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A Masters collapse is something you never get over

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March 28, 2023

Editor's Note: This is one of two Undercover Caddie Masters collapse stories, if you can believe it. Check out the other one here.

We understood the finality. My player had been a professional for some time, and although he and his game had aged well, he knew there wasn’t much time left to compete. He knew he didn’t have much of a track record at Augusta National. Yet that year, on that week, he went low. We didn’t have the lead, but we had a real shot. At this stage of his career, it was likely going to be the only one we would get.

It’s no secret that some pros don’t love the game the way fans do. You can get jaded by the business, the travel, the defeats and the reality that you’re not as good as you think. That wasn’t my player. He loved everything about golf, especially the Masters. He knew its history and how lucky he was to play in it. One year he missed the cut and decided to stay for the weekend and watch it as a fan, which isn’t something you often see. I think that’s what hurt his performance over the years; he wanted it too much and played outside himself.

However, one year everything clicked. Friday was flawless; in tough conditions, he had total control over his game. Saturday was another good day, and when we departed that evening, I believed he was mentally ready for the final 18. My adrenaline was flowing, too; I had to remind myself to eat dinner around 10 p.m. My grandpa used to take me to the Masters when I was in high school, and I wanted a win for him and for my parents, who helped me out financially during the early lean years. I also wanted the win for myself; caddieing has given me a nice life, but I still felt judged by some friends and past romantic relationships who never quite understood why I got into this or who looked at caddieing as a servant job. A win, I believed, would provide the validation I wanted from them.

My player was a good person, but he could be passionate, and sometimes that would rub people the wrong way. I loved it. I knew it wasn’t personal; he just held himself and others to a high standard and hated falling short of it, but on that Sunday, when he showed up to the course, he was as muted as he had ever been. His friends noticed it, too; they thought it was an attempt to play it cool. Personally, I think he was reacting to the gravity of what was ahead. Think what it would be like to work your entire life for one goal, and it was now on the line.

We didn’t play great on the front, but the score was good, and the leaders were struggling, so we were able to chip away at our deficit. Then it happened—to protect the innocent I won’t say where it started or what we made or how we made it—but we went from firmly in contention to needing some magic in a hurry. I’m not trying to dramatize his reaction, but truthfully, when he handed me his putter, I thought he was in a state of shock.

I wish I could tell you I gave him some rah-rah speech. I didn’t. I thought the best way to move forward was to act like it didn’t happen. Besides, every hole at Augusta commands your full attention. Also, that wasn’t the type of relationship I had with my player, and I worried it would be forced. I’ve often wondered, however, if that situation called for a little red-ass from me to get him back in the game. I don’t think it would have made a difference, but keeping the status quo clearly didn’t help, either.

The magic didn’t happen. We walked away with par on a hole where we had a good look at birdie. It felt like we gave another shot back; then my player came completely undone. We barely made it off 18 before his eyes filled with tears, and he cried when he saw his mom 20 minutes later. It was the only time in two decades of good times and bad that I saw him cry.

We finished in the top 10, but we were wrecked afterward. It took me a few weeks to get over what happened. My player was in a funk for months. At one point his agent asked me if I thought he was depressed. Years later, my player told me he barely remembers what happened after the Masters. The first thing he recalls is throwing his wife a birthday party, and that was a week before the Fourth of July. More than any other event, the Masters is what he wanted, and he felt that was gone forever.

It turned out that week wasn’t our only chance. We contended a few more times at major championships. But we were never as close as that week, which is why that one sticks with us. People ask how my life would have changed if we had won. I’m not sure. Maybe I would have a nicer apartment, but I’m on the road so much I don’t have time for a house, and my place still suits me. Heaven forbid I lose my job and don’t get it back, I’m comfortable enough where I’m not getting evicted. Also, I don’t need that validation from anyone anymore. A win would certainly be sweet, but I’m at a point in my life where I know just being in contention for the Masters is a thing to be proud of.

For him I know the road that went untraveled. It would have changed his retirement. He got into broadcasting for a bit, and without much formal training he was sharp. He understood that with his playing résumé—good and respectable but far from great—he had a ceiling as to how far he could go. Most guys in the booth have a major to their names. Even as he was trying to move on, he told me, he couldn’t; his past was dictating his future.

We are no longer together full time, and though I still have a full-time gig on tour, I’ve picked up his bag on occasion during my off weeks. Still, that week at Augusta is never far off. He told me he was once at a country club outing, and someone asked if he could sign a flag. He said sure, only to be handed a Masters flag, and looking at it felt like a gut punch. “It still hurts,” he told me. —With Joel Beall