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Life on the Bag

Undercover Caddie: Why getting vaccinated is a complicated issue for us

May 06, 2021

Illustration by David Senior

Will we get vaccinated? Usually I feel good about speaking for caddies as a whole. But this isn’t about golf. A lot of us have the same feelings and opinions about the game and our profession, but there are some graveled roads once you get off that path.

Commissioner Jay Monahan stated as recently as March that getting vaccinated is encouraged but not mandatory—it’s a personal choice. A friend of mine who isn’t in the sport asked if that really was the case. Wouldn’t we all be lining up when the chance came? Absolutely not, I said.

People might be surprised to hear that. But on the whole—please underline “on the whole”—guys on tour aren’t spooked by the coronavirus. It’s not that they think it’s made up. A lot of them just think of it like the flu despite scientific evidence to the contrary. Before you judge, let me try to explain.

First, we don’t have a “bubble,” at least not like what the NBA or NHL had during the playoffs last year. Players and caddies have traveled across the country for 10 months since this madness started, and we have all taken the tour’s safety protocols seriously, especially after the 2020 Travelers Championship, where several withdrawals over COVID fears almost derailed the PGA Tour’s season. Everyone’s social lives were curtailed, but we were still in public airports and hotels. The fact that only a dozen or so players have tested positive has relieved that fear for some. A few of the guys who did test positive got really sick, more than fans have been led to believe, and that certainly got our attention. But there’s also a difference between knowing about it and being sick yourself.

Second, a lot of these guys, players and caddies, are 30 or younger. Regardless of what your profession is, at that age a lot of us have a tendency to think we’re invincible. Combine that with the hubris professional athletes have, and there’s a belief that it won’t happen to us. I’m not making excuses. It’s just how it is. I know I’ve been guilty of thinking, If I haven’t gotten sick by now, I must be good.

A number of players and caddies will pass on getting vaccinated—anywhere from a fourth to a third would be my estimate. However, the consequences of not getting vaccinated are much different for caddies than for players, and it has nothing to do with health.

If a player tests positive, he misses a tournament, two at max, and the tour will give him $75,000 for his trouble. Once the player tests negative or shows he is asymptomatic, he can resume play. To the tour’s credit, if a caddie tests positive, he gets $5,000. But there’s no guarantee that caddie will be back. As we’ve mentioned in this space before, caddies are always one bad tournament, round, shot or decision away from being replaced.

Let’s say I’m out for two weeks, and my player gets hot. Or maybe he’s been slumping and sees my positive test as a chance to make a clean break. Maybe he likes the temporary loop more than he likes me. Dumping a guy for getting the virus might sound cold-blooded, but it’s business. (Heck, sometimes we deserve it: In one case, a player almost fired a caddie after the player caught him breaking protocols.) Admittedly, I have some reservations about getting vaccinated, but given that my livelihood is on the line, I’m definitely getting the shot when my number is called.

If caddies want to keep their gig, they might not have a choice. A number of players have politely, but unequivocally, told their caddies they need to get vaccinated if they want to stay on the bag. Don’t think they’re trying to tread on anyone’s personal rights or beliefs; they’re protecting their wives and families more than themselves. My guy, whom I view as a brother, told me I should get it. I was surprised because we really hadn’t discussed it until a week ago. But I know he said that because he just wants what’s best for me.

Other players are not so altruistic. One caddie, at the urging of his man, already got the first shot. After he received it, he told his player thanks. The response? “You’re welcome, but I’m not looking out for you,” the player said. “I need you healthy for me.” —WITH JOEL BEALL