Here is the next installment of my series on the experience caddying for Kevin Johnson on the Web.com Tour. Today’s entry looks back at my third day of the caddying adventure, in the opening tournament round of last August’s Price Cutter Charity Championship in Springfield, Missouri:
Caddying in Triple-A Golf: Tourney Round 1
When I woke up at 5:30 a.m., I instantly got out of bed without pressing the snooze button on my alarm. The day was finally here – my chance to caddy in a legitimate, official professional golf tournament. The nerves were flowing, the excitement was flowing – I was ready to go.
I was so ready to go, that I showed up in the wrong place. KJ told me on Tuesday to meet him outside the clubhouse, at 6:30 a.m. In my excitement, I instinctively went to the range, where I met him the first two days. It wasn’t until about 6:36 that I realized I was in the wrong location. So I abruptly ended my conversation (with a nice volunteer who was born and raised in Springfield) and raced to the clubhouse.
About 15 seconds after I arrived, KJ came outside, with no idea that I was late. Perfect timing – no harm, no foul.
So we headed to the putting green, where KJ would begin his warm-up routine. He moved around the green, hitting different putts from different locations, mainly focusing on learning the speed of the greens.
During his warm-up, we somehow got to talking about religion – we share a mild form of Catholicism – and I told him how I went to the Vatican while abroad last fall. Although KJ has been to London, he has never been to Italy.
After he finished his putting routine, we made our way to the range, where he started his full-swing warm-up. The obedient caddy, I had dry golf balls in my pocket like he told me on Monday, ready to toss him when he brought out the driver. I nearly had the routine down pat – wet the towel (with water from the water cooler, not the bucket), clean each club after he was finished using it. So far, so good.
We then went to the chipping area, where he hit a few chips in the few minutes before we needed to head to the tee. On the way, we saw Tom Scherrer – a Syracuse-area native who plays occasionally on Tour. His sister-in-law Blythe works in the Honors program at Syracuse, and I told him about the connection – he even told me that he remembered Blythe telling him about my project. He then told me to call him anytime. Seems like a real cool guy, and KJ indeed said he’s a great guy.
That’s one thing about KJ – he’ll tell you his opinion on players, good or bad. To protect all involved, I’ll never reveal the players he speaks poorly of, but I’ll make note when talking about a player he speaks highly of.
On the chipping green, we ran into Jeff Gove, and I said hello. Gove told me good luck, and to have fun during my time on the course. I figured that I would have plenty of fun, as long as I didn’t screw up too badly.
Unfortunately, Gove and Scherrer didn’t play too well. Gove shot 71 and Scherrer shot 72, with the cut line being at 68 at the conclusion of round one.
After a brief chipping session, we headed to the 10th tee to begin the long-awaited round. A Tour official asked me if he could check KJ’s clubs quickly – I said yes, as I had no reason to say no. Luckily for me, KJ didn’t seem to mind.
I then put on my caddy bib with KJ’s name on the back. Just like that, I felt like a real caddy, somehow. KJ told me the bib wouldn’t make me any more hot or uncomfortable, and he was absolutely right – it also gave me a convenient place to stick water bottles and the sheet providing hole locations. Perfect.
I introduced myself to playing partners Brad Elder and Andres Gonzales, and their caddies. The starter introduced our group, and the players hit their tee shots. Elder and Gonzales each missed the fairway, but KJ knocked his down the middle. Voila, we were underway.
I knew KJ wouldn’t solely rely on me to provide yardages, but I figured that if we both came up with the same yardage, it would provide him with the extra assurance that his yardage was right – not that he needed it, by any means. On our first hole, we both came up with the same yardage to the hole, and he knocked his tee shot on the green (even though it spun back to the front edge). But hey, a fairway and green in regulation on my first hole as a professional caddy. I’ll take it.
Two putts later, we made our par. It was official – I had completed a hole as caddy. It wasn’t without mishap, however (surprise, surprise). Racing over to clean KJ’s ball when he marked after missing his birdie bid, he gave me the signal to stop moving. I then noticed that Gonzales was about to putt. Oops. No worries, though, as he rolled in his 20-footer for par.
