The inspiring story of Sam Pinfold – the Kiwi caddie behind the breakout year of rising US PGA Tour star Cameron Smith.
Too many travellers have a nightmare LAX immigration story to tell. But Sam Pinfold’s is worse than average. After several years of caddieing for big-name golfers who struggled to play to their reputation, Pinfold had landed a promising job on the bag of US PGA Tour player Brendan Steele.
Upon arrival in the City of Angels, Wellington native Pinfold was subjected to an immigration grilling for which Los Angeles’ busy airport hub is infamous. Officials told Pinfold his visa prohibited him from working for an American, then marched him back to the gate and made sure he returned to New Zealand.
Steele – one of the PGA Tour’s nice guys who was eager to have the likeable Kiwi on the bag – remarked that airport officials had treated his would-be caddie “like a criminal”.
“I’d worked pretty hard for four or five years, getting a good reputation and I had found a good bag,” Pinfold says. “After the visa issue, it was a limbo time in my life. I didn’t know if I was ever going to get back to America.”
But the incident turned into a blessing in disguise. It would take two months, and a trip to Queenstown, to find out why.
A Chance Meeting
It’s not often a caddie arrives at a tournament with one player, only to carry the clubs of another over the weekend. But that was what unfolded at the 2014 New Zealand Open in Queenstown. Pinfold was looping for Australia’s Michael Sim at the event played across Millbrook Resort and The Hills.
When Sim missed the cut, Pinfold started relaxing into a few deserved Friday night beverages, believing he was about to leave the South Island’s gorgeous alpine destination. But he got a call from player agent, Ian Davis, asking him to caddie for 20-year-old Australian rookie Cameron Smith on the weekend.
“Michael and I had played a practice round with Cam that week and Cam didn’t have a caddie for the New Zealand Open,” recalls Pinfold. “He was carrying his own bag during the practice rounds and that’s where I got to know him a little bit. Cam ended up having a local caddie for the first two rounds, but it didn’t work out and Cam was after another caddie for the final two days.”
Immediately, Smith thrived on Pinfold’s deadly accurate yardages, which can be problematic for a caddie to dial in around the mountainous Hills layout.
“Once he hit the 18th green during the third round, I turned and said to him, ‘Do you realise you just hit all 18 greens today?’ That was pretty cool for our first round together,” says Pinfold.
Smith shot 67-71 on the weekend to earn a share of 10th behind winner Dimi Papadatos, not to mention a cheque for almost $20,000. Pinfold was starting to realise his visa woes may have been a sliding doors moment after all.
“To have that kind of result come out of it, it felt like I turned a negative into a positive reasonably quickly,” Pinfold adds.
Before linking with the up-and-coming Smith, Pinfold had paid his dues on the caddie ranks. But his early experiences could make a golf fan wonder why he persevered with the job at all.
Pinfold’s first start was on the bag of Kiwi and good mate Brad Iles, whose six seasons on the Web.com Tour yielded total prizemoney of $US404,072 from 100 appearances. Pinfold went on to have brief stints with higher-profile players, including Japanese star Ryo Ishikawa and 2008 Masters winner Trevor Immelman.
“Some caddies start with a top golfer and go on to success quickly,” says Pinfold. “I had a tough couple of years. But that’s the luck of the draw, which comes with the caddie role. I’m certainly not complaining.”
Aron Price was another bag as the Sydney native tried breaking onto golf’s biggest stage from the Web.com circuit. “Sam caddied for me one year but I didn’t play very well,” says Price. “He caddied for a lot of guys – and he’s a super caddie – but he just kept having bad luck. There was the visa problem, then Ishikawa and Immelman didn’t do any good.”
To compound matters, Pinfold suffered the tragic loss of his father, Terry, in 2015.
“His old man was the one who encouraged him to keep going with caddieing – told Pinna that if he loved his job he’d never work a day in his life. His old man was very supportive,” says Price.
“Pinna was always working hard. He was at the course early
A Breakout Year
However there was certainly light at the end of the tunnel. Firstly, Pinfold eventually got the nod to become Smith’s full-time caddie in 2015. But it wasn’t without another nervous wait.
Smith had been trialling caddies when he shared fifth place on his PGA Tour debut at the 2014 CIMB Classic in Malaysia and again at the 2015 US Open at Chambers Bay where the Queenslander eagled the 72nd hole to tie for fourth.
“Cam was getting close to breaking through on tour. He was performing really well while I wasn’t there and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was a little nervous,” says Pinfold. “But he stuck with me and it was a pretty nice phone call to get. One thing about Cam is that he’s a loyal guy and it’s a nice feeling to have a boss like that.”
While Smith made a nice Augusta National debut at the 2016 Masters when he finished T-55, his real success wouldn’t come until the 2017 PGA Tour season. It was last April when Pinfold made a crucial caddie call that changed the trajectory of Smith’s career.
Pinfold suggested his housemate in Jacksonville, Florida – Swedish PGA Tour player Jonas Blixt – should team up with Smith for the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, which had changed to a two-man teams’ format.
The chemistry was undeniable. The super-cool Blixt provided the poise and Smith provided a bunch of clutch wedge shots and putts as they defeated American duo Scott Brown and Kevin Kisner in a playoff. While it was a defining moment for Smith, it was certainly a massive reward for his Kiwi caddie.
