Masters 2019: Caddie confidential—11 questions that uncover the secrets to this year at Augusta National
When it comes to predicting who's going to play well and who isn't, caddies are the ultimate source. They're even closer to the pulse during Masters Week as the tradition of players hanging out at the “caddie shack” beside the practice range has grown. In keeping with the other grand structures on the property, the comfortable spread of food, TVs and chairs creates a nice break away from it all. Indeed, only rookies and former champions tend to use the busier main clubhouse.
For the first time, Golf Digest has partnered with The Caddie Network to bring you the uncensored thoughts of five caddies who will be working the 2019 Masters. (You've heard of The Caddie Network? Yet another sign of the rising station of loopers, the media entity opened in 2018 and has more than 150 caddies who receive equity in the company for their cooperation in creating content.) All we'll divulge about the following five voices is that, in aggregate, they've caddied in 67 Masters and been a part of 22 top-10 finishes and three wins. For a more cohesive reading experience, we've assigned them aliases using Augusta National hole names: Tea Olive, Juniper, Carolina Cherry, White Dogwood and Firethorn.
Who's going to win this year?
WHITE DOGWOOD: Dustin Johnson. When he's on, he's the best in the world. Mentally, he's perfect for Augusta because he doesn't get rattled by a tough break, and he doesn't give an F about anyone else. I'm still dumbfounded that he hasn't won the Masters. I think he knows it's time to prove to his boy Brooks Koepka that he's still No. 1.
JUNIPER: Ditto on Dustin. Augusta is getting longer and longer, so driving is becoming even more important.
TEA OLIVE: Justin Rose. He's the No. 1-ranked player in the world. Most of all, for the biggest events, he prepares better. All told, he has 15 top-10 finishes in the majors, including the win at Merion. Since 2009, he's finished outside the top 20 in the Masters just once and has been a runner-up twice [2015 and 2017]. New clubs, new clothes, new sponsors—he's coming into his own.
FIRETHORN: I'm taking Rosey, too. Who could possibly have more confidence now? He's become a better putter, and he loves the place. As for Dustin, it's not just a flight of stairs that's kept him from winning it. The course doesn't suit his eye. He likes to hit a cut, and it's not a great shape for the course. That means more 3-woods off tees and more pressure on putting, and DJ isn't a great fast-greens putter.
CAROLINA CHERRY: Bubba Watson. Hits it long, hits it right to left and loves putting on fast, undulating greens—I don't know why, because I grew up near where he did, and it was hard to find greens anywhere faster than six on the Stimp. Bubba's the kind of guy who plays way better when he's comfortable, and something about Augusta puts him at ease. Maybe the clean tree lines help him see clearly how he needs to shape shots. He'll finish his career with four green jackets.
Any chance Patrick Reed successfully defends?
JUNIPER: I was surprised he won last year, but not shocked. He has an amazing short game and one of the strongest heads on tour. That said, I see him putting too much pressure on himself to defend.
WHITE DOGWOOD: Patrick is a player who rides his play, and it gives him great confidence. But it's hard to follow up. He also had some tough months after the Ryder Cup. A lot went on there with how he tried to take down his captain and teammates. Those are hard things to overcome. I don't think his iron play is consistent enough to repeat, and his driver hasn't been quite the same since.
TEA OLIVE: Once you win at Augusta, it's always possible to win again. Probably more true there than at any other course.
Photo by Alan P. Pittman
Who else is going to factor?
WHITE DOGWOOD: Jordan Spieth. I don't care how bad he's playing, he'll find it at Augusta. The place is special to him. It's truly amazing how he reads and putts those greens. I was fortunate to see it up close a few times in recent years, just how aggressive he gets with the putter there. He has some demons on 12, but he's strong and will overcome them and win another Masters, for sure.
FIRETHORN: Louis Oosthuizen has his mind ready to play this year. He's come so close at Augusta, and he's a great speed putter.
JUNIPER: I think Phil Mickelson has one last run in him to become the oldest Masters champion in history [at 48]. He has a ton of course knowledge and is able to elevate his game when he really wants to.
Top players likely to miss the cut?
TEA OLIVE: Bryson DeChambeau. Even though he's won a bunch, I see the place taking him out of his zone. There are too many elevation changes and slopes on the greens for him to work out precisely. He likes prepping on the practice green with a slope device, which Augusta doesn't allow. The guy wears caddies out with how much information he wants. I see him getting frustrated without his green-reading book. He hasn't developed the patience for majors yet.
WHITE DOGWOOD: Bryson drives it great, and his aggressive iron play is impressive. What concerns me is his chipping. He seems somewhat limited on shot selection because his clubs are long and super upright, which makes it difficult to get under the ball at Augusta. He's proven to be a very emotional player, which can prevent you from winning majors.
CAROLINA CHERRY: Call me crazy, but I think Tiger's more due to miss the cut than ever. Obviously, his record here is all-time, but it just feels like his driver woes can pop up anytime now. You can't hit into the quadrants of those firm greens when you're out of position. And Father Time is catching up with his putter.
What do you predict for Tiger Woods in all the majors?
WHITE DOGWOOD: He can totally compete and win at Augusta this year. He would want nothing more than to get his 15th major there. He knows the place better than anyone—yes, even Phil. Tiger's next-best chance for a major this year will be the PGA at Bethpage, where he's won before. It's a long course that requires great iron play and a great short game—both his strengths—and PGA setups are always the fairest test. I don't know much about Royal Portrush, and neither does Tiger, so I'd say the U.S. Open will be his third-best chance. Pebble Beach will be the shortest major course this season, and it will probably have the tightest fairways. Perfect for Tiger's stinger 2-iron.
