Last summer, I traveled across the Midwest covering Tour events for a blog and school project. Along the way, I had the opportunity to meet and interview dozens of players, and I was lucky to develop good relationships with a handful of them.

One of these players was Kevin Johnson, a Tour journeyman who never lasted on the PGA Tour but made a successful living over two decades on the circuit, winning six times. For whatever reason, Johnson took a liking to me over the summer and extended a once-in-a-lifetime offer: the chance to caddy, for him, for a week, in a real tournament. The event took place in sweltering mid-August heat, halfway across the country in Springfield, MO, but there was no way I was saying no.

On my blog, I kept a running diary of my experiences over that memorable week. Over the next few weeks, I will describe the events of my time caddying, day by day, in a series. This is the first installment.


Caddying in Triple-A Golf: Day 1

August 6, 2012

As I was making the short ten-minute drive from my hotel to Highland Springs CC, the nerves started to kick in. I was finally here, about to start my week of caddying for a professional golfer. Not for a friend in a district event, with nothing more than pride and recognition at stake. Big money on the line. Over $100,000.

I promptly made two wrong turns, and it took me almost 20 minutes to take the drive that should have taken six according to my GPS. I even drove completely past the course, with the course in clear sight to my right. Nice job, KP.

From there, things improved. I found the caddy lot easily once I entered the club gates, and caddy parking was a little bit closer than I had envisioned. I was bracing myself for a near-half hour walk to the range, and it was really only 5-7 minutes or so. Can’t complain. By then, I was even getting used to the heat.

So I made the trek to the range, where Kevin Johnson (now to be referred to as KJ) told me to meet him. I found him holding court on the left side of the lower section of the range (there was an upper and lower section), telling stories with Charles Warren and his caddy. I had always read about how players like to chat it up during the early practice days, and this confirmed the reports. Hanging out right next to them, listening to stories about various vagabond caddies, was pretty cool. Warren asked me to keep most of it off the record, and I will oblige.

All I can say is, caddying is definitely an unique lifestyle, especially on the Triple-A circuit. Traveling from place to place, week after week, carrying a heavy bag in sometimes oppressive heat. Knowing that you won’t get paid too well unless your guy notches a high finish, which is rare for plenty of the competitors on the circuit. It takes a special type of person to commit to the lifestyle for a long period of time, and I respect those who make the commitment.

Warren’s caddy was the first one I met, and I learned that he has been to Buffalo a lot, as a former caddy for Dudley Hart (from Clarence). This caddy (I’m pretty sure his name was Joe) even lived in Williamsville for a year or two, and reminisced to me about DiBella’s Subs. I always say it: if there’s one thing Buffalo has going for it, it’s food.

Joe has also caddied for Tripp Isenhour and Kent Jones on the professional circuits, and was willing to chat with me about some of the particulars of caddying in the big leagues. His main message? Make sure not to step in the through line (anywhere in a direct line between a player’s ball and the hole, even past the hole). Joe told me about a Tour pro who stepped in another player’s through line (he didn’t realize he was doing anything wrong), and an argument that ensued. I better make sure to remember the through line all week.

Joe said he has caddied for about 15 years out on Tour, so he surely knows what he’s talking about. For him to be completely willing to chat with me, a novice caddy, was appreciative.

Joe and I had our discussion at the caddy registration tent, where I signed a registration form and received my caddy badge. Just like that, I was an official caddy on the Tour, if only for a week. I better not lose that badge.

After the discussion with Joe, I headed back to KJ’s post, where he was working his way through his irons. We talked a bit as he was warming up, and he gave me a few pointers on caddying. He instructed me on how much to wet his towel before cleaning his clubs, and showed me the proper slot in the bag for each of his clubs. He told me I would be tested eventually. Wonder what happens if I fail the test.

I got the chance to ask KJ about his experience Friday night/Saturday morning in Columbus, when he needed a par on his final hole Saturday morning to make the cut, after driving into the left rough before play was suspended on Friday night.

After hitting a great approach to 8 feet, KJ had a steep downhill putt for birdie. Making it would be nice, but the two-putt was required to make the cut. He wanted no part of a 4-foot comebacker for par, so he lagged the birdie effort near the hole and tapped in for the easy par. Even though he didn’t do too much on the weekend, at least he was able to cash a check.

We talked a bit about life on Tour, and the fine line between making the big tour and toiling in the minors. KJ has had status on the Tour since 1996, with six wins to his credit, but has only had full PGA Tour status for two full seasons. He spoke fondly of a week at the Bob Hope where he went low and finished more than 20 under par, but also reflected on how he never really played too well when he had the chance to play in the big leagues.

In 2009, KJ won twice on the circuit, more than enough to gain PGA Tour status for 2010. He shot 18-under and 20-under in those two weeks, and said he felt those weeks would have placed him high against PGA Tour competition. He said it’s not as if he thinks courses are better for his game. It’s just a matter of timing, playing well at certain times and poorly at others. Maybe if he gets another chance to play in the big leagues, the timing will align.

While on the range, KJ instructed me to go to the TaylorMade trailer, where I could get a few hats to wear during the week as his caddy. I went into the trailer, where the TaylorMade rep was gracious and polite, and got the hats. Later, KJ talked to the rep, and told me the rep was taken aback by my politeness. He told me that most caddies wouldn’t be as polite, and that I’ll become like that if I start hanging around the caddies too much. From most accounts so far, an interesting picture of the caddying type emerges.

From there, we headed to lunch – KJ to the players’ locker room, and me to the caddying tent. He told me to meet him at the putting green about a half hour later.

29 minutes later, I showed up at the putting green, late. KJ was waiting for me, ready to tee off, since the 10th tee was wide open for play. Oops. Despite my mistake, he was kind enough to grab me a sandwich, which I threw in the bag for later.

