publishing. 205 pages. ISBN 978-1-60239-682-1.