I saw the announcement on Twitter: Caddies will be allowed back. It was a sense of relief after rumours the PGA Tour’s scaled-down return would be a players-only affair. But under that tweet, I saw a question that we see and hear all the time: Do players even need caddies?
There are many in the game, including some players, who have the mindset that the things we help with are negligible. We don’t have enough space to gut that pig – I’m sure you can guess my feelings on that matter – so let’s tweak the question slightly. How much of a difference does a good caddie really make?
If you’re looking to quantify it, 10 strokes per season. Easy. That might not sound like much; it shakes out to less than half a shot per tournament. But that’s the difference between playing on tour and staying on tour, from having near-misses to multiple trophies.
“With what’s at stake, a little means a lot.”
Where do those shaved strokes come? Ain’t just reading the grain, pal. Aren’t many galvanising speeches getting our man to go for it instead of laying up, either. It’s more nuanced.
Best example is Michael Greller. I hate to use him as an example because he’s one of the more well-known caddies, and too often we equate popularity with proficiency… but Greller is one of our best. What sets him apart is his preparation. We all do our homework. Have to. Greller goes beyond. Maybe it’s the former teacher in him. Blindfold him and send him 40 paces behind the green, and he’ll know the distance, angle of attack and where not to miss.
Honesty mixed with gumption is also in that 10-stroke formula. Sounds simple, but even the nicest players have egos, and they often confuse disagreement as conflict. And conflict, for caddies, often means you’re looking for a new bag. Fanny Sunesson was prolific with Nick Faldo because she had the temerity to stand up to Sir Nick, and he respected her for it. Same with Bones Mackay to Phil Mickelson for all those years. Out of the current group, Matt Minister and Patrick Cantlay work well because there’s no bull between them.
Instilling conviction is up there. Not trust; that’s something that happens over rounds, weeks, years. That’s a luxury most of us don’t have. This is about getting your guy to believe in you, sure, but also getting him to believe in himself when he doesn’t, and to do so without the rah-rah pep talk. (I know we’re talking about grown men, yet so many of these players can be fragile flowers.) Greg Bodine, who partnered with Tony Finau until recently, has that touch. Brooks Koepka is not short on confidence, but when the tank is running low, Ricky Elliott fills it up. Steve Williams is not beloved – I’d argue some of that is jealousy – but throw him on that list.
This next part… well, I don’t want to get too sappy or spiritual, but the longer I’m in this, the more I believe turning a good round into great (or keeping a bad round at bay) is tapping into a player’s force. It’s hard to explain. Closest I can call it is making sure this high-powered tap is running without any leaks or drips.
One example: Rory McIlroy. I think the world of JP Fitzgerald, but Rory was leaving a part of his game on the table with JP. Deep down, JP knew it, too. There was scepticism from our ranks when Harry Diamond took Rory’s bag, but Harry knows the game and took his job seriously, and he fused that knowledge and prep with his friendship with Rory. It’s no coincidence that Rory became a top-five machine when Diamond took over.
Again, this isn’t about being friendly; it’s creating a sense of uninhibited ability. Joe LaCava created that belief with Tiger Woods, Fred Couples and Dustin Johnson, three personalities that couldn’t be more different. Jimmy Johnson has been a bad man well before teaming with Justin Thomas. Scott McGuinness has been one of the most underrated fellas in our profession for quite some time; hopefully he gets his due with Scottie Scheffler, who was right in contention at the PGA.
Of course, we can only make so much of a difference. We are, at best, supporting characters in this play. And if our star can’t memorise his lines or keeps falling on stage, the show’s not going to stay on Broadway.
– with Joel Beall
Read on for more from Undercover Caddie…