PGA Championship 2019: The most popular person at Bethpage is one of its own, a grocery-store manager moonlighting as a caddie
FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — Jack Miller was beaming like a new proud papa in front of the Bethpage clubhouse, and judging by the endless back-pats and handshakes and attaboys, you'd be forgiven for thinking that was the case. You could even make the argument he was, as his 50-year dream had just come into existence.
"I mean, good gracious, can you believe this?" Miller says, his face lit like the Fourth of July sky. "How good is this? How good!"
Tiger Woods entered the 2019 PGA Championship as its star; Brooks Koepka has proved its conqueror. Its folk hero, however, has not hit a shot.
That would be Miller, the only Bethpage caddie in the tournament field, on duty this week for Jazz Janewattananond. In itself, the local ties are enough to galvanize the crowds, and they have. Miller has 30 family and friends following him this week, and word quickly spread that one of Long Island's own was inside the ropes.
"He's brought so many fans around," Janewattananond said. "Maybe that's part of the reason why New York loves me. Must be the caddie."
"Somebody must have told somebody, 'cuz I sure don't know that many people," Miller said.
But those local ties don't come close to encapsulating Miller's story.
The 63-year-old carried his first bag around the Black course in 1969. "That's what everyone did around here back then, it's what we were supposed to do," Miller says. He loved it: the job, the game, his customers, his comrades. The job planted aspirations to one day caddie in the big leagues. "Oh man, did I think that would be the coolest," he says about being a tour jock.
That didn't happen. Life got in the way, as it tends to do. Caddieing went from fantasy profession to part-time position, but it never ceased being his passion. A family to provide for, Miller took a job at a frozen-foods store in nearby Massapequa, and has been in the supermarket business since high school. He's now the store manager at King Kullen, unloading truck deliveries at 4 a.m. and opening the store daily at 5:30.
That includes during the tournament. "I'm gonna get something to eat, have a couple brews, then get some sleep," Miller said on Saturday evening. "Have to be up early."
Not that he's complaining. This week wasn't supposed to happen, at least not like this. He was scheduled to work the driving range, helping pick and sort balls. But his boss, Dave Casper, who was supposed to caddie for Janewattananond, hurt his hand a month ago, and the injury didn't heal. So on Sunday, as they were driving into the state park, Casper told Miller he was on deck.
"It all happened so fast," Miller said. "Suddenly I'm getting my picture taken and getting passes and access to amazing food spreads. I mean, I get a better parking spot this week than I usually do!"
While it was easy to get star struck, Miller knew he was there to do a job. He quickly tried to strike up a rapport with Janewattananond, who had just fired his regular caddie at the Volvo China Open. Miller's fears of a language barrier were quickly alleviated, as Janewattananond spoke clear English.
Not that the communication was smooth sailing at first.
"He talks softly, and he was having trouble hearing me. I think my New Yorker accent threw him a bit," Miller says.
A bigger disconnect turned out to be age. Janewattananond told Miller he wanted to play his practice rounds with fellow Thai Kiradech Aphibarnrat. Jazz said Aphibarnrat had been like a father-figure to him. "Father figure? He's 29! What does that make me, great grandpa?" Miller said.
Despite the generational gap, the two began to bond, and what was disjointed conversation earlier in the week has been filled with stories and jokes.
"You better believe we're cooking now," Miller said.
It's showed on the scoreboard. The 23-year-old Janewattananond, making just his second career major start, is in a tie for second heading into Sunday thanks to a third-round 67, the low score of the day.
Miller knocks down any notion his local knowledge has had anything to do with the score. "I'm just trying to make sure the kid is comfortable," Miller says. "He has all the shots. Maybe not as long as Koepka, your Dustin Johnsons, but he's long enough. All I'm trying to do is make sure he's having fun."
Like all good caddies, Miller is humble to a fault. He even admitted embarrassment at all the crowd love he was getting, at one point on Saturday pulling Jazz aside after the first hole to ask if he was OK with it.
"He looked at me and said, 'Are you kidding? This is great!'" Miller relayed. They emerged in step from Round Swamp Road tunnel, and Jazz, who had erred on the side of introversion most of the week, began returning the fist-bumps fired in his direction from the crowd.
"He's really getting a kick out of it," Miller says of Jazz. "The crowds have just been great to him."
A seven-shot deficit to Koepka will likely be too much to overcome in 18 holes, but there's a lot at stake for Janewattananond on Sunday. A runner-up finish gets him into next year's Masters, would likely bring enough OWGR points for a Pebble Beach invite, and perhaps most importantly, a $1.1 million paycheck. Given the cash up for grabs—along with golf's caddie-payment controversy—a reporter asked Miller if he and Jazz had discussed their arrangement. After all, a usual round at the Black confers an $80 to $100 tip.
"No, no, no, I'm not getting into that," Miller said. "Especially since my wife might be reading this."
Besides, Miller says, you can't put a price on this experience. It's a moment he's dreamed about his entire life, and it's lived up to the billing.
He's doing his best to cherish Janewattananond's play and the crowd's adoration. As he was lining Jazz up on the 18th hole, a fan yelled, "Show him the way, Jack!" Miller and Janewattananond obliged, and both raised their hands in celebration.
Unfortunately, it's about to come to an end. There is one more round left, and then Jazz and Miller will part ways. Janewattananond back to splitting time between the Asian and European circuits, Miller to shelving cabbage. Miller thinks he'd work well with Janewattananond on a regular basis, but Long Island to Shanghai is a hell of a commute.
"It's gone by fast," Miller says. "I wish time would just stop."
Miller plans on staying at the grocery store until 11 a.m. or so on Sunday. He says most of his fellow employees don't understand the gravitas of his undertaking. "They're not golfers; they think this is just a normal week for me at the course," he says.
But at least one person knows what this means to Jack. That would be his daughter, who works in the Bethpage restaurant. If anyone had a smile as big as Jack, it was her.
"I'm just so proud," she said. "They played so great today, even though Jazz had two bogeys, which I'm blaming on the caddie [laughter]. I'm so so happy."
Father and daughter posed together for a local television crew. His arm around his daughter, Jack tells the camera, "Hey, how good is this, huh?"
After a short pause, Miller answers his own question. "Let me tell you, pretty dang good."