SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Employing four different caddies in three consecutive tournaments is unheard of for a player ranked No. 4 in the world. But Justin Thomas can blame it on a case of plantar fasciitis.
The painful heel condition took down his regular caddie, Jimmy Johnson, after two rounds at the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Maui last month. Thomas’s father Mike pinch-hit for the final two rounds there. At the Sony Open a week later, Phil Mickelson’s former bagman, Jim “Bones” Mackay, took the reins.
At this week’s Waste Management Phoenix Open, yet another new face on the bag: J.T.’s coach and fellow Kentucky native Matt Killen, with Johnson’s return expected in two weeks at the Genesis Open at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles.
“Matt has known me since I was 8 years old and kind of watched me growing up and playing a lot of golf, so he knows my game pretty well,” Thomas said. “I went to the [Kentucky] Derby with him last year, I’ll go to concerts with him, he’ll come stay with me and hang out. It’s not just a business-type relationship.”
There’s one catch, though: Killen also works with four other players in the field this week: J.B. Holmes, Bud Cauley, Blayne Barber and Nick Watney.
“Scheduling is the hardest thing,” said Killen, 31, who has previously caddied at PGA Tour events for Holmes and Cauley. “Making sure I get the time for everyone and giving them exactly what they want. Caddying makes that exponentially difficult.”
But it won’t prevent him from keeping an eye on how his other players perform. “It’s only natural to want to know how the other guys are doing,” he said. “You never really stop being a coach.”
Unless, that is, the rules prevent him from doing so. Should Thomas and Killen get paired with another of Killen’s clients this weekend (there are no conflicts in the first two rounds), Rule 8-1 would prohibit Killen from counseling that player during the round.
It’s an unlikely scenario but it has happened. At the RSM Classic at Sea Island last November, Killen caddied for Bud Cauley (who finished tied for eighth) in a group that also included Barber, who tied for 25th.
“It was great to watch both of them play up close, but it was a hard spot not to talk to Blayne,” Killen said. “In practice I’m always taking to the guys about their swing or their game, and that day it was a much more casual conversation. You can’t give advice. I was very cautious and just talked about general stuff, nothing golf-related.”
Beyond getting some fresh air and exercise and spending some quality time with his players, caddying also provides Killen with a significant coaching advantage.
“It’s amazing to me how little we know from watching television coverage or following ShotTracker,” he said. “We don’t always know the lie they have, or if the ball is above their feet and the wind is coming in off the right. You just don’t know all that. You only see fairways and greens. Caddying gives me a perspective that really helps with coaching, being able to see what they do under pressure, see tendencies that you don’t see during practice.”
Given his full client roster, Killen doesn’t make a habit of looping on Tour. He also has other duties. Killen serves as a sort-of roving instructor for the Discovery Land Company properties.
“It has to be the right situation and this week worked well with my schedule,” he said of looping. “All the other guys were okay with it. I’m willing to do it for everybody at some point every couple of years. It’s not something I want to do a lot.”
Thomas appreciates the effort. “What’s enjoyable for me is that I can feel comfortable being between the 7 and 8, and asking him, what do you think?” he said. “He’ll say, I think you can turn the 8 over, and feel good about it. I would never ask somebody to caddie if I wasn’t comfortable or didn’t think I had a chance to win with them.”
The last time Killen was on J.T.’s bag, at the 2015 John Deere Classic, Thomas finished tied for fifth. And his caddie-coach thinks the TPC Scottsdale Stadium Course sets up quite well for his boss this week.
“But there’s not really many courses that don’t set up well for him honestly,” Killen said. “This one though, with his length and precision iron play, is definitely a good course for him.”
And as for any concerns Thomas may have about the demands on Killen’s time this week?
“Nah,” Thomas said. “I’m pretty easy to work with.”