The Open Championship?

January 30, 2009

July 1997

Growing up in the suburbs of Columbus, I was fortunate enough to have access to some of the best golf courses in the country to play and practice on.  Any kid who has played golf invariably has stood on a putting green lining up 10-footers “To win the US Open.”  I did it all the time, and still do.

But, the major championship that always piqued my curiosity was the The Open Championship, the only one played outside the United States.  Most of the courses used for this tournament are located in Scotland, the birthplace of golf.  I was always excited to turn on the TV early in the morning to see what kind of conditions the professionals would have to endure that day, or that hour, since it seemed to change so often.  Even in the middle of the summer, you would see players, caddies and the crowds bundled up in sweaters, caps, gloves, blankets and a copious amount of plaid.  It would rain sideways for 20 minutes, then miraculously, become sunny and benign.  Then it would rain again and blow 40 off the ocean.  I was always glad to be curled up in a comfy chair with my coffee, chuckling at how cold they must feel, but secretly wanting to experience it for myself.

I was in the middle of my fourth year as a professional caddie for Chris Perry.  The 1997 season had been up and down, with a couple of decent finishes in March at Doral in Miami (T-13) and Bay Hill in Orlando (T-14), but many missed cuts, too.  I wanted Chris to send in his application for Open Championship qualifying, which would involve us flying across the pond to play 36 holes at a course we had never seen with no guarantees other than spending the money to be there.  He was dismissive at the idea and felt he needed to be playing much better to even think about such a trip.

The deadline for the application was following the Byron Nelson Classic in Dallas in May.

Chris missed the cut at the two events (Greensboro and Atlanta) he competed in leading up to Dallas.  Things weren’t falling into place the way I thought they needed to for him to agree to go to Scotland.  I was beginning to resign myself to the fact that it wasn’t going to happen.

Then, he shot 65 at Cottonwood Valley in the opening round to be among the leaders.

Second round – 67 at TPC at Las Colinas.

Third round – 66 at TPC.

On Sunday, we played in the second to last group behind the final pairing of Lee Rinker and Tiger Woods.  A 70 on a windy and raw day rewarded CP with a tie for 5th and a good deal of confidence in his game (Tiger won in a thriller over Lee).  I remember being especially proud of the Columbus caddies finishing 1, 2 and 5 that week.  Mike Cowan (Fluff) won with Tiger and at the time lived on the north side of Columbus.  Dennis O’Brien, still haunting the OSU golf courses,  finished second with Lee Rinker.

Word came down from the boss. We were going across the pond!

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Life Karma

December 19, 2008

The little things you do in life can make a big difference for others.

I found this to be true one year in Chicago at the Western Open.

After several years of looping for the same player, I found I could take a few liberties with the equipment.  One of my favorite actions as a tournament caddie was getting to dispose of the golf balls my player used during the course of a round.  This was in the days of the Tour Balata, a ball that was so soft it could be nicked by your fingernail.  Try that with today’s balls!  (Don’t send me the doctor’s bill.)  Since they were so soft, a player would have to switch to a new ball fairly often between the green and next tee.  My player at the time, Chris Perry, would ask for a new one after two, maybe three holes tops.  That left me with seven to nine unwanted golf balls in the bag after each round.  At first, he would keep them for his shag bag to practice at home.  But, once he had enough and got tired of transporting all the extra weight in his luggage, he would leave it to me to find a home for the rest.

That’s when I started having some fun.

It started innocently enough.  At the end of the round, I would join Chris in the scoring tent to check his card, making sure he was signing for a correct number.  Then, I would grab the bag and start “The Walk.”

The area where the players signed their cards was always roped off from the gallery.  The marshalls would also create a “rope tunnel” to get the players and caddies back to the clubhouse.  Along those ropes would stand hundreds of fans of all ages looking for an up-close view of their favorite golfer and maybe a signature or a memento from the pros.  They would wave posters and hats, even the occasional banana peel (that’s a whole other story!).  The younger ones could really get into it.  What would start as a murmur, would quickly cascade into screams and yelling.

“Can I have your glove?!”

“Can I have your hat?!”

It never took long for kids to start asking for your towel, shoes, shirt or anything else that was visible.  But, I soon found that nothing would send them into a frenzy more than if you simply held up a golf ball.

Instant bedlam!

“CAN I HAVE IT?!”, nine kids screech.

“NOOOoooo!  I WANT IT!!”, twelve more go ballistic.

