This is the last installment in my series about caddying on the Web.com Tour last August, for Kevin Johnson in the Price Cutter Charity Championship in Springfield, MO. This installment features the second round of tournament play. Johnson shot 3-under in round one, and we know going in that we would need again shoot under par if we hoped to make the cut and stick around for the weekend on the benign Highland Springs CC track.
August 10, 2012
My Friday on the bag for KJ got off to an ominous start – before we even got to the first tee.
Leaving the range, I thought all was well. I was pretty sure all the clubs were in the bag, and I hadn’t messed up yet (or so I thought).
Until someone called back from the range – “Hey, KJ, you left a club.”
KJ gave me a questioning look – until he saw that the club was a 4-iron, which he knew he had laid down on the range while warming up.
“You’re good,” he told me. “I’ll take the blame for this one.
But he noted that if this were a bigger event, with a larger crowd around, the case may have been different.
“Yeah, I would’ve made a scene, blamed it on you,” he said. “Remember, it’s never the player’s fault. It’s always the caddy.”
So I asked, “And if something goes well, it’s never because of me, right?”
“There you go,” he said. “Now you’re catching on.”
The day started off well, with me greeting KJ at the clubhouse at 11:45 – we were both right on time. While eating lunch in the caddy tent, I noticed a lot of talk about the cut line – which they figured would be 6-under, but maybe 5-under.
I relayed this to KJ, who figured that the talk was due to the fact that this year would likely see a noticeably low cut – even though the cut is always low at Highland Springs, with soft greens and plenty of reachable par-5’s. KJ noted that the cut after round 1 was 4-under. Since the day-one cut can usually be doubled to find the day-two cut, the projected cut would be 8-under according to this logic.
“Boy, I hope not,” KJ said.
But either way, KJ is experienced enough to know that there’s no sense worrying about the cut so early – especially before we had even teed off for the day.
“All we can do is play hard,” KJ said.
We started Friday off at the putting green, just like we did on Thursday. On our walk over, KJ relayed a story about a time at the Web.com event in Miami – which is about an hour and a half from his home in Palm Beach Gardens.
KJ had received a new shirt with Clemson colors – featuring orange, of course – which he loved from first glance. He couldn’t wait to wear the shirt in tournament play.
There was one problem, though. KJ only likes to wear his school colors on Sunday, and he had suffered through a series of missed cuts late in the year. Miami was the last full-field event of the year, his last chance to wear the shirt until the next season.
Naturally, he made the cut. Miami is close enough to his home, that he will stay at home the night before if he has a late tee time – but will stay close to the course if he has to play relatively early. This particular Sunday in Miami, his tee time was early enough that he decided to stay by the course. He brought the shirt with him on Saturday night – the only shirt he would bring.
Of course, in his excitement to make a cut and wear the shirt on Sunday, KJ had failed to actually try the shirt on, up to this point. So to his surprise, when he put the shirt on before heading to the course, he realized a slight problem: it was too tight.
“It said it was a large,” KJ said. “Must have been a kid’s large.”
But without any other shirts, KJ had no other choice. He went to the course to warm up, wearing the shirt. When friend Pat Sheehan saw him on the putting green, making a questioning remark about the choice of attire, he knew he was in trouble.
When best friend on Tour Fran Quinn saw him, there was no more room for kidding around. Quinn insisted that KJ change his shirt. When KJ told him that he didn’t have another shirt, Quinn insisted that he would go and get him one.
KJ resisted at first, but eventually relented. So much for the prized shirt, long-saved for a Sunday appearance.
So the shirt now has a prominent place in the Johnson household. Right, KJ?
“Nah,” KJ said. “I gave it away.”
Maybe some junior golfer is wearing it now, as we speak.
After we completed our putting session, we made our way to the range for a final warm-up. Along the way, I relayed my knowledge acquired throughout the week that some caddies seem to be secretive – not wanting the possibility of any semblance of media attention. KJ seemed to know where I was coming from.
“Now, this is just my opinion,” KJ said. “My personal opinion. But I feel that a lot of these guys, especially out here (on the Web.com circuit), are here because they’re running from something. Just my personal opinion.”
Hmm. Could be. On the whole, they all seem like good guys who enjoy what they do. But as for their personal lives, the week certainly hasn’t revealed anything to me.
And I’m certainly in no position to expect anything more.
On the range, things went fairly well. I got the towel wet, grabbed the dry golf balls for the long clubs, and cleaned the clubs after he finished using them.
