Obituary: Willie Aitchison, golf caddie

Willie Aitchison, golf caddie. Picture: Getty

Willie Aitchison, golf caddie. Picture: Getty

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SCOT who campaigned for golf caddies’ rights and knew the sport inside out

Willie Aitchison, golf caddie.

Born: 27 July, 1929, in Glasgow.

Died: 4 January, 2015, in Glasgow, aged 85.

When Willie Aitchison fell asleep in his chair and didn’t wake up at his home in Maryhill earlier this month, his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren lost their beloved patriarch, and Scotland and the world of golf lost a vital figure whose importance to the sport far outweighed his performance over decades as one of the very best caddies ever to emerge from Scotland.

When Willie Aitchison fell asleep in his chair and didn’t wake up at his home in Maryhill earlier this month, his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren lost their beloved patriarch, and Scotland and the world of golf lost a vital figure whose importance to the sport far outweighed his performance over decades as one of the very best caddies ever to emerge from Scotland.

For it was not just as the carrier of famous golfers’ bags that he made his impact, though some of the greats of the game would not have been so great had they not had him by their side, but as a campaigner to have his trade recognised for the contribution that caddies make to golf at the top level.

Though he was a humble man from humble origins, Aitchison stood no nonsense when those who thought themselves to be his betters talked down to him. The straight talking man from Maryhill would let them know in no uncertain terms what he thought of their rudeness. It was an attitude that stood him in good stead as he fought for many years to have caddies paid and treated properly.

It is no exaggeration to say that the modern top-flight caddie – they can earn huge sums and no longer have to eat at burger vans – owes his or her financial and status well-being to Willie Aitchison.

William Allan Aitchison was born in Maryhill and lived in the area until his death.

His father George was a soldier in both World Wars and died as a result of injuries sustained in the 1939-45 conflict, leaving Aitchison’s mother Catherine a widow at a young age like so many women at that time.

Educated at North Kelvinside secondary, Aitchison was evacuated to Aberdeen during the war, after which he joined the RAF. He was invalided out of the services and almost immediately turned his love of golf into a living.

It transpired that he was a natural caddie, able to judge distances to the yard with his eyes alone – there were no yardage books back then – and just as importantly he was a shrewd judge of humans, too, always able to advise the right club to the golfer who employed him.

Not that he was a caddie all his life. Back then there were no tours abroad on which to ply the caddie’s trade, and it was very much a summer pursuit, so Aitchison took to driving lorries and especially oil tankers to sustain his family.

He officially began his caddying career in 1951, and news spread among the professional golfing fraternity that here was a man with rare gifts as a caddie. Yet it was with an amateur that he first tasted serious success, caddying for Michael Bonallack, later Sir Michael, at the 1961 Amateur Championship. He would go on to partner Bonallack to all his five Amateur Championships, and they became lifelong friends.

He caddied for all the great figures of golf at that time, including the legendary Sam Snead, the ill-fated Tony Lema, Gary Player, and Tom Watson. It was in the 1960s that he formed his most enduring professional and personal relationships, “winning” his first Open at the Royal Liverpool Club at Hoylake in 1967.

Argentina’s Roberto De Vicenzo had never won a Major championship at the age of 44, and it was a surprise when he took the lead in the third round.

Most pundits expected Jack Nicklaus, the Golden Bear, to overhaul him on the final day, but guided meticulously by the younger Aitchison, De Vicenzo struck a magnificent shot on the 16th to pull two shots clear of Nicklaus.

With Nicklaus finished up ahead and knowing he could shoot five and still win, as they made their way up the par four 18th fairway, De Vicenzo was overcome by emotion but Aitchison steadied his man, handed him his iron and the Argentinean struck the ball into the centre of the green, then putted up and sank a tiddler for the championship.

Aitchison was shortly afterwards introduced to Lee Trevino, the swashbuckling, wisecracking Texan who Aitchison thought was “a nutcase” when they first met. But they soon gelled and from 1968 onwards, Aitchison carried Trevino’s bag in every Open in which the American star competed.

In 1971, at Royal Birkdale, the pairing took the Open after a memorable battle with the famous Mr Lu Liang-Huan of Taiwan.

The following year at Muirfield, Trevino was off the green at the 17th when Aitchison advised him to play an old-fashioned “chip and run” shot. In one of the most famous Open shots ever, Trevino duly did as advised and holed the shot.

Aitchison carried many more bags, but off the course he was constantly lobbying for improvements to the caddies’ lot. This was recognised when the European Tour made him Caddie Master after he officially retired, though he did caddy for quite a few golfers after that.

In 2000 he was inducted into the Caddie Hall of Fame along with his fellow Scot, Tip Anderson of St Andrews.

Aitchison enjoyed a long and happy marriage to Mairi, who died in 2002, and he always spoke of his pride in his large family.

When the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews gave special permission for Aitchison to be joined by his family with Trevino on the 18th green of the Old Course at the Home of Golf – arranged by his friend and then R & A captain Sir Michael Bonallack – there was no prouder Scotsman anywhere, and Trevino told him he was the luckiest man in the world to have his family around him.

Willie Aitchison is survived by his son and six daughters, his 12 grandchildren and nine great grandchildren. His funeral service will take place later today at Gairbraid Parish Church, after which his body will be interred at Kippen Cemetery beside his beloved Mairi.

MARTIN HANNAN

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