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Life on the Bag

Undercover Caddie: Sometimes it’s better to not get too close to your player

May 31, 2022

Illustration by Chloe Zola

In our living room, my wife and I have photos from our wedding. Among them is a picture of her with the bridesmaids. But there is nothing of me and the groomsmen. That’s because one of the groomsmen was my former player, and I can’t stand the sight of him all dressed up next to me on the biggest day of my life. It’s just too painful.

That player was my first job on tour. It ended with him firing me. I’ve had two bags since then; the current one I’ve been with for some time. Not to brag, but it’s one of the best gigs out here; it has made me more money than I ever thought I would get in this line of work. Yet I’m still not over that breakup because I made a mistake you cannot make as a caddie: I got too close.

I worked with him for seven seasons, but the relationship started well before that when we met on the mini-tours. I didn’t last long as a player, less than three years, but during that time he and I became pretty tight. We would travel together, practice together, party together. That was a special time—when you are no longer in college, but the world still doesn’t look at you as an adult. I thought the bonds I made then were for life.

I had been away from the game for almost two years when he asked me to caddie for him on the then-Nationwide Tour. He was playing well but didn’t have a regular loop and wanted someone he could be comfortable with. I quit a good-paying office job to follow him, and as hard as it was to give up that financial security, it was harder getting myself back in the game. I was still gutted about my playing career not working out, and returning brought back some of that disappointment, but I did it because this was a chance to go into business with my friend. Looking back, that was part of the problem. Because we had this shared experience as mini-tour players, I viewed us as peers rather than employer-employee.

When I started working for him, the experience wasn’t the same as our mini-tour days. Gone were the late nights on the town; he had a girlfriend (who would become his wife) and was ultra-focused on his golf. Still, we enjoyed ourselves when we were at the course, and when his girlfriend wasn’t with him, we would always grab dinner. At the end of our first year he earned his PGA Tour card. During the next four years the dynamic didn’t change much, even as we both got married. If anything, I thought our friendship had deepened. We would go to ballgames and movies, and he got me into a Bible study group. Each fall our families took a vacation together. People ragged on us that we were inseparable.

However, the next two years were different. He wasn’t in danger of losing his tour card and made decent money, but he had been a highly touted amateur who was failing to live up to expectations. Players in his age range—some of whom he had beaten in college—had surpassed him. He was, and still is, a nice, happy guy. But seeing others take what you think should be yours can calcify your insides. Playing no longer seemed like a joy to him, and given that I was the person most associated with his play, he no longer looked at me the same way.

Our relationship finally changed in our last summer together. He was in a rut, and his agent had not-so-subtly suggested that a new caddie might help things go in the right direction. Then, when I had zero room to do so, I made a mistake. On a Friday morning, we were near the cut line at a tournament that he normally played well. We faced a third shot at a par 5, and, long story short, I hadn’t done my early week homework, which led him to hit a poor approach. We needed a birdie; we walked off with a bogey. We didn’t come close to making the weekend. He ground me up like a kid going to town on Big League Chew, deservedly so. But I didn’t think I would be fired. It was my first big screw up, and the next week—while things were still edgy—it wasn’t like he hung it over me. But we missed that cut and the next one.

On Saturday morning, my guy called me. “We’ve been thinking about this for a few months,” he said. “We are going to put someone new on the bag the rest of the year. We hate to do this, but you understand this is part of the business.” We? Who’s we? I thought he and I were we. Even with all the hints that this could happen, I never thought it would. I don’t think I said a word. I did not handle it well, cried that whole day, cried on the flight home, cried when I saw golf highlights a few days later. I felt duped. I felt betrayed. I felt sick and embarrassed at how much I hurt.

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MichaelSvoboda

Here’s the crazy thing: A few weeks later I got a temporary job, and though it didn’t stick, I ran into the same agent who had prodded my firing, and he was looking for someone for a young player in his stable. I’ve been with that player ever since. We have reached the highest of highs together, which has allowed him the freedom to play less, which means I get to spend more time at home while making nearly double the pay. Happy ending, right?

I have been in therapy for more than three years trying to get over that break-up. It has broken some of my other relationships, even though I know there’s nothing transactional about them, at least not like a player-caddie relationship. I just find it hard to trust anyone other than my wife again. To be honest, this is the first time I’ve mentioned it to anyone, even my caddie buddies because I feel like such a rube admitting it affected me this much.

As you can imagine, I run into my old player a lot. Usually a nod, maybe a “Hey, man,” but that’s it. After all those years, all those battles, we’re reduced to that. Admittedly, I’ve taken pleasure in seeing him cycle through a number of caddies since he canned me. That’s another reason I’m in therapy; I hate that I responded that way to others’ misfortunes.

I have a good relationship with my current player. There’s an age difference, so we don’t have a lot in common—I talk more non-golf things with his dad—but it’s hard to argue with the results. Besides, I don’t mind the buffer. I’ve learned the hard way that I need one. —With Joel Beall