But when he grabbed the towel to dry himself off for the first time, I realized something was wrong. I had over-soaked the towel in the water cooler, and the whole thing was saturated. More than half of the towel is supposed to remain dry. Oops.
At least I wet the towel in the cooler, rather than in the more conveniently-located bucket. It was the first thing he told me on Monday, and the one thing I will be sure to never forget as a caddy.
“See, you’re learning,” KJ said.
Stevie Williams and Joe LaCava, here I come.
Just before we had to head to the tee, KJ had a new task for me – filming his swing. With his Atlantis vacation imminent, he figured he could use some footage to look at while hanging out on the beach.
So I fumbled around with his iPhone at first, trying to figure out how to get the thing set to record. Too bad my brothers (who both have iPhones) weren’t there to help me.
“Hey, it’s part of the job,” KJ said.
Finally, I figured it out, and took footage from two different angles of KJ hitting a driver, an iron, and a wedge. I even got some credit afterwards – he looked at my film job, and told me ‘good job’.
From there, we proceeded from the range toward the tee – without realizing that he left his 4-iron on the range.
No, wait. I left the 4-iron on the range. Not him. Never the player’s fault.
We made it to the tee box in one piece, where we greeted playing partners Elder and Gonzales. Elder was at 1-under and would need a low score to make the cut. Gonzales was 3-under, right there with us.
We hit our tee shots, and strolled down the first fairway. Then Gonzales had a question for me – he called over and asked if I wrote about Thursday’s round in the blog.
“Of course,” I told him. “I even mentioned you a bit, too.”
He knew exactly what I wrote about him, as well.
“You wrote about how good-looking I am,” he said.
But then, he thought about it – and realized he was wrong.
“No, that’s not it,” he said. “You wrote about how INCREDIBLY good-looking I am.”
Loosened up by the knowledge of his sex appeal, Gonzales went on to birdie his first three holes to quickly jump inside the cut line. After rolling in a 10-footer for birdie on 2, Gonzales looked at me and gave a mini Tiger-esque fist pump.
The good mood continued to the 3rd tee, where his caddy Brandon was talking about how he has been trying to write a letter to Yeti, a mountain-bike manufacturer. Brandon likes to wear Yeti hats, and was trying to work on a letter asking for a sponsorship.
But Brandon was struggling with a draft, and reflecting on the challenge as we waited on the tee. This compelled me to bring up my major in journalism, offering to help him out if I could.
This brought Gonzales to ask me what my major was.
“Nope,” I said. “Print.”
This compelled Gonzales (also a print journalism major) to come over for yet another high-five, one of many on the week.
Along with a quick – yet loud – cheer for his alma mater, UNLV.
“Go Rebels,” he cried.
Unfortunately for KJ, the putts weren’t falling like they were for Andres. We hit it close on holes 1 and 2, inside 10 feet both times, but couldn’t roll in the birdie looks. On 3 we had another chance, about 25 feet, but couldn’t get it to fall. Then we missed the green on 4 and made bogey, falling back to 2-under on the week. Suddenly, we were way outside the cut line – three, maybe even four shots back.
We needed to make something happen, and soon.
Along the way, we got to talking about injuries, and how they can derail a career. KJ said his brother Chip – a good player in his own right, a club pro who has played in several majors – has been hurt almost everywhere on his body, making consistent play a challenge.
This led KJ to recount a shoulder injury he suffered, in 1996 – his first year on Tour no less. KJ and his college roommates (including fellow pro Brett Quigley) like to go on a hunting trip for a few days every year, in the South Carolina lowcountry near Charleston. They like to hunt on foot in the morning, and on horseback in the afternoon.
One afternoon, KJ and his friends were on horseback – with KJ riding the third horse. Suddenly, the first horse fell, leading off a chain reaction that led to horses falling down the line.
KJ’s horse fell, and in a way that launched him off the horse. KJ fell in an unlucky way that caused him to injure his shoulder (I don’t recall exactly, but I think it was a torn labrum). Just like that, KJ had to take some time off, in his first year with a chance to play against high-level competition.
Nobody is immune to injury – not even Tiger Woods. Golf itself can provoke a variety of injuries, much less unfortunate events that can occur by way of other activities. For KJ, it was just an unfortunate break – and he has rebounded to stay free of serious injury for a good part of the last 16 years. Aside from an injury-related eight-month break in 2002, KJ hasn’t had a major layoff since.
I also asked KJ if the Web.com Tour maintains a fitness trailer, as I know they do on the big tour.
