2015-02-12 / Top News

Caddies carry the load at the PGA National this month

Caddies do more than just tote clubs for players. Sometimes they separate the player from spectators at crowded spots like the Bear Trap. 
COURTESY PHOTO Caddies do more than just tote clubs for players. Sometimes they separate the player from spectators at crowded spots like the Bear Trap. COURTESY PHOTO When you’re out at the Honda Classic, take a minute for the loopers.

The essence of PGA Tour golf unfolds just beyond the corner of nearly everyone’s eye. Anyone tramping or gawking or reveling at PGA National during tournament week can see deeper into the game with a glance at the edges, the shadows, the wake of cameras and crowds.

Look for the bibs.

With a few celebrated exceptions, caddies might be the invisible men (and women) of professional golf. Apart from a dance of celebration on the final green or a chancy step into a national telecast, what they want is NOT to be noticed.

Sure, they might seem about as central to the tournament plot as a pack mule in a western. Look closer. Caddies carry the load, and the dramas that they witness firsthand — that they are part of — inspire legends.

At this year’s Honda, victory could very well come down to a caddy’s advice or encouragement. These guys (and a few women) bring something beyond measure to their professional players: confidence. In his book “Bagman: Inside the exclusive world of pro golf,” Colin Byrne, longtime caddy and columnist for the Irish Times, spells out the most important thing a caddy can encourage a player to do: “living each shot without a thought of how you got there.”

The most successful partners, as a rule, are those who find each other, usually by happenstance, and fit each other’s needs and temperaments. Think of Jack Nicklaus and Angelo Argea, Phil Mickelson and Jim “Bones” Mackay, Nick Faldo and Fanny Sunesson, Rory McIlroy and JP Fitzgerald. Anyone wanting to see an insider’s view of an ideal player-caddie partnership can find it in John Feinstein’s “Caddy for Life,” the account of Bruce Edwards and his talents, determination and celebrated years with the great Tom Watson.

To those, Montana Thompson adds a few more from today’s tour: Zach Johnson and Damon Green, Keegan Bradley and Steve Hale, Webb Simpson and Paul Tesori, Bubba Watson and Ted Scott.

The chemistry of each pair can seem mysterious, but the personality trait every player wants most in a caddy might come down to one word: positive. Caddies, as a cardinal rule, are not whiners.

They also learn the mantra of a tour caddy, the three up’s: show up, keep up and shut up. Well, the job’s a wee bit more than that.

Professional caddies are helpmeets, buddies, counselors, boosters, masters of yardage books and GPS and shot lasers, experts in the game. Their preparation goes nearly unseen. They are jetting between tournaments, charting fairways and greens, helping a player choose clubs and shots, replacing divots, raking traps, easing pain and bolstering resolve.

Hole 11 at the PGA National, where caddies will accompany the brightest stars in golf. 
COURTESY PHOTO Hole 11 at the PGA National, where caddies will accompany the brightest stars in golf. COURTESY PHOTO Montana Thompson is steeped in the lore of caddies, inherited from simpler times, a gallery of eccentric characters with colorful nicknames. Now a scoring official for the PGA Tour, Thompson carried Billy Mayfair’s bag for a number of years, and he finishes an email from his duties at the Humana Challenge in California with “Downwind Vic, Reefer Ray, Sixpack Jack, Gypsy, Bones and GoGo wish you well.”

Thompson can trace the change, he says, from “four-caddies-to-a- room at the Lazy 8 Motel in the late 80’s, to staying in Marriotts or renting houses; that’s become the norm.” Thank Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus and the explosion of TV and multimedia coverage and, especially, he says, thank Tiger Woods, whose arrival drew crowds and boosted purses, adding an afterburner to caddies’ incomes.

“Caddies today are former players, just short of a professional career,” he says. “A lot of them are college-educated. In the old days, caddying on the tour seemed to be looked at as a hobby. Today, it’s a career.” It can also be a giddy ride.

On the PGA Tour, the best players are high-profile celebrities. You want glamor? Let’s say your guy wins an event.

Dude, you just made $100,000.

A regular tour caddie for a top 50 or top 100 player makes a generous living. And for singles on the social scene ... well, a tour caddie can be very popular, even if many admirers are hotter for a pathway to the player than for a tour of the caddy shack.

