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ALS catching up with Bruce Edwards

In golf, a good and popular man is dying before our eyes. Last January, Bruce Edwards was found to be suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), known in the United States as Lou Gehrig's disease, an incurable illness. For the best part of 30 years, Edwards has carried Tom Watson's golf clubs but as this year nears its end, it is doubtful that he will be able do so even early in the next.

Edwards deteriorated visibly throughout the year. At the Masters he was speaking more slowly, self-effacingly describing himself as “sounding like the town drunk”. For the US Open in June, he declined the USGA's offer of a buggy in which to ride and carry Watson's clubs. At Olympia Fields outside Chicago, Edwards experienced the extraordinary emotions of being given a rousing reception on most greens and, in the first round, of watching Watson take only 23 putts in a round of 65, good enough to share the lead. On that Thursday there were tears in Edwards's eyes as he walked up the 18th listening to the spectators shouting “Bruce, Bruce” and there were tears in Watson's eyes, too.

Edwards could not make the journey to Royal St George's for the Open. “Too cold for him over there,” Watson explained. But there he was at Watson's side in the US PGA Championship at Oak Hill as Watson went round in 75 twice and missed the cut. In November, Watson was in the US team against the Rest of the World in the UBS Cup at Sea Island, Georgia. Edwards was there too, riding in a cart and communicating with Watson with what sounded like grunts to the ear of an eavesdropper. On the Sunday afternoon, as Edwards climbed aboard his buggy, Watson said firmly: “Bruce is hoping to caddie for me in Hawaii at the end of January. He will caddie for me as long as he likes. It's his call.”

ALS attacks the spinal cord and lower brain stem, causing motor neurones and body muscle to degenerate and speech to become progressively more slurred. At the end of last year, Edwards noticed he was getting cramps in his left hand and, one day, became aware that the fingers of this hand were curled and could not be straightened. Watson noticed it, too, and told Edwards to do something about it, but getting medical attention was put to one side while Edwards attended to more important matters.

On New Year's Eve, he proposed to Marsha, whom he had first met in 1974 when he was 19 and caddying and she was 17. They were married at sunset on a beach in Hawaii and, as well as a wife, Edwards gained two stepchildren and a boisterous labrador.

Later last January, Watson sent Edwards to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “I was there for four days,” Edwards said. “They told me I was in great health — heart, lungs, liver, kidneys. Everything except for this disease. That night I told my doctor, ‘I shouldn't be doing this but I'm going to buy a bottle of red wine and a pack of Marlboro Lights' and the doctor said, ‘Go ahead'.”

Edwards, 48, was never meant to be a caddie. He comes from a successful middle-class family in New England, the son of a dentist. A sister became a commander in the Navy, a brother a root-canal specialist. Bruce was going to be an estate agent, providing dream homes for others, until he decided to follow his own dream and be a caddie. He was alongside Watson as he won 40 tournaments, including the 1982 US Open at Pebble Beach when he chipped in from lush greenside rough on the 71st hole to steal the title from under the nose of Jack Nicklaus.

Throughout the year the pair have dealt with Edwards's illness in their own way. Watson talks about Edwards with concern and affection, repeatedly saying how researchers have told him there could be a cure within a year or two. “Bruce's tears, they'll always be with me,” Watson said. “They're etched into my heart. I want to find something for him. We need to find a cure now.” Meanwhile, Watson has funded all Edwards's medical bills and donated millions to research into ALS. He could hardly have done more.

If it is in adversity that a person's character shines through, then Edwards's character is admirable. He smiles a lot. When wellwishers come up to him and say something, he thanks them. He looks slightly embarrassed. Early on, he would say to such people: “I'm so lucky.” At Augusta on the first day, Ernie Els tapped him on the shoulder as he walked past and said: “I'm going to win this one for you.”

In a conversation by the side of the putting green at Augusta, Edwards asked John Feinstein, the journalist and author, to write a book about him. “Bruce and I have been friends for 20 years,” Feinstein said yesterday. “As a matter of fact, he was the first person I interviewed at the first PGA Tour event I covered. The book is finished. It's called Caddie for Life and the subtitle is The Bruce Edwards Story .

“The last time I saw Bruce was at Sea Island, but we e-mail one another all the time. He is unbelievably upbeat, very excited that his team, the Philadelphia Eagles, are seeded in the NFL play-offs starting next week. He is holding out hope that he will be with Tom at Hawaii in January but I am almost 100 per cent certain he won't be. I exchanged e-mails with Tom just before Christmas. It is starting to hit him now, I think. Sportsmen are used to winning, aren't they? They don't accept failure. Tom really thought he could find a cure.”

On the Sunday afternoon at Sea Island, the spectators were drifting away from beside the 18th green as Edwards climbed aboard his buggy and headed off towards the locker-room, where he and Watson shared a few emotional moments. Nick Faldo spoke for everyone in golf when he looked across at the departing buggy and said: “Such a nice bloke, too. Why does it always happen to the nice guys?”

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