I could never just hand it to someone.  If I got that close, the throng would grab everything on the bag that wasn’t screwed down tight.  So, I would get them worked up, then toss it high and watch them scramble for it like a Barry Bonds homer to straight away center field in old Candlestick Park.  The mob never disappointed.  I did this often and thought I was making the youngsters and myself happy until my wife interjected one day, “Don’t you worry about the kids getting hurt in the pile?”

“I guess I never thought about it, honey,” I said.

“Well, they might and it would be your fault!”

Time for Plan B.

I still wanted to give the kids all the used golf balls, but needed a way to do it without all the hubbub.  The galleries tended to be a bit more orderly during the round, rather than outside the scoring tent.  So, now when a ball would be taken out of play on the walk to the next tee, I would immediately look around for a pair of eyes that that said “Me, please!”  I could always find a worthy candidate and would drop it in their lap or toss it to their parents for them.

Problem solved!

Now, I don’t usually remember who I toss the balls to in those situations, since I am concentrating on the work at hand, but there was one I couldn’t ever forget.  It happened on the third tee box of the second round of the 1997 U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, MD.  Chris had just bogied the difficult par three second hole after a long wait on the tee.  Neither of us were particularly chipper at that point. We were walking to the next tee in the “rope tunnel” strung together by the marshalls when Chris asked to switch to a new ball.  I looked around for someone to toss it to.  To my right at the edge of a group of small pine trees was a quiet, wide-eyed kid about ten years old watching us walk by.  Bingo.

“Hey kid, you want a ball?”

He kind of froze at being singled out, but then nodded slowly.  So, I tossed it to him.  I certainly didn’t expect what followed.  The kid caught the ball, looked down at it and then suddenly screamed,  “OH MY GOSH! I GOT A BALL!” and tore up the hill to find his parents, yelling at the top of his lungs the whole way.  So much for no hubbub!  It was like watching a kid get the one thing he just had to have on Christmas.  It was a priceless moment.

Which leads me back to the Western Open and the whole point of the story.  In 2000, the week after the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, Chris competed at Cog Hill.  After a 69 in the second round to make the cut, I took the bag to the caddie area to get a quick bite before joining him for his afternoon practice session on the range.  This area was set up at the front right side of the smallish clubhouse.  It would normally be the club drop for patrons, but now was bound in on three sides by a temporary three-foot high white wooden picket fence and the building on the backside.  A white tent big enough for twenty people sat on a third of this space and housed sandwiches and cold drinks for the hot and weary loopers.  The rest of the caddie area housed outdoor tables and chairs to lounge upon.  We joked that it looked like a pen for goats at the zoo.  So, we called it the “Caddie Petting Zoo.” The only thing missing was the straw.

I got something to eat and drink, then sat down for a while at one of the tables along the fence.  I kept Chris’ bag within a few feet of me, the name facing outward.  Within a short bit, I was tapped on the shoulder by someone outside the zoo.  I turned to find a man in his mid-forties standing there, obviously with something to say.

“You’re Chris Perry’s caddie, aren’t you?”, he asked.

Uh oh.  Who’d my boss go and tick off now, I thought.

“Yes, I am.  How can I help you?”, I replied skeptically.

“I just wanted you to know that Chris Perry is my son’s favorite golfer and you gave him one of his balls three years ago on the third hole at the U.S. Open that he keeps as his most prized possession!  He’s more into golf now than ever thanks to you. Thank you!”

With that, he turned and melted back into the crowd…

Man, did that make me feel good inside.  Little actions can make a big difference.  That’s life karma.

After the Putter Cover

December 4, 2008

April 1997

After an eventful, but unproductive Thursday round, my player, Chris Perry,  stood 4 or 5 shots outside the cut number needed to qualify for weekend play, or the money rounds as we called them, at Forest Oaks CC in Greensboro, NC.  He suffered through a dismal 76 that day and managed to chew me out for pulling the putter cover off his putter before he thought I should.  It had been a weird day.

But, Friday was a new day and I longed for a little normalcy.  Fat chance.

We teed off number 10 early in the morning.  It was a little cool, almost foggy, and very still.  We knew it would take an exceptional round simply to make it to the weekend, but were thankful to have the opportunity.

The tenth hole at Forest Oaks CC is a straight, medium length par four, which plays longer than the yardage implies since it is uphill.  Out of bounds markers were in play to the right for the unfortunate swingers, but otherwise the hole was manageable.  Chris blazed a drive to the right center of the fairway leaving him with 132 yards to a front left pin tucked four steps over a deep bunker.  Only the top half of the flagstick was visible from our spot back down the fairway.