He gave me a look as if I’m crazy.
The 4th is a par-3 that measures over 200 yards, and we experienced a minor backup when we arrived at the tee on Friday. This allowed for some discussion, and we talked about how some players give me in-depth, insightful answers in interviews – while I’m lucky to get more than a sentence out of others.
KJ agreed, and compared the trend to his own daughters – ages 12 and 9. KJ’s 12-year old is named Jordan, and his 9-year old is named Jade.
KJ tries to call his house each night before bed, to talk to his wife and daughters. He laughed when telling me of the dichotomy that exists between conversations with his daughters.
When he talks with Jordan, she will meticulously recount the details of the day – things that happened, ups and downs, and so on. The conversation can last for many minutes. On the other hand, he is lucky to get a minute out of Jade. According to KJ, the conversation with Jade can go something like this:
KJ: How was your day?
What are you doing now?
Anything exciting happen today?
And so on.
As we walked up the 5th, I asked KJ if he has any particular tournaments that he enjoys attending. I figured that after so many years on Tour, there would be certain stops that would stand out.
At first instinct, nothing. Then after he thought about it, he talked about how he enjoys certain aspects of different events – the area in Boise, the people in Greenville, the course in Rochester (Irondequoit, where the Tour no longer plays), and so on. He said he also enjoyed the (now-defunct) Wayne Gretzky tournament in Canada, about two hours north of Toronto. He said that one year, he took the family to the event – where they drove through Niagara Falls along the way.
After asking the question, I made another consideration – the Tour lifestyle isn’t exactly conducive for much sightseeing or going out at any particular tournament site.
“Not if you want to play well,” KJ said.
This allowed me to reflect on my experience this summer, where I have traveled to tournament sites across the country – Greenville, Wichita, Evansville, now Springfield. How much sightseeing do I actually do in each place? Not much. Between time spent on the course, and writing afterwards, I’m pretty much wiped out when I’m done with my day’s work. When I’m done, I don’t have the energy to do much else – I just want to eat and relax.
Besides, when I’m by myself, do I really want to go hit the bars/clubs and start dancing?
“Exactly,” KJ said.
Same type of thing for these guys, who generally travel without their families most weeks (although some load the RV and bring the family in tow).
The reason isn’t because they want to travel alone. It’s because they want to keep their family’s best interests at heart.
“If I want to play well, I need to be at the course most of the day,” KJ said. “It’s work. It’s a business.”
And KJ isn’t naive – he knows that there isn’t exactly much to do in most Web.com towns. On the big tour, which visits plenty of big cities, there is much more to do – along with an event planner on staff.
No event planners out here.
We progressed adequately, making pars up until the 8th hole, where we knew we needed to start make something happen. The 8th is a dogleg-left par-5, reachable with a good drive, and we really needed to make birdie here, par at the worst.
Things became more difficult after a pulled drive left us with about 220 yards to the flag – but with trees in the way, not to mention a pond guarding the green. Going for it was out of the question, and we would use a sand wedge to lay up.
The ball easily cleared the trees, but the wedge sailed to far – landing on a downslope in the rough, about 10 feet short of the pond. Nearly a complete disaster, but still a mini-disaster. We now had a poor angle to the pin, and a downhill lie that would make it difficult to generate the necessary spin.
Needless to say, KJ wasn’t happy.
“You can’t miss the fairway with a sand wedge,” KJ said.
So we had no choice but to play it relatively safe, and the ball sailed over the green. A poor chip left us with a 18-footer for par, which we missed to fall to 1-under on the event – way, way back of the cut. For the first time, it occurred to me that making the cut would be a challenge.
We needed to step it up.
Par on 9, and we headed to the 10th knowing that a 31 on the back (32 at worst) would be needed to make the cut. After a poor approach on the 10th, we were short of the green – knowing that we absolutely had to get the ball up and down. To make matters worse, KJ had appeared shaky with his chipping all day – not good when you know that a poor chip is not an option.
But we came through and knocked it inside 3 feet, for an easy par.
“Why can’t we do that all the time?” KJ remarked.
After a two-putt birdie on the par-5 11th, we were off and running – still alive, but knowing there was a long way to go.
After missing a 12-footer on 12 and making par, we headed to the 13th – where we started talking about some of the better-known names in golf. Knowing Justin Leonard’s reputation as a low-ball hitter – and knowing that Texas is known for having a golf climate that forces players to keep it low – I asked if the idea of Texas pros keeping the ball low holds water.
