Life on the Bag
Undercover Caddie: Ranking members of a player’s entourage by importance
Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson
Professional golf is no longer an individual sport. Go to the practice range at a PGA Tour event, and you’ll see players surrounded by their own pit crews. Often, the younger or more successful the player, the bigger the entourage. I’m pretty sure some guys can host their own five-on-five pick-up game.
How important are all these people to a player’s performance? Some of those “team duties” range from redundant to irrelevant to odd, and the bigger the team, the more likely there are hangers-on who are trying to get a taste of tour life. At a recent dinner, I ranked the individuals in a player’s circle from least important to most important. As you will see, “important” has different connotations. —With Joel Beall
As caddies, the more information we have, the better informed our advice will be, but golf numbers don’t reveal the same hard truths as they do in other sports. Our playing fields are drastically different week to week, with the conditions changing daily or hourly. One good or bad round can alter a stat for months. Some information on overall strategy is useful, like how a field or player is attacking a certain hole, but that data is readily available and doesn’t need to be contextualized by a stats guru. There are broad takeaways from a year’s worth of output, but it is a waste of resources for guys to devote time and money outside of a yearly check-in.
This isn’t a criticism of what this group does. It’s just that, for tour pros, it’s often hard to notice whether an equipment change or an adjustment is helping or hurting.
This one stings. There’s no doubt we can help players in preparation and putting them in the right mind-set. But when I see players bring a friend, girlfriend or wife on the bag and do just as well, I wonder, Hmm, maybe we aren’t that valuable. We don’t do much damage, but sometimes I wonder if we truly raise a player’s ceiling. Let’s move on before I get depressed.
I’ve caddied for roughly 15 seasons and been blessed to work with players who I’ve become close with. There are two opposite examples where a wife had a direct impact on what happened inside the ropes. In the first instance, my guy was in a major slump. Forget losing his tour card, he wanted to give up the game. His wife was such a force of positive affirmation that her belief in him helped him get through, and the guy went on to win many more times on tour. Conversely, another player was going through a bitter divorce, and when he was struggling, he pointed out that the drop in earnings meant she wouldn’t get as much when they split. There’s no way that situation would not affect your play.
You know who swing coaches are perfect for? You, the amateur, not PGA Tour players. Swing coaches are mechanics: If you need to get your oil changed or tires rotated, you’re fine. If you start talking about fixing the engine, we ain’t coming out of the garage for a while. I’ve seen more players hurt by swing coaches than those who have been helped, and that includes a multi-major winner who fell apart after trying to add distance. The recurring issue is attempting a systematic overhaul to the very thing that got you this far. If it goes wrong, swing coaches can tank everything.
If you poll my fellow caddies, they would likely say agents and managers aren’t important because a lot of us view many of them like bar bouncers, wielding more power than they really have. But a good agent helps declutter a player’s life to let him focus on what’s important. A bad one focuses on the money without realizing that could come at the expense of what’s getting the player that money. An agent matters.
Don’t think of trainers as the meatheads in tight shirts yelling at you in the gym. Out on tour, trainers are optimizing the golfer’s body for his specific needs. Yes, some of that includes weightlifting, but it’s more about flexibility, durability, injury prevention or alleviating pain. It’s about still feeling fresh when you’re playing with the lead on Saturday afternoon in the heat or playing for the fifth time in six weeks. If a player doesn’t have a trainer, I know he’s not getting all he can out of his game.
I go back and forth on how important mental coaches are. I’ve seen really good players turn into killers after working on their mental games. I’ve also seen killers turn into average players after working on their mental games. This is not a knock on psychologists; it’s just that the spectrum of results is the widest of any group on the list. In fact, there’s one name in the golf world struggling right now, and his caddie told me a lot of the issues began when he started going to therapy. Go figure.
Some of the short-term dividends could be rough, especially when going through a grip or philosophy change. But, man, short-game coaches always deliver, and rarely do they backfire. The best way to get better is to work with a short-game coach.
I can’t tell you how many careers went sideways, were delayed or didn’t go where they should have because of a player’s non-golfer friends. In other sports, athletes have their teammates, coaches and front offices that hold them accountable, so bad influence can usually be checked. But if a golfer is hanging out with the wrong crowd, there’s no onus for anyone to speak up, and that can be corrosive. So much has to go right outside the ropes for a player to have success inside them, and the wrong type of friends will lead to poor play.