Golf in 2019 proved a feel-good moment can long outlive its 'moment'
Jack Miller calls from a war zone. Well, technically it’s a mini-mart in Massapequa, N.Y., but anyone who’s encountered Long Island holiday shoppers—with eggnog on the breath, fury in the heart—knows that’s not a stretch, and the noise emitting from the background does little to quell the comparison. You try to make it to Christmas with body limbs attached, Miller says, half-jokingly.
This is not his first rodeo. Miller, 63, has been working at a grocery store for 30 years. Unloads the trucks at 4 a.m., opens the store by 5:30, tries his best to keep society from devouring itself as it waits in the deli line. It’s a fine job, but not an occupation, one would guess, that produces one of golf’s stories of the year.
Miller, you might recall, is also a part-time caddie at Bethpage State Park and became a folk hero at the PGA Championship in May, his area ties and backstory galvanizing the New York crowds. He was the lone local caddie to carry a bag in the major, paired unexpectedly with Thailand’s Jazz Janewattananond (above photo). For a weekend, Miller was the people’s champ at the people’s course as his man found his way on the leader board, eventually finishing T-14.
“Most of my coworkers aren’t golf fans, so it has faded a bit,” Miller says during a recent phone call. “But the people who know sure got a kick out of it. The articles and headlines are still hanging in the break room. Heck, I’m still getting a kick out of it.”
A moment, by its definition, is over in an instant. Most are forgettable, gone before we realize they even began. The beauty of feel-good moments, however, is they have the power to resonate far outside their lifespan, evolving into lives of their own. For whatever reason—divine intervention, serendipity—golf was blessed with a myriad of such moments in 2019.
Some start small. Amy Bockerstette, a Special Olympian in Arizona, was given the chance to play a practice-round hole with Gary Woodland at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. At TPC Scottsdale’s par-3 16th—a hole not associated with the best humanity has to offer—Bockerstette made a “Did you see that?” up-and-down for par. A performance, wrapped in Bockerstette’s indelible positivity and Woodland’s sincere joy, that went viral twice: the week of the Phoenix Open in February, and again after Woodland won the U.S. Open in June. As of December, the vignette of Amy and Gary has 43 million page views.
“I’ve had a lot of good memories in my life, but that’s one I’ll never forget,” Woodland says. “I’ve been blessed to do lot of cool things on the golf course, but that is by far the coolest thing I’ve ever experienced.”
And if that was that, it would be a video continually rewatched to lift the spirits and warm the soul. But Amy’s 15 minutes are not over. Truth is, her time is just beginning.
The Bockerstette family traveled the country this summer as Amy became a spokesperson for the Special Olympics. She made TV appearances, threw out first pitches, was the keynote speaker for the National Down Syndrome Congress Annual Convention and received a standing ovation for her speech. She met with those like her who don’t see her as a peer but a superhero. The family realized this was more than a celebration, it was a movement. So at her 21st birthday this fall, Amy opened the “I Got This” Foundation, its mission to promote golf instruction and playing opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities.
“What started as this sweet, five-minute clip has spring-boarded into a pursuit for Amy,” says her father, Joe. “She encapsulates so much good, and this endeavor will make sure we keep spreading as much as that feeling as possible.”
Other moments are born out of bad luck. Brandon Matthews had an eight-foot putt to extend a playoff at the Argentine Open, a tournament that came with an Open Championship invite to its winner. Considering Matthews was coming off a rough season on the Korn Ferry Tour, it was a potentially life-changing opportunity. As Matthews took his stroke someone from the gallery cried out. The putt, and the prize attached to it, was not to be.
Even in a game with a taste for the sadistic, this was a ruthless blow. Yet when dealt his cruel fate, Matthews answered not with righteous indignation, but compassion, for he discovered the cry wasn’t from an over-served patron but a fan with Down Syndrome. Matthews returned to the course and found the spectator. The two chatted and laughed, parting ways after Matthews delivered an autograph and embrace.