The cool air and elevation would make the shot play longer, but we agreed it still fit the profile of a good, solid nine-iron.  That was the club he chose.

Chris was a master at course management and always tried to put his golf ball into controllable situations.  I didn’t always agree with his final decisions, but I always knew why he did what he did in any circumstance.  So, this morning I expected him to favor the center, or fat side of the green, to leave a reasonable putt at our first birdie of the day.  We needed a bunch of them, but you can only make them one at a time, one shot at a time.  Mistakes could not be on the slate today.

When it became his turn to play, he stepped behind the ball on line with the pin and began his normal preshot routine.  All good players have a reliable, repeatable routine before a shot that will relax their mind and allow them to visualize the shot they want to execute.  It frees them up to be successful under pressure.  Chris’ routine was well known to me by now, so much so that I didn’t really have to watch him to know exactly what was going on at any moment.

I guess that’s what made me look up abruptly as Chris began walking into his stance at the ball.  For him,  this was always the point of no return; The ball would be in the air momentarily.  But this time, he stopped before he got to the ball.  Uh oh.  I was thinking he didn’t like the club, or he couldn’t commit to a line.  Whatever it was, it wasn’t good to see him back off.

“What’s up?”, I inquired.

Chris looked at me with a little glimmer in his eye, pulled his yardage book from his back pocket and cooed, “Hey Carly, (he said Carly, not Carl which meant everything was okay) does it say anywhere in this yardage book that you can’t hole it out from the fairway?”

Instantly, I realized he didn’t have any problems with the club or the shot at hand.  In fact, he was getting cocky.

“Nope. No it doesn’t, CP.”,  I shot back and grinned.

He slyly smiled back and said my favorite line of his when he had a good feeling.

“Watch this, Carly.”

Chris stepped back into his routine, addressed the ball and whoosh!  Off it went.

The ball started on line with the pin and stayed there.  It flew over the bunker and down the flagstick, out of our sight, since we couldn’t see the elevated green surface or the cup.

Click.

I heard that slight faint sound of a ball coming into contact with the plastic pin that marked the postion of the hole.   Then the small crowd around the green went nuts!

It had flown into the cup for an eagle 2!

Chris smirked and simply handed the nine-iron back to me.  He had called his shot and then incredibly pulled it off.  I was so amazed that I was standing there trying to hand him his putter.  He reminded me that he wouldn’t need it on this hole.

“Oh yeah,” I offered meekly.

I swear I could hear the PGA TOUR commercial tag line, “These Guys Are Good,” going round my head.

That was the first hole of the day.

It was an unlikely and encouraging start, but we knew there was more good work to be done to make this week’s cut.  Chris then birdied both par fives (#13 and #15), our fourth and sixth holes of the day and stood on the sixteenth tee four under par.

The sixteenth is one of the more challenging holes on the course.  A longish par four with a little dogleg right, you had to hit your tee ball blind to the top of a hill which would leave a mid to long iron to a well bunkered and usually firm green.  If you hit it in the rough off the tee, it was very difficult to find your way to the green in regulation.

Chris did just that, missing the fairway to the right.  He had an open shot to the green, but surely could not control the spin of the ball well enough to attack the pin situated in the center back.  His best bet was to land the ball just over the front bunkers and hope it stopped somewhere on the back of the green.  The shot had been thought out, now it was time to execute.

He chose a six iron, which should be just enough to get the job done.  As he hit it, I could tell by the sound the ball hadn’t been struck as cleanly as it needed to be.

“Get up, ball.”  I murmured.

The ball floated in the air lazily, then dropped like a rock from the sky and buried itself into the lip of one of the front bunkers.

“Great.” Chris said sarcastically.

CP had an all-around gift to play the game, but mentally he struggled with the consequences of a poor bunker shot.  As positive as he could be about iron shots, he was the complete opposite in the sand.  I would watch him practice bunker shots on a daily basis and he always showed me something special.  I never saw any real reason that he should be so apprehensive about this part of his game.  Yet, the doubts remained and it showed when he would speed up his normally rock solid preshot routine.

I felt the slippery scoring slope we were on was beginning to tilt even further away from our goal to make the cut.

CP, to his credit, handled the shot better than usual and found himself with a very reasonable chance to make par when the ball nestled to within four feet of the cup.  I felt better already.  He very rarely missed a putt inside ten feet, let alone one from four.  I marked a par four on my pin sheet for the hole.

