Aaron Alpern became something of a folk hero, for 24 hours, when it was discovered that the Buffalo native was the man on the bag for Smylie Kaufman. Kaufman had just played a remarkable third round at the 2016 Masters and had moved into second place. His reward was a spot in Sunday’s final pairing with Jordan Spieth, the defending champion. As we know, Sunday didn’t turn out as planned for either golfer, but Aaron Alpern had the ultimate, inside-the-ropes view of one of golf’s great events. To BuffaloGolfer.Com, Alpern is more than a folk hero; he’s a local boy made good and was kind enough to grant us an interview. Make sure you read all the way through to the end, as you’ll encounter the debut of one of golf’s all-time great quotes.
1. Introduce yourself and tell us a bit about how you got started in golf.
My name is Aaron Alpern and I’m a caddie on the PGA Tour. Golf has always played a central role in my life. My dad introduced me to the game and as early as four years old I was following him to the course carrying a cut-down Bullseye putter. My dad was also my first caddying job. I was nine and we had to punch a new hole in the strap so I could carry the bag without dragging it. I caddied a lot of rounds for my dad and have played a lot more with him. I still caddy him around the course without even thinking about it.
2. What are your personal highlights regarding your own golfing career, in juniors, high school and beyond?
In terms of my own golf, I still expect a lot out of myself despite knowing that I understand the game better than I can play it. I was decent as a junior and high school player. I was on the Nichols golf team all through high school, I won the Cherry Hill junior championship a few times, and traveled the region playing in junior events. The highlight of my junior career was probably making it to the quarterfinals of the International Junior Masters at East Aurora Country Club.
3. How did you get involved in caddying on the PGA Tour?
I worked in public radio for six years after college before caddying. I started as a club caddie in New Jersey for three months, then got on the list of local caddies for the Nationwide Tour event in Rochester at Irondequoit Country Club. I was near the bottom of the local caddie list and there were plenty of tour caddies getting jobs in the parking lot before players could even ask about locals. So I started talking to players myself. Jason Dufner was actually the first player I approached. I had played with him in a junior event in Michigan years before, so it made it easier to ask. Dufner didn’t need a caddie, but that prepared me to talk to Jason Buha, who walked by and asked where the caddiemaster was. I just asked if he needed a caddie for the day or the week. I worked for Buha the rest of the season, nine events total.
4. Give us a list of the players you have caddied for and what you learned from each of those opportunities.
That allowed me to meet more players and get other jobs in the seasons that followed. And I worked for a lot of players after Buha:
And that is only players I worked multiple events for, leaving out one-week jobs and Monday qualifiers. That’s an even bigger list and includes Brendan Steele, Scott Verplank, Marc Turnesa, Mark Hensby, Deane Pappas, Craig Lile, Tommy Tolles, Rex Willoughby, Tim Wilkinson, Cameron Percy, and Scott Gardiner among many others. Working for so many different guys gave me great perspective on the game and the work it takes to make it to the highest level. Spending five seasons on the Nationwide Tour (now web.com) allowed me to learn and improve as a caddie, while also making me hungrier. I was ready for the opportunity late in 2011 when I went to work for Jason Kokrak just as he was about to take off. In five events, he won twice and was 5th in another finishing 4th on the money list and graduating to the PGA Tour. We had three very successful years together on Tour and a bunch of great experiences. I am where I am today because of Jason.
5. How did you happen to get Smylie Kaufman’s bag for the Masters?
How I got here started a year ago when I was “between bags” and looking for work at the PGA Tour event in New Orleans. It was there I had a conversation with veteran caddie Bobby Brown. He said “I know you’re looking for a PGA bag, but there’s this really talented kid on the Web.com Tour that needs a caddie.” Bobby had been asked by Smylie Kaufman’s agent if he knew of any experienced caddies that were available. I was on the phone with the agent 30 minutes later and set up to work for Smylie the next week in Evansville, IN. He won that event by 5 shots.
That kicked off what’s been a magical run. Smylie finished 2nd at another Web.com event and 6th on the tour’s money list. Then as a PGA Tour member in October he debuted with a 10th to start the 2015-16 season and won the next week in Las Vegas coming from seven shots back with a final round 61. That win is what qualified Smylie for the Masters.
6. What did you and Smylie do to prepare for each round? What were his strengths, relative to Augusta National?
Our preparation for Augusta National was similar to how we prepare for all courses, only more of it and spread out over time. We had a yardage book session with his short game coach at a tournament in January. Smylie would pick the brains of other players about their Masters experiences and he made three trips to Augusta in the months before the event. I went twice as his guest and walked along during practice rounds. Much of our work was done before the tournament week even started, letting Smylie enjoy everything that comes with playing the Masters. He made a hole in one in the par 3 contest with his mom caddying for him. Then once the tournament started, he seemed to feed off of the energy of the place. It helped that Augusta fits Smylie’s game perfectly. He is long off the tee, he’s a great putter, and he excels in thinking his way around a golf course. He plays tougher courses well, so this year’s windy conditions were ideal for him. On Saturday, he made it look pretty easy on a day when many players struggled.
7. You found yourselves in the final group on Sunday, something both exhilarating and terrifying. How did you two approach that challenge and what did you anticipate?
Just caddying in the Masters was a thrill, something all caddies strive to achieve. Getting there is big, so it was even more special being in the final group on Sunday. Still, I don’t think either one of us was that nervous. That is a situation you want to be in, it’s what we’re in this business for, you always want late tee times on the weekend. On the putting green before the round, Jordan Spieth’s caddie Michael Greller said it best: “Well, this is why we caddy.”
8. Break it down for us: what was that final round like and did you ever lose heart? You both seemed utterly professional, despite the downturn in Smylie’s fortune.
Obviously Smylie and I would have liked the final round to go better. The scorecard speaks for itself, but the experience gained will be huge down the road. There’s really no bigger stage in golf than the final group on Sunday at The Masters playing with the top player in the sport. That’s the type of experience that there’s no way to replicate. Smylie will be more ready for next time he contends because of this. And he’ll be hungrier too.
9. What question haven’t we asked, that you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it, please.
I’ve had a lot of people ask about what happened to Spieth on number 12. It was certainly a shock watching him hit two into Raes Creek. It was actually a good up and down from the back bunker just to make 7. Smylie made birdie on the same hole and when they got to the tee on 13, Jordan said to Smylie: “Is it me or you?” asking who had the honor. A funny moment despite what had just happened.