“Tough break, it happens,” Matthews says. “I thought that was that.”
Only news of Matthews’ benevolence spread, transforming the 25-year-old from a mini-tour golfer into a role model. Mental disabilities is a world often left in the shadows, and here came Matthews, bringing it into the light with a hug.
“So many parents have reached out in the past month with their thanks,” Matthews says. “For many people affected by Down Syndrome, acceptance remains one of the biggest obstacles. To get a chance to play a part in giving their story exposure has been a really humbling experience.”
Scott and Jenn Harrington’s feel-good moment came after a million moments of hell. Scott, who put his aspiring PGA Tour career on hold to care for his wife Jenn as she battled cancer, made a late-season run on the Korn Ferry Tour to earn his PGA Tour card for the first time at 38. In a sport known for requiring a singular drive and focus, Scott’s sacrifice was a testament of love and fidelity.
“In general, people haven’t known me for my whole career except for pretty extreme golf fans,” Harrington says. “So far, just in the early part of the season, the number of people who have … put out their hands and said, ‘Hey, really pulling for you this week’ [is great.] They know our story, and I can tell there’s been a lot of instances like that. It’s really cool and it’s been pretty neat, the response that we’ve gotten from everybody.”
Unfortunately, not all feel-good stories are unadulterated. They can reveal dark underbellies, such as the fallout from last year’s feel-good tale of Matt Kuchar and caddie David (El Tucan) Ortiz. They can be inadvertently overexposed or exploited, to damning effects. Andrew (Beef) Johnston admitted he was not prepared to handle his rise to fame, leading to a breakdown. “I couldn’t even bring myself to go get my clubs from the locker,” Johnston wrote in July of his mental battles, which came to a head at the Australian PGA. “I just left them. I went straight back to the hotel and cried.”
Feel-good moments can be bittersweet. Drew Charter School in Atlanta became the first all-African-American team to win a Georgia state high school golf championship. The school’s success, however, was a reminder of how woefully segregated our game remains: Just 3 percent of recreational golfers are black, a number that drops to 1.5 when it comes to the competitive level.
“It’s time golf gets with it,” said Dr. Michael Cooper, chairman of the Golf 20/20 Diversity Task Force, a group to expand minority opportunities. “There’s an entire community hoping to be embraced.”
Nevertheless, most feel good-moments live up to their modifier. They can be inspiring, as Shane Lowry united a divided Irish isle at the Open Championship at Portrush. They can be heart-breaking, with Cheyenne Knight dedicating her LPGA breakthrough win to her deceased brother. They can be straight out of a Hollywood script, the only description needed for what happened at Augusta National this spring. They can be ephemeral shortcomings that stand tall, evidenced by Rory McIlroy’s valiant Friday run at Royal Portrush.
In our chaotic times, sports are mistakenly devalued in priority. That overlooks the truth that they are one of the few things with the power to unite. The athleticism and spectacle and competition draws us in. And its feel-good moments, big or small, offer much needed opportunities to remain positive and optimistic. They remind us that we can be better, instill us with hope and blanket us with cheer.
As for Miller, he became a luminary the rest of the year at Bethpage, customers begging to have him on their bag. But his celebrity has been cooled by the winds of winter. It’s been awhile since he’s been recognized off the course. There’s a chance he’ll caddie up the road at Winged Foot for the 2020 U.S. Open, although he’s not counting on it. "Whatever happens going forward doesn’t change that week," he says.
Yes, that week. Miller says his job lends itself to daydreaming, and he often finds himself reliving every step of the tournament. Hard not to, he says, when a 40-year dream is compacted into four rounds.
“Man, it went by quickly,” Miller says, “but it’s pretty cool we still can talk about it, right?”
Miller doesn’t need a response; the answer is in his voice. Moments, even of the feel-good variety, are fleeting. Their memories are eternal.