At Medinah Country Club, three longtime locker room attendants have seen it all

August 19, 2019

MEDINAH, Ill.—It’s not easy,sleeping on a big lead. Ask Greg Norman (1996 Masters). Ask Brooks Koepka (2019 PGA Championship). Ask Justin Thomas. He stayed in a house here and arrived at the nearby spectacular old-timey country club in the late morning on Sunday, leading this BMW Championship by a touchdown, knowing that every person with a putter in the trunk expected him to win FedEx II.

“He looked tense,” said Fito Garcia, one of the club’s three main locker room attendants, along with his brother Eladio Garcia and Danny Medina. (Yes, he’s one letter short of sharing the name of the club where he has worked for 42 years. The Garcia brothers have been at Medinah for over 70 years between them.) “He looked pale.”

The Medinah clubhouse is sprawling and imposing and it looks like a mosque. Fito, Eladio and Danny give it immeasurable warmth.

Fito gave Thomas a little shoulder rub and said, “Your caddie is your friend. Talk to him, he will keep you calm. Give him a joke. Take a joke from him.”

These guys, and this is not ad-copy theft, know a thing or two because they’ve seen a thing or two. They were in the locker room here on Father’s Day in 1990, when Curtis Strange went looking for Mike Donald’s locker, to leave him a note to wish him good luck in his Monday U.S. Open playoff against Hale Irwin. They remember that Hale Irwin used the sportswriter Bob Verdi’s locker that year, that Tiger was tense and shy when he won the PGA Championship here in 1999 and has loosened up notably since then, that Phil Mickelson wanted to thank every last staffer after the 2012 Ryder Cup, despite the pain of the American defeat.

Recounting his arrival later, Thomas said to the attendants, “I’ve done this a couple times, guys. But thank you.”

Well, that’s true, of course. Thomas was looking for his 10th Tour win. But it has also been a year since he last won.

You wouldn’t say he fired a fourth-round 68, even though the score is 4 under par. He was driving it crooked and looked unsure of himself at times. And it’s not like Thomas’s caddie, Jimmy Johnson, is going to be doing any standup anytime soon. But Thomas closed with a birdie and won by four and he looked decidedly less pale at day’s end.

Instead of dispensing jokes, Johnson dispensed advice, most notably on the par-4 12th. “It was a really bad drive, one of my many today,” Thomas said Sunday night. On the 10th hole, his lead over Patrick Cantlay was only two shots, so it wasn’t like the win was a foregone conclusion. Johnson said, “Just chip it out there and we’ll get this thing up and down for par.” There’s no need to try a hero shot when you’re leading and you still have six holes to play.

Fito and Eladio and Danny were watching on TV and tending to the other players as they came in and out. Rory McIlroy needed some breathing room after a final-round 71. Matt Kuchar needed a Don Julio 1942 tequila after his T52 finish. Rob McNamara, Tiger’s righthand man, took care of the Sunday locker room rituals, the tipping and the cleanup and the see-you-next-times. The locker room men believe a Presidents Cup could be coming to Medinah as early as … 2029.

Well, Thomas could be on that team, as a 36-year-old Tour veteran. With his 10 wins including the 2017 PGA Championship, he is halfway to a Hall of Fame career. He’s an interesting golfer with ferocious speed through the ball and the soles of his shoes are filled with circular cleats and real spikes, too. He needs the latter. He gets his shoes for free. His winning haul was $1.65 million at Medinah.

Fito was hopeful to get a signed shoe, for the club. It’s a smart move. Ten and 20 and 30 years from now, these relics of victory enrich a clubhouse immeasurably. Cary Middlecoff won the 1949 U.S. Open at Medinah and his time-piece mementos are on elegant display here.

Fito Garcia is 56, he was born in Mexico, owns a condo here, lives with his wife and two young children and has never worked anywhere other than the Medinah Country Club. His love for the place is contagious. For Danny and Eladio, the same. He returns to the village of his youth each winter, where he owns a home. “You walk to the grocery store, you walk to church,” he said. He believes in the power of prayer. “I prayed for Tiger to be here,” Fito said. “When Tiger plays, everyone is happy.”

An hour after Thomas’s victory, the golfer returned to the locker room, his hat on backwards, his father and caddie sitting on a bench in front of his locker.

“Congratulations!” Fito said.

“Thank you!” said the winner. 

Michael Bamberger may be reached at [email protected].