On the next hole, KJ started to tell our playing partners and caddies about who I was and what I was doing on the bag. Everyone seemed kind and supportive, willing to accept the fact that I may make a mistake here and there. The caddies both told me not to worry, and that they would help me whenever they could. Between that and the free water or Powerade on every tee, I was feeling pretty good. When KJ birdied the 11th to get under par, I felt even better. If he managed to get under par (I know, it was 2 freaking holes), I couldn’t be that God-awful.
On the next tee, KJ handed me his driver after teeing off, and I grabbed the driver by the grip instinctively. He gently corrected me, telling me never to hold the club by the grip – as my hands could rub off sunblock or other variations of sticky stuff that could damage the grip. Point taken, and somehow I kept this in mind throughout the course of the round.
After he gave me this tidbit, KJ pointed out, “Hey, I’m giving you so much stuff, you could write a book.” Who knows? Maybe I will.
He told me about a pro (who will remain anonymous) that he played with one day when a friend was caddying. With even the slightest mishap, the pro would get all over his friend, and not in a joking manner.
Shadow improperly placed? Scolding. Clubs rattling? Scolding. And so on.
Maybe he was subliminally warning me to be careful. Probably not, but if he was, I don’t blame him. After all, I have come to realize that a player’s caddy provides a relevant chunk of a player’s reputation. When you select a caddy, you are selecting someone to represent you as a golfer. The caddy can make you look better at times, and can probably make you look worse at times. With this knowledge, I feel good that KJ trusted me to represent him for a week – even though he barely knew me when he offered. I must have gave a positive impression in some form.
On the green, a fellow caddy gave me another pointer – whichever player is the last to putt out, that caddy replaces the pin upon completion of the hole. I didn’t know this going into the round, and I’m happy the caddies didn’t give me a hard time for not knowing at first. I learned.
On the 13th tee, KJ winced in pain after hitting his shot into the par-3. He kept wringing his wrist on the walk up to the green, and the thought crossed my head that he would consider withdrawing. Even though I knew the situation was out of my control, the idea worried me at first – until I realized that indeed, it was out of my control, and all I could do was focus on doing the best job I could do.
The wrist continued to give KJ pain throughout the round, and he confessed later that the thought of having to withdraw crossed his mind sometime around the turn. He told me that he hates withdrawing (which I appreciate), and that he believes you should only consider withdrawing if you are in so much pain that you absolutely can’t play. As professionals, the players have a responsibility – to their tour, to themselves, and to their fans – and withdrawals shouldn’t take place unless absolutely necessary.
I brought up the idea that certain players tend to withdraw again and again (as I have noticed through years of following golf). He agreed, saying that it seems withdrawal carries a barrier at first – but then it becomes a little easier the next time, and then a little easier the next time. It makes sense.
(At the end of the round, I asked KJ about the odds of him withdrawing tomorrow due to the wrist. He said that he had every intention of playing, unless it suddenly worsened over the course of the night.)
On a tee box earlier in the round, I told Gonzales about my positive experience with him at the U.S. Open last year – how he thanked me for my help after I followed his group for NBC (despite missing the cut), and how he was the only player in the group to thank me. After a slight pause, Gonzales smiled and proceeded to give me a high five.
The action gave me the idea that Gonzales is a big kid at heart, and his personality throughout the round confirmed the notion. At one point, standing on a tee box, one of the guys mentioned something about drinking beer – to which Gonzales turned and responded in a childlike voice, “I like beer.”
He also asked me where I lived, and I told him – along with the fact that I just went to Atlantic City for a de facto birthday celebration. He asked how old I turned. When I told him 21, he smiled and responded, “Welcome to the real world.”
Gonzales also laughed when talking about Esteban Toledo, a player who has low-level status on Tour. He referred to Toledo as a ‘beaut,’ and smiled when telling how Toledo always insists on speaking to him entirely in Spanish for the first hole, when they golf together.
The funny part? “I don’t even speak Spanish,” Gonzales said.