Within a few moments, however, I was checking my pockets like Columbo for an eraser.

When Chris hit the putt, the grain of the green immediately snagged the ball and veered it left of its intended target line.  The ball reached the cup, hit the left side of the hole and spun out on the right side about a foot away.

“Nuts!” and “Oh well.” were the two things I heard out of his mouth.

Being the precise and steady player he was, Chris never let anything get to him.  It appeared he had already made peace with this bit of adversity.  So when he uncharacteristically attempted to backhand the ball for his bogey, I was a little surprised.  Yet, it was only a foot away, so it would be okay.

Not.

When CP leaned in to backhand it, the ball once again came off rolling on the wrong line, caught the edge of the hole and did a 360!  It spun so far around the hole that it came back at him and grazed his golf shoe.  He then tapped it in and walked off the green.

Now, everything happened so fast, I wasn’t sure I had seen what I thought I had seen.  By my calculations, if the ball had hit his shoe, he would be assessed a two-stroke penalty in addition to his score for that hole.

So, I started to count… Tee ball, one.  Six-iron from the right rough, two.  Bunker shot, three.  First putt, four.  Backhand, five, hit shoe and add two, seven.  Tap it in for EIGHT?!  Oh no!  I can’t believe what I just saw!

Everyone else finished the hole in silence.  As I was walking up to the seventeenth tee, Chris came over and whispered, “Uh, is what happened back there what I think happened?”

“If you mean you think you hit yourself in the foot and made eight, yes, that’s what happened.”  I replied, a little stung.

He didn’t say anything else or whine or complain.  He simply went to the next tee and played golf.  I loved that about the guy.  You never knew by watching his expressions if he was up or down on the course.   The following year during the US Open at The Olympic Club in San Francisco he made the 28th hole-in-one in US Open history on the 13th hole in the second round.  I couldn’t tell by his face whether he thought he had done something cool, or he had just found a wad of gum on his shoe that needed to be removed.  That’s just how he was.

Well, we didn’t make the cut at Greensboro that week, but the things I saw and were a party to made me look back on that whole experience with a smile.  To this day I have never heard of someone having as spicy a nine holes with a called hole out from the fairway for eagle, birdieing both par fives and a self-inflicted quadruple bogey on a hit shoe lip out.  Did I mention he made a 40-footer on the eighteenth hole for birdie?!

He shot one under.

Nike Tour – Just Do It

December 2, 2008

March 1994

I loaded up my 1988 1/2 (the 1/2 makes all the difference for this beauty!) Ford Escort early Monday morning in preparation for my drive to Lafayette, Louisiana for the Nike Tour golf tourney.  This was to be my first taste as an actual caddie, since all my time growing up was spent playing the game.  The only other time I had carried a bag for someone else was a few years before when my father played with Tom Watson in the Wednesday Pro-Am at the Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio.   Even then, the weather shortened the event to nine holes and my sister was supplying me with copious cups of mildly cold draft beer.  That experience, while fun, could hardly be considered a true caddie event.

The two most important items I felt necessary for the trip were my Rand McNally Atlas and my almost-to-the-limit credit card.  With these in hand, I maneuvered my four-speed stick, 70 horsepower, no cruise control, bright red Escort to the freeway, headed south.

16 hours and 8 cups of coffee later I arrived at the hotel in Lafayette.  Chris put me up for the week in his room, before he knew I could snore up a storm.  I think I actually slept in the bathtub one night after getting hit by a shoe in the middle of the night.  I vowed to have my own hotel room the next week.

On Tuesday morning, I met Lee Rinker, a good buddy of Chris’ and Assistant Pro at Muirfield Village GC in Dublin, OH.  Chris and Lee would stay together often to save on expenses.  I had heard stories about how Chris wasn’t very talkative to other players and appeared to come off a little cold in the charisma department.  It is true he wouldn’t say much to anyone on tournament days, but I would learn that was borne from his intense focus of the job at hand.  “I’m not here to make friends, Carl,” he would say.  If fact, if we drove to the course together, he might not say “Good morning.”  I quickly realized he was already going over his mental game plan; His nose wouldn’t come out of the yardage book until the day was done.

But, today was Tuesday, a day for practice rounds and range rats.  Chris was relaxed and happy to be at Le Triomphe Country Club and was yucking it up with his pal, Lee.  What happened next changed any preconceived notions I had about his personality, or lack of…

The tee area for the practice range was long, wide and straight.  Almost half the field could hit balls at the same time, if need be.  Behind the tee, many yards away, stood a row of blue plastic port-a-potties, fifteen strong.  I would come to learn how good a set up it was to have a nearby place to to take care of business as caddies were never allowed in the clubhouses on Tour.