JUNIPER: I'd rank Tiger's chances at the majors in 2019 as (1) U.S. Open—don't think I need to expound given what he did there in 2000. (2) Masters—he knows where he can and can't spray the driver. (3) Open Championship—won't have to hit a lot of drivers, and the success last year at Carnoustie will give him confidence. (4) PGA—I wouldn't count him out from any tournament, but I've got to put this last. Some cold New York May weather and that 43-year-old body won't mix.
Photo by Alan P. Pittman
Is the pressure of completing the Grand Slam at Augusta getting to Rory McIlroy?
WHITE DOGWOOD: Yes, 100 percent. His few years of poor putting, which all the media can't talk about enough, has probably gotten to him more than he would like to admit. He was in six final groups last year and didn't win any of those. I know it's hard to win, but we're talking about Rory Mcllroy—the most talented player in the world! Golf is better when Rory is dominating like Tiger once did. But don't count him out. He's still Rory.
CAROLINA CHERRY: I wasn't surprised when Rory shot 74 in the final group last year paired with Reed. It's a difficult golf course. Even though Rory would seem to have the ideal game for Augusta—awesome driver, towering second shots that land hole-high and spin—the mind is a powerful thing. His past collapses there have built scar tissue that will be hard to overcome.
FIRETHORN: The pressure's not affecting Rory. He loves pressure. He simply doesn't putt well enough to win at Augusta.
FIRETHORN: Cam Smith. Played great last year [T-5] and has gained distance since. He's also a great chipper and excellent putter.
WHITE DOGWOOD: Xander Schauffele—he's a killer. Great mind. He has all the tools to play Augusta well. Though iron play might be his weak area, and second shots are the most important at the National, he'll be OK if he can just put his ball in the right spots to allow that putter to work. This will be Aaron Wise's first Masters, and he's a bomber who can get hot. Tony Finau is also bound to have that career-changing victory. Just keeps coming up big and racking up top-10s in majors.
TEA OLIVE: It doesn't make sense to me that Gary Woodland has missed the cut in his past three Masters starts. He's such a powerful player that I still like him despite his record. I'd also take Matthew Fitzpatrick. Tied for seventh in the 2016 Masters, and just a fantastic putter.
CAROLINA CHERRY: Patrick Cantlay has the mental and emotional capacity to handle Augusta National. He'll roll with the punches that inevitably come there.
Photo by Alan P. Pittman
Who haven't we covered that we ought to?
WHITE DOGWOOD: Jason Day had two wins last year but wasn't really a factor in the majors. Is it because he parted ways with [longtime caddie] Colin Swatton? Jason seems to now lack confidence. He's made some bad decisions down the stretch in big tournaments, like making a quad at the last at the PGA at Quail Hollow on Saturday. That cost him a shot at contending on Sunday, and you can't make those mistakes at Augusta. His driver and iron play are spotty, but that putter is still deadly. He'll finish top 20. Justin Thomas has all the tools for Augusta, but golfers seem to have 18-month hot streaks, and JT is coming off his. As for Rickie Fowler, I can't quite figure him out. Great driver, and at times a great putter, but he might putt too aggressively for Augusta National. Wouldn't surprise me at all if he had a good tournament, but I don't see him winning. I don't see [Francesco] Molinari being a factor, either. Had a career season last year. Even if he flushes his irons, I don't think his putter will hold up.
TEA OLIVE: Jon Rahm does everything well, but I think he needs a couple more years around Augusta.
Does a shorter hitter have a chance to win the Masters?
CAROLINA CHERRY: It has to be cold and windy for a shorter hitter to even have a remote chance. The par 5s turn into a wedge and putting contest. That's what happened in 2007, when Zach Johnson won. He had a strategy for going at pins and missing on the correct side to get up and down, and he stuck to it when the moment got big. There aren't many short hitters nowadays, but a guy who isn't long who could win is Kevin Kisner. Local boy who's used to playing in all sorts of weather down there. And he's got the cojones to get it done.
Can a Masters rookie win?
FIRETHORN: It's possible, but there are just so many things to learn about the course. There's figuring out your best leave-distance not only into each green, but each hole location. On top of that, playing in your first Masters is for most guys finally living out a dream, which leads to an unfocused, “happy to be here” mentality.
CAROLINA CHERRY: Maybe if the rookie has an experienced caddie. I'd have him play with as many past champions as possible in the practice rounds. I remember watching Mark O'Meara shoot 69 hitting it awful. Every green he missed, he left himself an uphill chip into the grain. A rookie needs to see a lot of that.
WHITE DOGWOOD: You're being contacted by your cousins and all their cousins about tickets. Media is talking to you about your first Masters. Your caddie doesn't know what he's going to wear under his jumpsuit. You act like it's the only tournament you're going to play all year, and so your prep isn't the same. You're gassed by Thursday.
Rate the walk.
CAROLINA CHERRY: It's one of the top-three most difficult walks for caddies on tour. Maui is the toughest, and Reno is probably the second-toughest.
WHITE DOGWOOD: It's a privilege to wear the iconic jumpsuit, but those hills make your calves burn. Starts at No. 1, then a sneaky hill on No. 5 to a monster at No. 8. Nine is another one that's steeper than TV makes it look. But then on the back nine you get somewhat of a break until No. 18, the beast at the end. But then it's time for a beer!