The most entertaining sequence of the final round of the Players Championship did not involve the eventual winner, Rory McIlroy. It didn’t even feature a memorable golf shot, or at least not a particularly good one.
Instead it was a roughly 60-second back-and-forth between Jon Rahm and his caddie Adam Hayes that resulted in Rahm dunking his second shot on the par-5 11th hole into the water, costing the Spaniard a final-round lead that was never recovered. There’s a reason why player-caddie exchanges are so compelling when caught on camera, and it’s because they point to a layer of intricacy in tournament golf most players don’t even consider.
But that’s just the outside perspective. Even more intriguing is when it’s seen through the eyes of another pro caddie, who has to factor in all the delicate considerations of what can be a tenuous employee-employer relationship. To understand the Hayes-Rahm interplay on the 11th hole, we consulted veteran caddie Kip Henley, currently working for Austin Cook, to help unpack a crucial moment in what he calls the “mental warfare” of final-round competition.
First, a refresher: after a sluggish start to the final round, Rahm arrived at the short par 5 tied for the lead. When he drove into a left fairway bunker, he and Hayes were left with a choice: either try to draw the ball around some trees and over the water preceding the green with his second shot, or prudently lay up and try to wedge something in tight with his third.
In the ensuing exchange, Hayes was unambiguous with his preference: he wanted Rahm to forget about the green and just lay up. And as Henley noted, it was undoubtedly the right call. He calls Hayes one of the best caddies in the game – smart, confident and a good player in his own right – but in this instance, expertise was secondary to common sense. The shot Rahm was contemplating was difficult under normal circumstances, but even more so with the wind gusting and one of the biggest prizes in golf on the line.
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“Ninety-eight percent of America looks at that and knows Adam was making the right call,” Henley said. “Birdie is great, but par doesn’t kill you, and a good caddie is able to look at the situation without as much emotion as the player.”
So Hayes does fight – at least to a point. As Henley said, the odds are always stacked against a caddie when player digs in his heels as well. He says a caddie wins these arguments about 10 percent of the time, so at some point, a caddie has to contemplate caving. That’s what you’re seeing when Rahm starts explaining why he doesn’t feel comfortable laying up because it will leave him an awkward lie. At that point it doesn’t matter that Hayes is still in the right. He knows he can’t win.
“The whole time you’re fighting you better be aware where your guy is leaning because if you know he’s not coming over, you need to start backpedalling,” Henley says. “You then need to make him feel like it’s a good decision. Everybody does that. You read your guy, and you find a way to change your tune.”
Sure enough, Hayes doesn’t say much more as Rahm ultimately opts for the more aggressive shot. And he sure doesn’t say anything after the shot ends up disastrously in the water. In another context – the corporate world, married life – there might be a level of satisfaction in proclaiming you were right all along. With a caddie and a player, you go out of your way to say just the opposite.
“The one thing you don’t do is let it hang out there,” Henley says.“You remind him that he did what he thinks was right, and that it was a good decision. Maybe he lets it hang over him, but your job is to try to get him to turn the page.”
In the aftermath of the final round, after Rahm shot 76 to finish T-11, he was summarily criticised for his insistence on going for the 11th green in two. Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee called it the most “baffling” decision in Players history. But Rahm had his reasons, and said he felt confident over the shot until Hayes introduced a morsel of doubt in his head.
“When I first got to the ball, I was really sure I could do it,” he said. “If you give me 10 balls, besides that one, I’ll hit the other nine on land.”
With another caddie, that could spell the beginning of the end. But Hayes and Rahm are said to have a strong enough bond that it will weather the trials of that incident. Besides, Rahm probably can’t protest too much when deep down he knows his caddie was right.