On the tee, he gave me a few more instructions: stand on the right side of the tee box, never grab a club for him before he makes a decision (it can cause conflicting or confusing thoughts), and clean all irons soon after each shot. Easy enough, right?

By the end of the nine holes, I had broken every rule, inadvertently of course.

He also told me that he would trust himself with all yardages, and that I wouldn’t have to worry about club selection or reading greens. For this, I was relieved, and thankful. He had actually mentioned the yardage part back on the range, where Joe joked that he should’ve pretended I would be solely responsible, so that I would have a few sleepless nights leading up to the competition.

In that regard, he wouldn’t have been kidding. I would be nervous as hell.

KJ explained how to calculate yardages, which involves a few quick additions and subtractions based on pacing off from yardage markers, accounting for distance between the hole and the front of the green, elevation changes, and so on. Seems simple, but definitely easy to make a quick mistake.

He told he that one time, his caddy gave him the wrong yardage to a hole over water. He hit a perfect shot, and watched in surprise as the ball made a splash. KJ got on his caddy for making the mistake, but to his surprise, the caddy stuck up for himself by saying he felt just as bad (if not worse) about the mistake. The caddy told him that there was no use arguing now. The damage was done, and all they could do was finish the round strong. This was on a Friday, and KJ listened to his caddy – finishing well, and making the cut.

In any case, good thing I won’t be solely responsible for yardages. KJ told me he always checks yardage along with his caddy, and the two compare findings before a final yardage is determined. He told me that the worst caddy is a “yes-man” caddy, where the caddy will go along with a number even if he thinks it’s wrong, just because he doesn’t want to upset his boss. He also said the best type of caddy is someone who is confident and unwavering in his decisions, and someone who has the knack to keep his man calm under the pressures of late-round contention. KJ told me that adrenaline kicks in during times of contention, causing things to speed up and making it harder to focus. A good caddy is someone who can counteract this type of pressure as much as possible. With indecision being the root of much stress, a confident caddy becomes even more important in this regard.

On the 11th tee, KJ hit a good drive that was positioned well in the fairway, just past some trees and well short of a fairway bunker. He told me how the body can react different during the adrenaline rush of tournament play, and how the bunkers could become in play during a tournament round. He referred to this as ‘Monday lethargy,’ saying it’s hard to get too amped up for nine practice holes, three days before the meaningful play gets underway. Can’t blame him.

On the par-3 13th, KJ hit a shot to the right of the green, the ball settling in rough between the green and a pond. He again referred to the shot as a ‘Monday swing.’

Throughout the round, KJ would frequently play multiple chip shots and hit multiple putts, aiming to different portions of the green where he anticipated hole locations would be. After so many years on Tour, one gets a sense of where the course staff will set up the course, and it is possible to figure out a general idea regarding the setup.

KJ hadn’t played this event in a few years, due to its place in a logical summer vacation slot on the schedule, but was confident that the course hadn’t changed too much during his time away. For the most part, he was right, familiar with the setup and how to play certain shots. Approaching the tee on one of the finishing par-4’s, he told me I could hand him his driver and walk up to the fairway to meet him. This, while we were still leaving the green on the previous hole, before he even had a chance to examine the setup from the tee box.

Sure enough, driver was the right play, and he left himself with a mid-iron into the green from the right side of the fairway.

The only slight change was on the par-4 12th, where the tees had been moved back from where he previously remembered. On a hole with water guarding the right side of the fairway and a bunker on the left, he said that 3-wood used to be the play, but that now maybe driver was the right call. He told me he hits his 3-wood about 30 yards less than he hits his driver.

Along the way, he scattered more advice: keep a wedge handy during practice rounds in case he wants to chip, constantly wet the towel so clubs can be cleaned well at any time, immediately put the putter cover on after he’s done with the putter (as a putter is dinged easily).

All in all, a lot to remember. We’re playing a practice round tomorrow with Fran Quinn, a fellow pro who KJ grew up with, playing junior golf in the Boston area. KJ texted me tonight and told me to be ready on the range at 6:45 a.m. Looks like we’re getting out early to beat the heat, which works for me. Pairings for Thursday and Friday will be announced tomorrow as well, so it will be fun to see who we’ll be playing with. Hopefully not anyone too intimidating.

As we finished up, KJ spoke fondly of his newfound enjoyment of fishing, after remarking that the pond guarding the 18th green holds plenty of fish. We finished up, and he gave me a ride back to the caddy lot in his rental car – which happened to be a pickup truck. Go figure.

He cautioned me on caddies who will wonder what I’m doing on the bag this week, as the caddying world is on top of all the gossip and will wonder what happened to Smiley, his regular caddy. As a result, some may think KJ fired Smiley (not the case, he will be looping for Quinn this week), and may try to get KJ’s bag.

The solution? Just tell anyone who asks that I’m just a friend, caddying just for the week.

So many more things I know we discussed, but it’s hard to remember all of them. While serving as caddy, I have plenty to deal with, without having to worry about a recorder or notepad. I’m sure I’ll keep thinking of more details as we go along, and I can add them to later postings and my final project.

Earlier in the day, at the range, I was talking about my inconsistent golf game and hacksaw swing. KJ told me to step up and take a swing, with his 7-iron, to see what I had. I made decent contact, but the ball quickly hooked left. Oh, well. At least I’m not claiming to play scratch or anything of the sort.

Hopefully over the course of the week, KJ avoids shots resembling my whack at the range. If so, maybe he can contend coming down the stretch. If that’s the case, maybe I’ll be able to see how my caddying chops measure up in the heat of the moment.

Nah, who am I kidding? I’ll just be trying to stay out of the way.