Like a lot of the pros they serve, though, caddies face a rugged road. Many labor among the misbegotten, on satellite and minitours and seasonal and Monday qualifiers, in Asia and Africa and Canada and Mexico and South America and wherever a bloke (or a lass) might land a bag for a survival wage.

There are no licenses for caddies, no tour cards, no contract. Let the golfer beware.

A fledgling caddy might want to beware, too. No job security, no benefits. At one point or another, nearly all face a peripatetic and precarious life. Travel and lodging come out of their pockets. Competition is fierce. They’re basically “on call.” Hey, bucko, I need you in Australia! And, Thompson says, “Currently there are two types of caddies: those that have been fired and those that will be fired.”

But, a player might say, how about MY needs? Those needs vary widely.

Some want to talk over every shot, some to be left alone. Some are cheerful, some stoic, some volatile. Some never belittle or holler, some play the blame game. Oh, and could you shut up that guy talking on the phone?

“There’s constant crowd control,” says

PGA caddy Ron Levin. “And the psychology of it, knowing when to say something, when not to say something. Some guys want a cheerleader out there to boost ‘em, some guys don’t want that at all. They just want a computer, someone with information. Every situation is different.”

All players expect their caddies to be fully prepared and take care of details. “Homework is so important,” veteran caddy Mick Tarel says. “You can tell your player with confidence, ‘Here’s the target.’ When he hits the target, everyone’s happy.”

Caddies, in the ball-striking sense, are also entirely helpless. “There’s times when you can try to motivate your player and do all you want,” longtime caddy Brennan Little says, “and he doesn’t have it. There’s other times when you don’t do anything and all of a sudden, like, the first day he’ll go out and shoot seven or eight under, and it’s like a walk in the park. You’re out there with the best seat in the house, right?

Hitting fairways, making putts, wow, this is easy!”

Little once carried the bag for fellow Canadian Mike Weir to victory in the Master’s in 2003. He will step onto the Champion next week carrying the bag of former Honda winner Camilo Villegas, out of Colombia via the University of Florida. He’s glad for the partnership.

“Camilo’s very easy to work for, a really good guy, very self-sufficient,” Little says. “He’s really detail-oriented, so when we do practice rounds he does a lot of stuff himself. His yardage book is better than most caddies’ yardage books. Other guys might not even carry a yardage book, and you have to do a little different work,”

For them, the Honda will mean homecoming. Little will stay with Villegas at his place in Jupiter. He won’t be partying. Consider his recent Hawaiian “vacation.”

“The Hyundai Tournament ended on a Monday,” he says, “so we got done in Maui, grabbed the bags, drove to the airport. I flew over to Honolulu (home of the Sony Open) Monday night, got in 9:30, 10 o’clock-ish, met Camilo at the golf course at 6:30 Tuesday morning. He hadn’t seen this course in a while, so we got out, played nine holes, then practiced, he just chipped and putted a little bit, got a little feel, was out at the golf course until noon on Tuesday. Then Wednesdays are typically pro-am days. I think our pro-am tee time was, like, 12:30, so we usually get to the golf course about 10, he’ll practice for an hour and a half or so, then he goes and eats lunch, and then we go play the proam. You’re at the pro-am all day, done by dinnertime, and then the tournament hits. Thursday, Friday, you get one late time and one early time. Early time is real early. You’re working to be there for the weekend.”

They were there, both weeks, as Villegas finished 32nd at the Hyundai and, despite two double-bogeys on Sunday, tied for 44th at the Sony with a couple of late birdies. The next week, at the Waste Management outside Phoenix, he missed the cut. Look ahead and take the long view, Little told him. He’s happy to remind his man that, in the Franklin Templeton Shootout the week before Hawaii, he finished tied for third.

A caddy, meanwhile, never finishes. Ron Levin says, “People think that we go home every Sunday and we’re home for a few days and go back out on Wednesday. That’s not the case. A lot of times I’m gone for six or eight weeks at a time. You’re on someone else’s schedule. They’re trying their butt off to play every week to better themselves. You’ve gotta be there for them.”

And you’ve gotta be quick. A caddy might imitate a lamppost often enough around the greens or while a player hits a shot, but the rest of the game moves. Under a bag that might weigh 40 pounds, they have to be fit and ready.

They can face a delicate emotional balance, too. In each tournament, one player wins and 150 or more fall short. Some are playing on a sponsor’s exemption or a past showing or as a Monday qualifier. Play well or hit the road.