“It gave him the freedom and money to go home and see his family a little bit more,” says a grateful Smith, acknowledging that a two-week break between PGA Tour events means a dash back to New Zealand for Pinfold to spend time with his mother.
“In three years with me, he hasn’t really made a bad call. And he never pushes me into a certain shot, regardless of the situation or what my tour status meant. He’s a great caddie and an even better mate. That’s a massive addition to any bag.” – Cameron Smith
This past summer Smith and Pinfold travelled down under for the Australian Open and PGA Championship. Smith had a chance to lift the Stonehaven Cup in Sydney but the fourth-place finish proved a solid dress rehearsal for his win on the Gold Coast the following week.
Again, Pinfold was integral to the victory – Smith’s first pro title on home soil. This time it meant dealing with a heckler in the crowd who had made repeated attempts to throw the 24-year-old off his game while he was battling fellow Australian Jordan Zunic down the stretch.
It came to a head when the heckler – who made a series of fake coughs – shouted “Don’t choke” and “This is a crucial shot”. Pinfold pulled Smith away from addressing the ball on his approach to the 72nd green and had security guards eject the pest.
Smith brushed aside the distraction, downed Zunic in a playoff and etched his name onto the Joe Kirkwood Cup alongside Gary Player, Peter Thomson, Seve Ballesteros and Greg Norman. After a watershed year Smith ended 2017 ranked No.61 in the world.
“It was really special to have a season like that,” remarks Pinfold. “Even as a caddie, and having grown up playing golf my whole life, you’ve still got that competitive [drive] inside you and Cam is a kid who never gives up.
“He’s willing to fight and go for it and he’s obviously supremely talented. So it’s just a lot of fun to turn up for work every day. It doesn’t feel like work.
“It’s a great feeling to have some influence over a kid who is a star on his way to the top and is almost breaking into the world’s top 50.” – Sam Pinfold
Jacksonville-based Price believes Pinfold’s success is more than deserved. “Pinna is so devoted to his job. He thinks about it in his weeks off. He’s the full package as a caddie, really.”
“He’s just a good bloke. If he was down to his last five bucks, he’d give it to you. That’s the sort of guy he is. He stayed devoted to caddieing and finally got rewarded with Cam. It’s a good partnership.”
Price has no doubt Pinfold’s relentless demeanour has contributed to Smith’s breakout season. “The biggest thing I noticed during our time as player and caddie was Pinna’s passion and positivity. Even with 11 holes to go on a Friday when you’ve got no chance of making the cut, his attitude would be the same as if you were in contention.
“I’m convinced a caddie feels 75 per cent of what the player feels, in terms of the score and the result. But Pinna is still in there encouraging his player, and it’s sincere.”
Smith certainly agrees: “Pinna’s stress levels never rise, which is exactly what you want in a caddie. Confidence is everything in golf and he delivers plenty of it.”
Onwards and Upwards
Pinfold’s journey looping for struggling players on various tours around the world has shaped his resolve as a caddie. Caddieing is one of those things, he says, that is about experience and reputation. “I think, overall, New Zealand and Australian caddies are known in the US for being good blokes and hard workers.”
A significant influence on Pinfold was South Africa’s Immelman, who struggled to maintain form after breaking through the Major championship barrier at Augusta. But Pinfold insists Immelman’s results were not due to a lack of effort or complacency.
“I worked for Trevor for about 10 months and, while we didn’t have much success, he was a true professional and I really learned a lot from him.
“The way he went about his practice rounds and preparation was second to none. He knew exactly what time the next morning he wanted to be out on the course, the range or the putting green, and exactly what he needed to work on.
“I’ve tried to bring some of that professionalism to Cam’s game and I think it’s definitely rubbed off.”
Pinfold also lists close mates Matt Kelly and Joe Skovron, who caddie for Marc Leishman and Rickie Fowler, respectively, as sources of inspiration. They had success with their players while he was struggling on the Web Tour and thinking about chucking it in. But they looked out for him and helped Pinfold get some of his earlier jobs on the PGA Tour.
“I couldn’t thank them enough, as well as Aron Price and Brad Isles, who I started with thinking it was going to be a fun way to see America on a budget. Steve Williams has been good to me throughout the years.”
Pinfold’s next priority is to help Smith crack the top 50 on the world ranking by the end of March – or win another PGA Tour event – in order to secure a second invitation to the Masters. Once there, Pinfold feels Smith could give the year’s first Major a big shake.
“Cam didn’t necessarily have the length to compete on tour when I first met him. But he’s now well above average and it’s a credit to his dedication and also his trainer.
“I think he’s got a great game for Augusta now he’s longer. I really think he can contend, especially with his short game and how lethal he [is] from 100 yards out.”
Down the track Pinfold says he’d love to have another crack at winning the New Zealand Open. Not only because it’s his national championship, but since it’s the place where his life changed forever.
“It was pretty cool the way it started for Cam and I back in 2014. Cam is not really a kid driven by prizemoney – he just wants to win certain championships at certain courses.
“Cam loves New Zealand and he loves Queenstown, so you never know.”
*-This feature first appeared in the March issue of New Zealand Golf Digest. Cameron Smith tied for fifth at the Masters in April, rising to a career-best No.39 on the Official World Golf Ranking.