Heading into this year’s Masters, we all knew that after 44 years it would be the final go around for two-time champion Ben Crenshaw, who captured the coveted green jacket in 1984 and 1995.
We watched as “Gentle Ben” at age 63 rolled in that final putt on Friday and then soaked in the thunderous applause he received from the fans, family and friends engulfing the 18th green.
Then, as has happened for so many years – 38 of the past 39, in fact – Crenshaw looked up and saw longtime caddie and friend Carl Jackson walking toward him. As the two colleagues, friends and, for all intents and purposes, “brothers” embraced and walked off the 18th green, another chapter in Masters history lore was penned.
At 67, this, too, was likely the final Masters for the Augusta native Jackson who, due to an injury, was unable to lug Crenshaw’s bag this year, marking just the second time he has not caddied for Crenshaw since the duo’s first Masters loop back in 1976. Jackson was recovering from colon cancer surgery in 2000.
Jackson began his lifelong relationship with Augusta National and the Masters back in 1961 after dropping out of school at age 13 in order to find work and help support his family. Jackson was hired by club member Jack Stephens, who later served as Augusta National chairman from 1991-1998. In fact, Jackson was on the bag for Billy Burke in that first year of employment.
Jackson’s story of determination, selflessness, passion and powerful faith is inspiring. I caught up with him following the Masters to talk about family, Augusta National, the much sought after guidance he found in Jack Stephens, his relationship with Ben Crenshaw and Carl’s Kids – the nonprofit he started in his adopted hometown of Little Rock, Ark., whose mission is to expose underserved children to the many life lessons and character-building skills that golf has provided him with for so long.
JL: Do you feel growing up in a large family (one of nine children) with a single parent in essence “forced” you to mature more quickly, i.e., feeling the responsibility to go out and find work to help support the family?
CJ: Absolutely. I took on the responsibility of a man at age 12. Those were some tough days; my mother did all that she could to support the family, which wasn’t enough. I was the alternative to keeping food on the table. Thank God my grandfather instilled values in my life such as good character, integrity and promptness. I still cherish these values today. My mother depended on me. I could not let her down.
JL: How did you first become involved with Augusta National as a teenager? What was going on in your life at that time?
CJ: In a sense, I was very excited. However, in the back of my mind, I knew this was God’s provision to helping my mom keep the lights on and food on the table. I also knew that I was a boy among grown men. This drove me to learn everything that I could possibly know about the course and the game of golf. I had to master the course.
JL: What was the role that Jack Stephens played in your life?
CJ: As I look back, I can clearly see that God used Mr. Stephens as an angel in my life. I was blessed to have a man that took me under his wing. He taught me things about life and the game of golf that words can’t explain. By the same token, he became a father figure to me. I was never fascinated by his wealth, but I am glad God allowed him to see that I had a gift. Mr. Stephens helped develop this gift. We became best friends until the day he passed away. I remember the values he taught me about the game of golf to this day. Now I see Mr. Stephens through his son Warren who I work for at the Alotian Golf Club near Little Rock. He is my constant reminder of Mr. Stephens.
JL: Had you known for a while about this being Ben’s final Masters? When did he tell you about his decision?
CJ: Within the past few years, I began to realize and see Ben’s focus and heart at the Masters were changing. He became more focused on talking to the younger players and passing on the knowledge of the course. Ben is truly a competitor. I would to say that Ben is the Dean Smith of golf – a loving and caring coach who knew when it was time to pass the torch. This is what Ben has done. When Ben talked to me a little over a year ago, I knew his mind was made up. It was time. He and I will always be in the shadows of the Masters.
JL: Having spent so much time with him out there, can you describe the on-course relationship you have with Ben and how you two communicate?
CJ: We are very focused on the course one shot, one hole at a time. We talk a little and laugh a little. Ben is a fighter who is in command of his game plan, and I have never detected anything but that fight in him, keeping us in the battle. He’s always in control of his emotions. I learned from watching Ben what a champion and his team must do in the arena.
Ben and I are like brothers. We have been there for each other through thick and thin. Ben is a true source of inspiration to me in so many ways. Likewise I have tried to do the same for him.
JL: How has Augusta National changed in the many years you have been out there?
CJ: Frankly, the majority of changes are outside the course. The change to bentgrass greens, six or seven holes are longer but the course that we love, that masterpiece is still there.
JL: What has Augusta National taught you about yourself?
CJ: Augusta National has taught me endurance. It has taught me to push harder when things get tough. You will never know what’s inside of you until you have been tried by the fires of life. Likewise, life has many trials and challenges. One must endure these challenges, but you must have faith in God.
JL: You were honored at this year’s Mayor’s Masters Reception – the first non-player to be awarded. What does that mean to you?
CJ: I am extremely grateful to be the first caddy to be recognized. I hope to inspire golfers, caddies, businessmen and political leaders to be the best they can because all kids are watching.
JL: What is Carl’s Kids and what impact have you seen it have on the kids you serve?
CJ: Carl’s Kids is a reflection of my life. I can identify with our youth. When it seems like your dreams and passions are so far away, it makes you feel hopeless. Sometimes, it makes you wonder if God hears, or knows your situation. However, I am living proof that he hears and knows your situation. As a father guides, protects, and provides for has family, Carl’s Kids takes a similar role.