Late in the round, we were talking about KJ’s impending trip to Atlantis, and how expensive everything can be there. I figured it was an all-inclusive resort, but learned that it actually is not. We talked a little bit about all-inclusive resorts, and I said how I want to go to one for spring break next year.
Gonzales looked at me and told me about an all-inclusive resort he visited with a few other mini-tour players, when he played on the mini-tours a few years ago. He told me about a great deal that provided accommodation and unlimited drinks for a night for just $75.
“They (the resort) definitely lost money on us,” Gonzales said. “Imagine a bunch of mini-tour players in that setting…It was dangerous.”
Must have been a blast.
Andres, you definitely have a new fan. Currently No. 5 on the Triple-A money list, Gonzales has all but secured a return to the big leagues for next season, and I can’t wait to see him compete against the big boys.
We proceeded throughout the round, with KJ moving to the 16th at 1-under…when he hit his tee shot about 3 feet right of a bunker. Immediately, I knew what was coming – he was going to have to stand in the bunker, and I would have to rake. I had hoped that KJ would avoid bunkers for the whole round so I wouldn’t have to rake, but in reality I knew this was unlikely. So I raked, and he even told me ‘good job’ – except he took the rake and re-raked a spot. But hey, it was only one spot. I can live with that.
And he bogeyed the hole – after flubbing a chip shot – to drop back to even-par. On a course where 9-under would lead at the end of the day (with a projected cut of 4-under), even is getting lapped. We needed to make something happen in a hurry.
Except he hit it in a fairway bunker on the next hole, into the dead middle of the bunker, and I now had a massive raking job on my hands. After I finished raking, I looked up to see the whole group up at the green – with me almost 200 yards away, just exiting the bunker.
I made a dead sprint for the green, arriving just in time to hand KJ his putter (he missed the green and had to chip on, but he had brought his wedge with him). Disheveled and sweating, I quickly cleaned his ball, and got the bag out of the way so that I wouldn’t be a distraction.
After he rolled in a pivotal 8-footer for par, KJ saw that the bag was in a random corner of the green, completely out of position compared to the next tee. He asked me what happened, and I told him how I just wanted to make sure the bag was out of the way.
He smiled and nodded, and moved on to the 18th – where on the green, he had a 25-footer for birdie. I had a good feeling he would make it, and after he rolled it in, I told him so.
“Good,” KJ said. “Think that more often.”
I wish I could.
We proceeded to the front nine, free of any major mishaps on my part, when he parred the 1st and rolled in a testy downhill 4-footer for birdie on the 2nd. In my contained excitement, I forgot to grab the flag (KJ was the last to putt). Lucky for me, another caddy had it taken care of.
When I thanked him, KJ looked over and retorted, “Look, he’s so excited I made birdie, he’s forgetting to do his job.”
At one point in the early stages of our back nine, KJ saw that I had my hands full while attempting to clean his ball – so he grabbed it and cleaned it for himself.
“You need three hands to do this job,” KJ remarked as he scrubbed the ball clean of dirt.
As we progressed, the group opened up to conversation – so much so that at one point, KJ interrupted me as I was conversing with Gonzales. KJ was looking over the yardage, sort of waiting for me to give him a number, and saw me chatting obliviously.
“This isn’t social hour,” KJ said, completely in jest. A few seconds later – “You know I’m just messing with you.”
Could a caddy on the PGA Tour lose focus and get away with it? And would players chat with a student journalist caddy while preparing to hit a tricky tee shot to a pin guarded by water on the right? Can’t say for sure, but probably not.
Hey, I guess I made a good call in figuring this tour would be my best chance of developing an in-depth project.
As we progressed, I started to ask KJ some things about life on Tour. I asked about the biggest crowds, and he figured that would have to be the U.S. Open at Pebble in 2000 – when Tiger won going away by 15 shots. He also told me he played in the group ahead of Tiger once at the Byron Nelson, and described how the crowds would run up a hole ahead of Tiger just to catch a glimpse of the immortal one.
“You can’t see him play every hole,” KJ said. “It’s impossible.”
He also reminisced about the 16th hole at the Tour’s annual Phoenix stop, where a massive stadium-like gallery surrounds the hole – with fans cheering quality shots, but booing errant shots.