As Mick Tarel says, “If you work with your player long enough, there’s a tolerance for a mistake. If you haven’t, that could be the last time you work with them.

“You always have to know your position on a course,” he adds, “You can do all that work as a caddy, go through the walkthrough, spend literally hours and hours doing all the prep work, and then in the tournament you step in another player’s line and he’s angry at you and griping at your player, and all of a sudden the mood has changed and that can affect your player’s concentration and just ruin everything.”

In the arena of professional golf there is little monogamy. Players change caddies, caddies change players. Partings are often sudden, sometimes mysterious. When Martin Kaymer recently fired Craig Connelly a couple of seasons ago, he praised the caddy and said, “I just felt I needed a change.” Hey, brother, how about trying a new golf ball?

Nobody this side of a grumbly online chat room, though, seems to be complaining. As Thompson says, “It’s a profession that gets in your blood.”

Like most everyone, caddies trying for longevity hope and work for miracles, for catching on with a reviving veteran, or a young hotshot, or a long-shot.

That happened to Ron Levin at the British Open, in one of his worst moments. On the eve of the tournament, with a former caddy in prospect, Paul Asinger had just fired him. Levin went to a local pub for solace, met a woman whose parents ran a B&B, and found out they had some young player there, just in from Japan, looking for a looper.

The young player was Todd Hamilton. He fell short, that year. The next season, 2004, Hamilton and Levin arrived at the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, then played at Mirasol.

“Todd was a rookie, playing in his fifth or sixth tournament on the tour,” Levin says. “Nobody had heard of him or knew him, but he was actually a renowned player in Japan, had won 10 times over there. He just kind of took the lead and ran with it. Birdied the last hole to win the golf tournament. Todd didn’t want any advice. He pretty much just wanted a friend out there to talk sports with him and point out pretty girls.

“Coming down the stretch, I had a lot of encouraging things to say to him. My job turned into trying to take his mind off the present. I remember the last shot when he hit it to inches on the last hole, it was about a two-foot putt. The thing he always remembers ...We were driving together to Orlando the next tournament, and I said ‘You’re gonna have to take me over to the rental place to get a bigger car.’ He said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Because your balls aren’t gonna fit in this little car I rented.’ He kind of laughed about that the whole time down. When he went to read the putt he was actually really nervous and thought about that and kind of laughed and avoided the playoff. After that Todd came to rely on me a lot more because he realized that I knew the golf courses.”

They also know that one misstep, one bad call, can end a caddie’s career. A caddie’s idea of hell might be what happened in 2013 to Travis Wilson, Stacy Lewis’ caddy on the LPGA Tour, when a viewer called in to report that he had tested her lie in a bunker. A victory would make her the world’s No. 1. It cost her two strokes. Lewis assured him that he didn’t do it on purpose, and the next day she won.

A caddy’s idea of heaven would have to include some fellow caddies. They’re a community, Levin says, trading information on courses, helping each other, consoling each other.

Few appreciate that more than Thompson. When his baby son, Lucas, faced surgery to enlarge his skull in 1998, fellow caddies raised $3,400 to help pay for it. Lucas is in school now, doing well.

In much of the golf world, electric golf carts have knocked loopers for a loop — and off of many courses. For all the gains, something has been lost, too. The biggest change shows plainly. Where, a veteran can ask, are the black caddies? They were once the heart of the game. Women, too, beyond a select handful including several players’ wives, might wonder why so many LPGA players have male caddies and so few PGA players hire women.

Not so obvious is a shift in values, a loss of something quirky and spontaneous, a diminishing of “characters,” not just among caddies but among players. “You really don’t get to know the guys around you as much as you used to” Ron Levin says. “It used to be a lot more fun than it is now. It’s more corporate, for lack of a better term. It’s really morphed into a big machine now.”

Dennis Cone has spent much of his life shouldering bags and advocating for caddies, setting up training programs, founding both the Caddy Hall of Fame and the Professional Caddies Association, PCA Worldwide. At age 70, he faces health issues and is seeing the mantle of action for caddies being passed to the Association of Professional Tour Caddies and others.

Through it all, Cone says, caddies have lodged in the soul of the game. “When you’re in trouble on the course,” he says, “and you hear a little voice inside that says, ‘Lay up, stupid! Don’t try to hit it through that hole.’ That’s your inner caddy, taking care of you.” ¦

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