In fact, the stalls were so prominent, it reminded Lee of a story.

Apparently, a few years before (already starting to sound like an urban legend-type story), early in the morning at the US Open, the volunteer marshals were arriving to the course to take their positions for the days’ event.  Since it was so early, the marshals and the grounds crew were the only people milling about, otherwise the course was empty.  One of the marshals happened to be a little larger than most and after his morning coffee he needed a quiet place to relieve himself.  He was ecstatic to find a port-a-potty on his station hole behind the tee.  What he failed to notice is what made the story.

The john had been placed on a slight incline, with the front door higher then the back side.  For most people, this would not have made a bit of difference, but like I said, he was a big guy.  So, when he stepped in, turned and sat down, the whole unit tipped over backwards sending its contents of blue liquid and waste swimming over and around the gentleman and his previously clean white shirt!

Now, if that wasn’t bad enough, add this log to the fire.  He couldn’t get out.

When the potty tipped backwards, the marshal became wedged in the enclosure and could not pull himself up.  So, he meekly called for help, but since it was so early, no one was around.  That poor man laid in a pool of blue liquid and foulness for at least an hour before he was found.

Six men tried to pull him loose… To no avail.  They finally had to call someone from the TV broadcast company to see if they could reposition one of the camera cranes to help lift the potty upright and release him.  Now that’s what I call a bad start to a day!

We all laughed so hard during the story, we thought we would wet our pants.  This caused Lee to have to use one of the fifteen potties behind the range.

“Be careful in there!”, I called after him.

“I’ll never have a problem in a port-a-potty!”, he cooed back and trotted the 60 or so yards to his objective.

Chris’ ears perked up when he heard what Lee had said and turned to me and smiled.

“Let’s see if that’s true.”

With that, Chris pulled his two-iron from the bag, dropped a practice ball and turned 180 degrees around to take dead aim at the door of Lee’s stall.  I laughed, “Yeah, right.  You can’t hit it from here!”

“Watch this. One ball.”  Chris swung and blazed a waist-high punch shot that connected squarely in the center of Lee’s door with a resounding Thwap! that brought the entire range to a halt.  As everyone looked on, Lee staggered from the unit with his shirt partially untucked and a bit of dribble on his pants.  The look on his face was priceless as Chris prodded, “No problems in a port-a-potty, huh?”

That was my first hour on my new job.

The Beginning

December 2, 2008

If you are a client of Southwest Greens of Ohio, we have most likely met.  For those who are just looking for a good golf story, read on…

Before I was hired by Southwest Greens of Ohio as the Lead Design Consultant, I spent 15 years plying my trade as a professional caddie on the PGA TOUR.  The first ten years, I worked for a player named Chris Perry.  He excelled at Ohio State University, winning 14 collegiate tournaments (tying Nicklaus’ all time record) and was named a 3-time All-American.  His success initially on the PGA TOUR was lukewarm and eventually he lost his exempt status which sent him to the Nike Tour in 1993.

I met Chris in late 1993.  At the time, I had qualified for and competed in the 1992 US Amateur at Muirfield Village GC in Dublin, OH and was looking to turn pro myself.  I was selling high end Japanese cars at a dealership in Dublin when he walked in looking for a car for his wife.  I knew instantly who he was having grown up in the suburbs of Columbus and having followed the careers of former Buckeye players.

“Hey Chris Perry!  How are you?!”  I bellowed.

I extended my hand to a somewhat surprised fellow at being recognized so easily.  We chatted about cars and golf and eventually I let him take one home for his wife to drive overnight.

I didn’t get the sale.  He ended up buying her a Chysler, but I felt I had made a friend in the process.  So, the following spring, at the urging of my father, I called him up on a Saturday night.  My intent was to caddy for him for three or four weeks so I could see the level of play and practice habits of some of the best professionals and whether or not I felt my game could stack up to them.  The conversation lasted about a half an hour and ended like this…

CP: “You have a car?”

Me: “Yep.”

CP: “Can you be in Layfayette, Louisiana by Monday night?”

Me: “Yep.”  (I have a real gift for the gab…)

CP: “Okay.  See you then.”

Thus began a career path that would take me across the country and eventually the world simply to carry a golf bag…