“Luckily I hit a couple of good shots,” KJ said.
I asked if he ever played in The Players, the Tour’s flagship non-major event, andf he never has. However, he could have.
One year he was about 10th alternate, and he didn’t bother traveling to Jacksonville for the event – figuring that he wouldn’t get in. But as luck would have it, enough people withdrew to the point where he would have been able to play – if he had been on-site. This was his first year of Tour eligibility (2001), and he didn’t make the field in 2010.
He hasn’t been eligible for the PGA Tour since, and therefore hasn’t played The Players. Maybe he will heat up at the end of the year here, make it back to the big tour, and make The Players. Who knows?
Speaking of eligibility, we touched briefly on his year thus far – he started well with two-top 20’s to start the year, but only has one since (Wichita) and has fallen to 82nd on the money list.
“I need to make something happen,” KJ said.
Tour eligibility is complicated, but KJ figures that winners can get decent status for four years. KJ last won in 2009, meaning his time is running out, and he will need to earn his eligibility if he wants to keep playing consistently.
If he posts a few good weeks the rest of the year – especially a win – the eligibility issues will take care of theirselves.
So, back to KJ’s play. After birdieing the 2nd, he proceeded to roll in another 25-footer for bird on the 3rd (I had another good feeling again). He proceeded to make fairly easy pars on the last six holes – he did roll in a tricky 4-footer for par on the 7th – to post a score of 3-under 69, just as he did in his practice round on Wednesday. The effort leaves him one shot back of the cut, and he will likely need a Friday round of at least 3-under, maybe 4-under, to stick around for the weekend.
The scores are certainly out there.
Finishing up, we talked a little about his family. All families have adversity to overcome – KJ’s is no exception – and of course it’s all about how we persevere to stay strong, grow, and develop.
The subject came up when I asked if the family had gone on any other vacations this year, besides the impending trip to Atlantis. KJ told me they hadn’t – as his wife’s stepdad has become sick with cancer, and his health issues have occupied much of the family’s time – for good reason. KJ speaks lavishly of the man, saying he moved down to Florida from New Jersey a few years ago to be with his granddaughters. He was recently diagnosed with cancer, but didn’t tell anyone at first because he didn’t want to cause any worry.
But as things progressed, people started to learn things, and one doctor eventually told him he had 3 months to live. This was last fall. Not wanting to give up, a second opinion was sought, and he started to use chemotherapy and other treatments to fight the disease as hard as he could. Closing on in a year later, he is still alive and well, and even improving as the days go on. We are all faced with challenges, but it’s how we respond to it, and KJ’s wife’s stepdad is a perfect example of how giving up is rarely the correct option.
On a smaller scale, KJ related a story about his dog – who got sick of heat exhaustion one day out on the ocean, made even worse by the consumption of salt water. When the dog was taken in for treatment, the doctor even recommended that KJ put the dog down.
But when the dog’s veterinarian was consulted, an alternative type of treatment (I think it involved an oxygen chamber-esque apparatus) was recommended, and KJ and family decided to use it. Just like that, the dog was perfectly fine a week later. If they had listened to the original recommendation – just as in the case of KJ’s wife’s stepdad – both may not be alive at this moment.
On that note, KJ finished his round with a two-putt par at the last, and we proceeded to the scoring tent. He told me to hold onto my caddy bib for tomorrow – implying that I did a good enough job to retain my job for another day.
He even told me that I managed not to bother anyone, which is probably the highest compliment I could get. After all, that was the original goal – the sole goal. I wasn’t expected – or trusted – to read any greens. Hey, I can barely read greens for myself, with no money on the line.
KJ told me I was in luck, and when I asked him why, I found out that I was lucky indeed – he would not partake in a post-round practice session, wanting to ice his wrist and make sure it will be in the best possible shape for Friday. To make the cut, he will need to be clicking on all cylinders – golf-wise, and health-wise.
He told me to meet him at the clubhouse tomorrow at 11:45, about an hour he tees off. I told him I’ll be there.
Hopefully this time, I will remember to go to the clubhouse – not the range.