Johnny Wood has spent two decades caddying on the PGA Tour, including a long, fruitful stretch with Hunter Mahan. Wood won six PGA Tour events with Mahan, including the 2012 Match Play Championship over
Rory McIlroy in the final. Good times, right? Of course they were.
Yet his 2016 season—with a new boss, Matt Kuchar—was maybe the best year Wood has had on Tour, even though Kuchar didn’t win a single title. And if Jay Monahan, the new PGA Tour commissioner, looks at Kuchar’s season closely, he may find a window into the appeal of professional golf, a view of the game that has nothing to do with the numbing boredom of FedEx Cup points, the desperately hyped four fall “playoff” events, the awkwardness and illogic of the wrap-around season. When you hear Wood talking about his life and times and highs and lows in 2016, you are reminded again that golf is not a marketing exercise. It is—prepare yourself for a radical thought here—a sport!
No, Kuchar didn’t win a Tour title in ’16, he didn’t contend in any of the four major championships, he almost didn’t even win a Cadillac after making an ace at the 17th hole at the HSBC Championships in China last month. (The fine print, read carefully by Wood, noted that the hole-in-one prize would be awarded only if the par-3 measured at least 200 yards. Kuchar’s ace was from 193. A few days later, Cadillac switched gears and let Kuchar pick the vehicle of his choosing.) But Wood, one of the most observant caddies on Tour—a serious baseball fan, a serious reader, a serious student of the human condition—will tell you that this year has been like no other for him for two big reasons: Golf’s return to the Olympics (Kuchar won a bronze medal in Rio) and the return of the Ryder Cup to U.S. soil for the first time since 2008 (Kuchar went 2-2 for the winners). In other words, these two international events dwarfed anything else that happened in golf this year. Wood summarized the appeal of the two events in five words: “being part of a team.”
The Ryder Cup, Wood said, “is always my favorite event in golf.” As for the medal Kuchar won, on behalf of the United States, “it gives me goosebumps, just looking at it.” And then he held it. Wood, who lives in Sacramento, has been wearing his Team USA hoodie everywhere. In his line of work, you wind up with a lot of windbreakers, rain jackets, sweatshirts and the like, usually in an effort to promote an equipment manufacturer or a tournament or a company cashing in on golf’s good name. The hoodie sells a nation.
Baseball is Wood’s first sporting love, and he watched the historic Cubs-Indians series unfold as we all did, as one of the greatest nighttime soap operas you could every hope to see, with the two managers, Joe Maddon and Terry Francona, as the unlikely protagonists and an unlikely crew of Fox Sports commentators as the Greek Choir. If you missed that, you missed some good TV: host Kevin Burkhardt guiding the conversation of legends Alex Rodriguez, Pete Rose and Frank Thomas. It was the best barroom baseball conversation you could ever hope to hear.
Wood was asked how golf could duplicate that kind of intimate, insightful TV conversation. He suggested the following team: Fred Couples, David Duval and Paul Goydos being interviewed by Steve Sands. Nicely played, J-Wood: Home run!
Back to the golf. Wood enjoyed working for Mahan greatly, the two still enjoy a good relationship, and working for Kuchar is a similar kind of experience, except that he now does more green-reading. A caddie who prizes the team aspect of golf would welcome the opportunity to read more greens, and though we have known this for years, one of the lessons of 2016 is that team golf is a spectacular form of the game.
Tim Finchem, the outgoing commissioner, said earlier this year that the Tour would like to bring back a mixed-team event, men and women playing together. You would hope that a two-man team competition would be in the pipeline. The Ryder Cup was, again, the biggest event of the year. The Walker Cup, the amateur version of the Ryder Cup, has so much potential as must-see TV. But Wood believes there is too much golf these days, of a kind. He said there are too many 72-hole events, too many tournaments when the top players feel “so much pressure to show up and promote the game.” Asked what he would do if he were commissioner for a day, Wood said, “Get rid of the wrap-around season.”
Many feel the same way. The golfers need a break. As do the caddies, the rules officials, the fans and everyone else. Baseball without an off-season would be so much less special. Yes, the wrap-around season means more opportunities for more players, and that’s good. But when it all falls under the banner of the PGA Tour, you have a marketing problem and a perception problem, even though the Tour was trying to create a marketing solution.
In his off-season, the limited one he has, Wood tries to do some reading. He’s always reading something. On his list this year is Say it Ain’t So, Joe, about baseball player Shoeless Joe Jackson. Also the Border trilogy books by Cormac McCarthy and the work of Sherman Alexie, who writes often about the Native American experience. And Wood has been writing music. Asked who his main influence is, he said, “Paul Westerberg, formerly of The Replacements.”
It so happens that Westerberg lives in Edina, Minn., a couple of miles from the Sheraton where the U.S. Ryder Cup team—players and caddies both—stayed this year, where assistant captain Tiger Woods held court in a way Wood had never heard before, more open, less rushed, more into it. More fodder for a most interesting year in golf.
There’s a Westerberg song called “Back” that includes these lyrics:
I’m back if you’ll have me
I’m back if you’ll have me
I’m back if you’ll have me
As far as Wood is concerned, the new season starts at Kapalua in early January at the Tournament of Champions. Of course, he won’t be there; Kuchar didn’t qualify for the winners-only event. That’s O.K., the new Kuchar-Wood team got other things done. Time for a little break, self-imposed or not. They’ll be back. We’ll be happy to have them.