“Yeah, kind of,” KJ said. “But Leonard’s swing is a big reason for that(his low ball flight), too.”
And I couldn’t hope but noticing the ball flight of Elder – who played collegiately at Texas – being sky-high.
Makes you realize that stereotypes aren’t always completely true across the board.
The discussion led us to Lee Trevino. I thought I had read that Trevino was known for hitting a massive draw. But when I brought this up, I was corrected.
“Nope,” KJ said. “He’s a cutter.”
KJ happened to have a story to share about Trevino, as well. The day before the finals of Q-School in 1995, KJ was working on his putting with the pro at Hobe Sound Golf Club in Florida – where KJ had worked. Although Trevino frequented the club, he and KJ had never before had an actual conversation.
Seeing the pro, Trevino approached the green – where the pro introduced KJ, telling him that KJ was getting ready for Q-School finals. The talker that he is, Trevino took a liking to KJ and went on to initiate a near 90-minute discussion about the putting stroke and its intricacies.
The next day, KJ promptly went on to three-putt a bunch and shoot 78. But KJ stuck with the knowledge passed on by Trevino, and proceeded to ‘make almost everything I looked it’ for the rest of Q-School, narrowly missing his PGA Tour card – but gaining full Web.com status.
KJ has retained status on the Triple-A circuit ever since. Lee Trevino, thank you very much.
We went on to par 13, and then 14 – putting us in essential must-birdie mode from that point forward. Despite the pressure, KJ was handling everything in stride, knowing that worry is not always the best way to handle adversity.
Discussing the yardage on 15, we came up with a difference of a yard. Considering I had been accurate with yardages all day, I was slightly confused. We figured out the discrepancy, though – KJ had adjusted the yardage for the downhill slope by 6, while my book had said 7. He explained that he had acquired this number by use of a laser on some previous occasion – leading us to talk about the art of mastering yardage books.
I knew that Fred Funk’s caddy, Mark Long, had worked on yardage book for a variety of events, and brought this up. KJ agreed, knowing exactly who Mark Long is – and having high praise for his yardage books, saying Long’s are some of the best.
I asked how yardage books were made before the invention of lasers, knowing that lasers are a relatively recent phenomenon. He told me about a guy named George Lucas (he’s pretty sure that was his name) who would make yardage books with a fishing line – marking the line with reference points for distances. He said that Lucas is essentially retired by now, but that Lucas’ books have been used by plenty of touring professionals.
Fishing line. Good stuff.
KJ hit a nice shot to inside 15 feet, and we headed to the green in discussion about reading greens. He told me that he doesn’t like to have caddies read the greens – whether you’re Stevie Williams or Kevin Prise.
He explained that this is because discrepancies can create doubt – and that in general, you can’t expect the caddy and player to have the same read every time.
“If the caddy always had the same read, that would be great,” KJ said. “But that’s just not going to happen.”
He said that he had Smiley (his regular caddy) read a few putts early in the year, to see if they had a similar perspective. It wasn’t the case, so KJ kept Smiley away from reading the greens from that point forward.
No slight to Smiley, though. KJ just prefers to read his own greens. After all, putting is hard enough – no need for more confusion than there already is.
We missed the putt, putting is in desperation mode from there on out. When we missed a 15-footer on 16, burning the edge for seemingly the hundredth time of the day, it was all but official – we wouldn’t be playing the weekend.
“You’d think that when you’re aiming at the hole all the time, one would eventually fall in,” KJ said.
Walking up the 17th fairway, I asked KJ if he had a best golf memory. With Gonzales rolling up the fairway behind him, the answer should’ve been obvious.
“Playing these two days with Andres, of course,” KJ said.
Andres then recounted a Web.com event in 1996, that took place at his home course in Olympia, Washington. Gonzales got to play in a pro-am as part of a junior golf initiative, and looks back fondly on the experience.
“The pros would hit a bunch of golf balls in the woods,” Gonzales said. “I would run back into the woods and grab the balls.”
As it turns out, while KJ was there, he shot the course record – a 64. Despite playing there all the time growing up, Gonzales was never able to match it, nor has anybody else.
“I shot a 65, once,” Gonzales said. “It’s a tough course.”
Must have been pretty tough, considering Gonzales went on to produce a nonchalant Friday 65 here in Springfield.
As for KJ, he did pretty well in Olympia, tying for sixth in 1996 and winning in 1997 – his first of six Web.com titles to date.
