Life on the Bag
Undercover Caddie: The worst mistakes a looper can make
Come with me as I travel back to one of the biggest Oh, crap! moments of my career. My player was heading to a sponsor event after a Wednesday practice round during a tournament week. Usually this is something he’ll do by himself, but this time he invited me. As part of the event, he did a short clinic, so we brought his clubs. The night went well, but as we were leaving, we had trouble with the courtesy car. It was late, so I volunteered to exchange the car, and my player hitched a ride with another player at the event. I switched rental cars and headed to my hotel, looking forward to sleeping in for the next day’s afternoon tee time.
One problem: In the middle of the night, I woke up in a panic because I had left my player’s clubs in the banged-up rental car. In the hours from realization until I recovered them, I thought my career might be over. When I eventually got to the course with the bag (on time, I should add), my player took one look at me and said, “You start doing underground fight clubs? Because you look like s—.” I couldn’t tell him … and I still haven’t.
Like any profession, mistakes happen in our line of work. If your player is a reasonable person, he or she will understand that. The key is making sure the mistakes are not catastrophic. One time, I was with a player I’d only been with for a few weeks, and we were at the old playoff event at Liberty National. During a practice round my player had some betting action going with a friend. We got to a drivable par 4, and my guy wanted to give it a rip, but I talked him out of it. I told him the last time I worked at the event I saw a ridge on the green ricochet everything long and left, which is dead. I told him it was better to try to make birdie by laying up, and he listened. His opponent then hit a wood onto the green to 25 feet. The ball hadn’t even stopped rolling before the opponent and his caddie were laughing at us. It turned out that “ridge” had been removed in between the tour’s visits to Liberty National. I didn’t lose my player the match, but he made me buy dinner.
In a U.S. Open qualifier, I once saw a caddie (who, in this person’s defense, was not a full-time caddie) knock over the entire bag into a pond. Balls fell out, and the player had to try to fish out as many as he could. At one World Golf Championship, a caddie took an iron out of his player’s bag to stretch his back only to accidentally snap the club. Another time, a prank went awry. On the then-Nationwide Tour, a caddie attempted to “ice” his player. This was during the national craze of hiding a Smirnoff Ice in the hopes an unsuspecting victim would find the sugary alcoholic drink and be forced to chug it on the spot. Well, the player found the Smirnoff Ice … right in front of his girlfriend and her parents. Word eventually got back to tournament officials that a player had pulled out alcohol on a tee box. Amazingly, the caddie did not get fired. I do not know if the same could be said of the player and his girlfriend.
'I woke up in a panic because I had left my player’s clubs in the banged-up rental car.'
The best story, however, comes from a former roommate I had on the road. Early one Sunday morning, the player and caddie were going to be done well before the final group went off. It had been a rough few weeks for the player. After they finished, the player pulled the caddie aside and told him, “You know, I think we need some time off to get right. Why don’t you go home, then we’ll get back after it fresh.” The caddie thought his guy was taking a week off, especially with a major championship coming up, so he flew home to Florida rather than to the next tour stop in Texas. When the caddie got off the plane, he got a text from his player to meet at the course on Monday afternoon. The caddie then realized his player meant take Sunday afternoon off, not the week.
Other mistakes are more common, like giving a bad yardage. This happens for a few reasons. Sometimes we have the wrong pin sheet for the day. Luckily, we’re usually able to figure this out by the first green, although I had a buddy go nine holes before realizing his mistake—and his player still was under par for the round! We can also give a bad yardage if we get flipped around. At the Players Championship one year, I told my player on our opening hole the number to clear the bunker on the right side of the green. Any moron could have looked up and realized there was no bunker on the right side of the green. I was looking at the 10th hole, and we were on No. 1.
A third reason we occasionally give a bad number? Well, the seasons can be long, the days can be hot, and suddenly two plus two equals five. It happens to me at least once a year. Most of the time my player catches on. A few times he hasn’t, including once when a shot with a 5-iron that should have been a 7-iron hit a spectator in the kneecap. Somehow we still saved par, although I’m sure my player would not say “we.”
Another mistake that happens frequently is handing the player the wrong club. Lots of players have irons that are essentially the same clubhead but bent to different degrees. Some guys switch out wedges quite a bit, so we accidentally pull the wrong one all the time.
Another common faux pas is leaving rain gear out of the bag. You leave it out only if you’re 100 percent sure it’s not going to rain. The problem is, it’s amazing how often it rains when the forecast says there’s little chance. Aside from getting your player soaked, you can occasionally run into trouble because a lot of sponsors pay to have their names on a player’s clothing, rain gear included. To see those logos soaked, or worse, covered in a jacket provided by the tournament, can get a player in trouble with his backers.
We also need to be careful with how we frame a putt. If a putt is going to be slow, we can’t say, “Don’t leave it short” because the player could then blow it by the hole. Instead, we might say, “This one is a bit uphill.” The details matter.
Only a handful of mistakes are unforgivable, like having 15 clubs in the bag, not packing enough balls or accidentally causing a rules issue (such as lining up a player when the player is taking a stance). While we’re here, no, Brooks Koepka shouldn’t have been penalized for caddie Ricky Elliott mouthing the word “five” to Gary Woodland and Woodland’s caddie, Brennan Little, at the 2023 Masters. While soliciting advice is a clear violation of the rules, it happens all the time.
One rules issue caddies do cause, especially on the LPGA Tour and mini-tours, is accidentally putting the bag next to the wrong ball. Unlike the PGA Tour, these circuits don’t have as many marshals, so we can get mixed up. I’ve seen this at least half a dozen times, usually when pitching out of deep rough by the green. You might think that’s the player’s mistake, but the player is thinking about the next shot. It’s our job to know which ball is the right one.
As you can see, caddies make plenty of mistakes—but not all are equal. Anytime I give a bad yardage, I always think, Hell, at least I’m here. Apparently, for some of us, that’s half the battle. —With Joel Beall
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