Craig Connelly: A Wee Man for a big occasion
As he prepares to caddie in his seventh consecutive Ryder Cup next week at Hazeltine National, Martin Kaymer’s long-time bagman Craig ‘Wee Man’ Connelly has experienced everything the biennial clash has to offer in his time…
Whether it’s in sport, or school, or business, the new boy is always vulnerable to a good old fashioned wind-up and The Ryder Cup, it seems, is no different - as caddie Craig Connelly discovered at the expense of his blood pressure and few more grey hairs.
The cheery Scotsman may be a seasoned veteran of golf’s biggest stage having served as a bagman in each of the last six Ryder Cups, initially for Paul Casey and the last three with Martin Kaymer, yet he remembers the moment when he feared his career wouldn’t make it past the first tee at Oakland Hills in 2004.
That is, until, he realised he’d just been stitched up by his team-mates.
Connelly smiled: “We were getting ready for Paul’s first match with David Howell - both rookies paired together in the Saturday morning fourballs against Jim Furyk and Chad Campbell. The practice range was on the second golf course at Oakland Hills, which was a cart ride away over the road and through some houses.
“So I jumped on this cart but when I got to the first tee and we were just about to go I looked at the bag and there was no putter.
“Mick Doran, who was caddying for David, instantly saw the panic on my face - but what I didn’t know was that Casey has already told him ‘tell the Wee Man that I’ve taken the putter’ and gone on ahead.
“Straight away Mick sees a wind-up so he said ‘yeah, Paul was putting back at the range and left the putter beside the bag and said he was going to the toilet.’
“So I’ve just panicked, running about thinking I need to get back there. Obviously there’s a few lads involved in it until Paul wanders back from this tiny green out of sight behind the tee with his putter in hand asking what’s wrong? Everybody was in stitches and as the panic died down I relaxed - but it was a heck of a way to go into our first match in The Ryder Cup.”
Still there’s something appropriate about Connelly feeling terror on the brink of his first taste of the action when you consider the rollercoaster run of events that pitched him into heat of The Ryder Cup so suddenly.
Until the month before Detroit he’d been looping for the ladies on the LPGA Tour and could have been forgiven at the time for thinking that his involvement in a couple of Solheim Cups would be as close as he’d ever get to golf’s biggest team rivalry.
Then came the phone call that changed his life.
He explained: “I’d caddied for Paul in Munich a few weeks before Oakland Hills just as a favour, or so I thought at the time.
“He and his caddie just wanted a bit of time apart so I thought why not? It’s a change from the Ladies Tour. “Then, lo and behold, three weeks later I got the phone call to say ‘get your backside to Detroit.’
“Suddenly I was being thrown into the biggest event of the lot - one of the greatest sporting events in the world.
“The sheer size of it just blows you away. When you go to The Open or the Masters there are tens of thousands of people there but on practice days at The Ryder Cup it’s tenfold because there’s only 12 guys and we get sent out in three fourballs. So you’ve got 20,000 people per hole watching you.
“Going back 12 years to my first one I was just totally blown away. I had caddied two Solheim Cups beforehand, which is a big event in its own right, but when you put it against The Ryder Cup it’s not even close.
“Then to be going first out with Tiger in the Sunday singles, it just doesn’t get any bigger.”
Or so he thought at the time, and who could blame him when you reflect on Casey - and Connelly’s - dream first experience of golf’s greatest show.
Despite his putter panic, that first step on to the Oakland Hills turf was to prove an inspirational (even now captain Bernhard Langer may say pivotal) moment in Europe’s record 18½-9½ triumph in Detroit.
For it was Casey and Howell’s courageous final hole win over Furyk and Campbell that took the steam out of the USA’s growing momentum as they strived to fight back from a dominant first day for Europe.
Even now Connelly remembers the positive energy that resonated throughout the rest of Langer’s team, particularly for the man now charged with the responsibility of leading this current European side at Hazeltine.
Connelly added: “It was a massive result. We were level with two to play when Howler hit a great shot into 17 to win that hole and then we halved the last to win one-up.
“I think Clarky had said later that he and Lee Westwood were preparing to go out for the afternoon session and seeing that set him on his way. He thought ‘yeah, the kids have done it so we’ll go back out and do it too.’
“It spurred them on.”
By the time it got to the final day, Casey’s 3 and 2 defeat by Woods only delayed the inevitable landslide European win.
As dusk fell over Detroit Connelly and his fellow caddies gathered, sat in a circle on a slope overlooking the closing ceremony, cheering and raising their beer bottles when Captain Langer thanked them in his winner’s speech.
Looking back now, the 39 year old admits he could never have imagined that this was just the beginning of even greater adventures to come. None more so than his fifth Ryder Cup at Medinah in 2012 when he was involved in one of the greatest comebacks in sporting history.