When we reached the 18th tee, a sizable backup had been created. The hole is a reachable par-5 with water in front of the green, explaining the backup. KJ’s buddy Ron Whittaker was on the tee, getting ready to play the hole, needing birdie to make the cut (as it turned out, the cut would indeed be 5-under).
Despite the situation, Whittaker appeared relaxed, and he chatted amiably with KJ before striping a beauty down the fairway.
The talk turned serious in KJ’s group, when Gonzales brought up the death of Jim Renner’s dad. Renner is a fellow Web.com pro, who Gonzales has become close with over their time on Tour.
Renner was in Springfield on Tuesday, and had played nine holes and hit some balls before receiving the call. He immediately flew home. Gonzales will leave for the funeral upon completion of the tournament at Highland Springs, and will return to play next week in Kansas City.
They also talked about the deaths of their own fathers – KJ’s died of skin cancer, and Gonzales’ dad of pancreatic cancer.
“He fought it for two years, which is more than they give you,” Gonzales said.
Makes you realize that there’s more to life than making and missing cuts.
Speaking of Renner, Gonzales brought up a story about Renner’s travails in college. Renner initially enrolled at Oklahoma, where he impressed his mom with a 3.4 GPA to start his collegiate experience.
“She thought I was a genius,” Renner told Gonzales.
But things would get tougher the next semester, to the point where Renner became very confused while taking an exam – he didn’t know answers to any of the questions. At that point, he made up his mind. He was leaving Oklahoma, and transferring to Johnson and Wales in Miami.
With his decision set, he went up to the professor, handed her the exam, and informed her of his plans.
“I can help you,” she said.
“No, I’ve made up my mind,” he replied. “I’m leaving.”
“No, I can really help you.”
“No, you don’t understand. I’m not on the ledge. I’m leaving.”
And so he went.
We finished up with a par on the 18th, to finish with a 73 – good for a two-day total of 2-under. Not quite good enough to make the cut, we finished three strokes back of where we needed to be.
“Sorry you had such a short-lived experience,” KJ told me as we walked off the green. “You outperformed me this week.”
I don’t quite know about that.
As I was waiting for KJ outside the scoring tent, a lady came up and asked me for my caddy bib. Hoping I could keep it as a souvenir, I asked her so. She wasn’t having any of it, probably thinking I was messing with her, and her tone quickly escalated.
At that point, KJ exited the trailer.
“Don’t be giving the lady a hard time,” he said.
So I backed away. So much for that souvenir. At least I have my yardage book.
We went up to the clubhouse area, where he left me with his clubs and told me he would be back out in a minute. When he returned, we reconvened with Gonzales, who told me good luck.
He also had a proposition for KJ. Gonzales is taking the Pittsburgh event off to visit Nashville with some buddies, and invited KJ along with him.
“We’re going to grab a couple buckets of paint,” he said. “Red paint.”
I asked what the buckets would be used for.
“To paint the town.” Gonzales said. “We’re painting it red.”
So will KJ bail on Atlantis and play Kansas City next week, so that he can paint up Nashville with Andres?
“Nah,” KJ said. “If I did, though, I could play every Tour event for the rest of my life.”
Why’s that, KJ?
“I’d be single.”
As we walked back to his car – he offered to give me a ride back to the caddy lot for a final time – I asked KJ about his plans for the rest of the year. After taking KC off for Atlantis, he said he is planning to play the rest of the Web.com season all the way through.
That is, of course, unless he wins three in a row to get back out on the big tour.
“I can go from missing the cut to winning, just like that,” KJ said.
I asked him to tell me my biggest caddying mistake of the week, anything that I shouldn’t have done, or could’ve done better.
He couldn’t think of anything.
“No, you were great,” KJ said.
He must be lying.
He dropped me off at my car, and we said our farewells. I thanked him again for the experience, and he told me he would see me in D.C. in October. From there, I packed up, taking everything in – the conversations, the insight, the inside-the-ropes experience that I will likely never have again.
After years of following golf from the outside, I finally had the chance I had always dreamed of – to help a player in a competitive environment, to be a part of a touring pro’s week on the circuit. I was finally there, and I didn’t even mess up too badly.
If I had ever truly thought I would be lucky enough to have this chance, I would be lying. And to think it all goes back to my decision to go abroad last fall – the rejuvenation it gave me, the motivation to chase my dreams and truly believe that anything is possible.
And here I am. I did it. I caddied for a week on the Web.com Tour. No matter what happens from here on out, nobody can ever take that away from me.
And now, I truly know how it feels to miss a cut.