Martin Kaymer had won his first Major, the US PGA title, two years before but by the time he’d arrived at Medinah his form and confidence had dipped considerably.
By Saturday night the same could be said of the belief within the rest of the team too as José Maria Olazábal tried to rally his troops to rescue a four point deficit going into the final day singles.
Connelly smiles now as he remembers how down Kaymer felt that Saturday night, never dreaming that it would all come down to him.
He said: “Martin has said it himself, he wasn’t playing well and was really disappointed to get dropped on the Saturday. It’s an awful feeling, there’s not much you can do. There’s almost no point in practicing because all you can do is take your pom-poms down and go cheer the team on.
“So I just tried to gee him up for tomorrow. On Saturday night we’re 10-6 down but we walked into the locker room with a little bit of hope from Poulter and Rory’s superb finish, edging Zach Johnson and Jason Dufner on the last green.
“Then you hear you’re second to last out and suddenly you’re deflated again, thinking ‘are we going out here to make up the numbers?’ You always believe that we can bring it back but at the back of your mind you’re wondering if this could be a dead rubber.
“But then we wake up on Sunday morning, we’ve got Seve’s sillhouette on the sleeves and the rest is just history.
“The boys just came flying out the traps, putting blue on the board early. Then I remember getting to 15 and Jose Maria came across to Martin and said ‘I don’t care what you do or how you do it, we just need this point.’
“So Martin went ‘right, come on, let’s go.’ We were in control of the game, one up playing the last when he hit it in the bunker right off the tee.
“Then it’s an eight iron to the green and he got lucky because he’d slightly pulled it and it looked as if it was going into the left greenside bunker but it suddenly kicked right, leaving 25 feet for birdie.
“So we thought ‘ok, over to you Steve’ (Stricker) and he hits it long leaving himself a really tricky putt. So you’re thinking if he holes this, fair play to him - but you’ve more than likely got two putts to half the hole, win the match and retain The Ryder Cup.
“Then Martin races it six feet past and I’m thinking ‘really?’ We’ve had the week we’ve had, it comes down to this and you’ve got six feet left. But you could see in Martin’s eyes and his demeanour that he wasn’t going to miss the putt.
“He said to me it was just a little inside right, up the hill, boom. You couldn’t ask for an easier putt.
“So I looked at my sleeve, saw Seve and looked up thinking ‘right, if you’re up there and you are looking down on us...’ And then he holed the putt.
“You could see from Martin’s reaction what it meant to him. Then I didn’t see him for 40 minutes because he ran off to celebrate!
“I was left standing there with the flag saying to his opponent ‘Steve, thanks for the game. He’s gone, sorry.’
“And then everybody came running on to the green and I’m like ‘right, enough’s enough, everybody off coz there’s still a match to go.
“Eventually I found Martin and gave him a hug and that was pretty much it. Then we partied.
“It was amazing but the thing I’ll always remember is how focussed Martin was at that putt. He wasn’t going to miss that opportunity to be there for the team, to be there for himself after the week he’d had.
“That was his way of saying ‘right, it might have been a tough week up to then but I’m good at this game.’”
To be at the heart of such a defining moment would be privilege enough for most but as a proud Scotsman, his involvement in the next Ryder Cup at Gleneagles was arguably even bigger.
One of the secrets to the European team’s success is the legendary togetherness within their tight-knit group - from players, vice captains, caddies, European Tour staff. All play their part and are valued as respected team-mates committed to one common cause.
But when Connelly heard fans singing a song about him on the first tee, he knew things had gone beyond surreal.
He smiled: “It was quite embarrassing, you give them the courtesy wave but it was surreal.
“But that first morning at Gleneagles was just incredible. Everybody says you try to prepare yourself for this but there’s nothing that can prepare you for the atmosphere on the first tee. And it’s true.
“You look from the tee down the fairway and it’s 20-deep full of people. It was amazing, you could feel the ground shake with the roar. It was electric.
“We don’t experience anything like that in golf other than The Ryder Cup. It’s the closest thing to be in a football ground as you’ll get in golf.
“I can’t imagine what it’s like for the players stepping up there to hit a shot but caddies get the butterflies too, although that’s more excitement than nerves I’d think. Then once you’re walking down that first fairway you’re off and running.
“And in intense situations like that it helps to know that you’re among guys who are all feeling the same.
“From the very first moment I got to Oakland Hills for that first Ryder Cup I very much felt part of the team. From the get-go you feel part of it - all in with the players.
“We are all integrated, not only on the course but off it as well. At Gleneagles we all sat together in the one big room and it’s been like that for a couple of years. There’s Tour physios there and the caddies can use them too if needed. You feel spoilt. Everything’s laid on for us, nothing’s left to chance.
“We are all part of one big team.”