33 things I learned from my PGA Tour caddie debut

March 27, 2019

When I got the ridiculous opportunity to go inside the ropes last week as Martin Trainer’s caddie at the Valspar Championship, I relished the chance to bring you, dear readers, along with me. There are plenty of sights and sounds in the five-part series I wrote as the week went along, but as I look back on the week I wanted to empty the notebook.

With that in mind, here are 33 observations, stories, moments or feelings from the week that was. If you tuned in day by day, some of these will be redundant—but you can relive them along with me. Thanks for following along, and if you’ve got more caddie opportunities that need tending to, you’ll know where to find me.

You can read “Caddie Chronicles” entries from Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

Feeling clinical: Martin has now achieved a confusing amount of professional status; he’s a relative unknown with only one top-25 finish on the PGA Tour, but he’s also a PGA Tour winner. The latter is probably how he ended up at a “long game” clinic at TPC Sawgrass the day after the Players ended. When he walked onto the range, he found this glittery group waiting for him: Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Justin Rose, Justin Thomas, Gary Woodland.

“I mean, that’s the best clinic of all time,” he told me later that day, after a private jet dropped him in Tampa, where he headed to the Whole Foods hot bar, a proper juxtaposition for this Tour rookie. “The best ever! It’s gotta be, right? They definitely thought I was just some guy who had shown up.”

Martin Trainer has found himself in increasingly impressive company.

Why the Valspar? Why was Trainer, a guy who had played four consecutive events and was wearing down, mentally and physically, showing up in Tampa to play yet again? “My whole life I would have done anything to be in these events,” he said. “Now that I’m here, and I’m allowed into every event, I kinda want to keep playing…”

That directly informed his approach to the week. He kept his schedule light on Tuesday and Wednesday, went into the week fresh, if not dialed in, and hoped to catch fire.

Hotel, Motel… Despite winning nearly $700k thus far this season, Trainer and I were splitting a room at the Holiday Inn. He only had one goal for Tuesday morning: sleep in as long as he could. He made it to about to 9 a.m. What a life, where sleeping to nine is considered productive.

On the Menu: Locker room breakfast: A delicious buffet. Bacon, sausage, eggs, home fries, waffles, oatmeal, yogurt and more. Lunch: Even more impressive. A stocked salad bar, every topping you could think of, plus entrees spanning chicken, fish, barbecue, even dim sum. Sweet tooth? Plenty of ice cream available to finish off.

Family-style: The Valspar locker room is a relatively small, intimate space. Even if guys don’t want to talk to each other, they inevitably have to. Tuesday midday, rain kept us inside and ushered a slew of other pros through, too: Paul Casey, Peter Uihlein, Chez Reavie, Sergio Garcia, Dustin Johnson, plenty more. They grabbed lunch and sat down at the communal tables to eat together, cafeteria-style.

Overheard in the caddie lounge: I overheard a lot of things in the caddie room, a sampling included here for your entertainment.

Rumors: “I heard he’s intentionally gonna stay on the Web tour so he can smoke weed during the rounds, ’cause they don’t test as much there.”

Complaints: “I officially hate my guy. Hate him. Cannot wait to get another bag.”

Opportunism: “Just a heads up — I heard Trainer does have a caddie, even though he hasn’t checked in. Some buddy of his. The f—– buddy system.”

The f----- buddy system.

Caddie sharks: Trainer told me about caddie sharks who swim around, looking for a bag to pounce on: “When I won in Puerto Rico, I got 200-something texts congratulating me,” he said. He’d won that week with a stand-in looper on his bag. “But I also heard from probably 20-30 caddies who I’ve never even met. That’s just kind of the way it goes.”

Free gear: When I was finally credentialed and deemed official, I was given five things.

1. A choice of Valspar hats, either electric blue, deep purple or pale yellow. I went yellow.
2. A yardage book
3. A page with last year’s pin positions (where they were likely to be again)
4. A voucher for a free can of paint — tint of my choosing!
5. Two tickets for each day of the week to give away (sadly, I somehow lost these almost immediately).

Double duty: On Tuesday, as Steve Stricker hit his tee shot off No. 14 during a practice round, he noticed the group we were traveling with — Trainer, Cody Gribble, Sangmoon Bae and Jim Herman — and popped over to join up. He shook hands with Trainer, who he’d played with at Bay Hill. They chatted strategy, like what to hit off No. 16 tee, and Stricker took his usual earnest tone. I’d interviewed Stricker the week before for a story on Bryson DeChambeau, and when I went to shake his hand this time he did a double take, like he recognized me but couldn’t place it. I got a few of these throughout the week, but avoided any vitriol. If these guys hate the press, they did a good job hiding it from me.

Pro-Am Prince: Want to get in good with tournament organizers? Show up for the pro-am party. There’s some sort of system where guys are required to make a certain number of appearances at these things. Guys who aren’t required don’t go. But Trainer, intrigued by free food and conversation, rolled in and became the belle of the ball, chatting up everyone from sponsors and the tournament committee to Ronde Barber and Miss Florida. We got some seriously fantastic food in the process.

The Mayor: Kenny Perry, who’s soon turning 59, was posted up in the locker room for several hours on Wednesday, holding court. Martin and I joined him for a while, to talk scheduling, energy, distance and plenty more. Perry says he can fly the ball 280 yards now and can swing it 113 mph. He averages 291.3 off the tee (and 72% of his fairways!), good for fifth on the PGA Tour Champions. In 1989, at age 28, he was the fourth-longest hitter on the PGA Tour, averaging 276.9. Times have changed.

And in contrast to the carefully managed schedules of Tour players now, Perry remembers his tournament prep: Travel Monday, play 18 Tuesday, play the 18-hole pro-am Wednesday, play 72 holes, then do it again. Wash, rinse, repeat. “I once played 13 events in a row,” Perry said, “and I hadn’t won a thing until I won the 13th. That’s why it’s so hard to know when to take a week off.”

Martin Trainer putting under the floodlights just after 7 a.m.
Dylan Dethier

Early birds: On the PGA Tour, mornings begin in the dark. Martin Trainer’s 8:24 a.m. Thursday time meant waking up at 5:20, heading to the course, hitting the gym (the player, not the caddie) eating breakfast, putting under the floodlights, chipping, hitting the range and scampering up to the first tee at 8:21, just in time to join Kevin Kisner, Luke Donald and their caddies, with his rookie caddie in tow.

WD. On our way down to the range on Thursday morning pre-round, Martin and I walked past Kevin Na, who was headed the opposite direction.

“Play well, Kevin,” Martin said.

“Thanks,” Na replied. “But I’m out of here.”

The exchange was quick enough that it was hard to be sure what he’d even said. But sure enough, just minutes later first alternate Curtis Luck strode onto the range with his caddie. Just like that, Na was out, Luck was in, and boy, did he take advantage. His T13 finish was, by world ranking points, the third-best of his young career.

Black, not red: When you get to the range, the tent has little bags of balls specifically tailored to each player in the field. Trainer plays a Srixon golf ball (the blacks, not the reds) that’s currently not used by any other pro.

Power trippin’: Martin hit driver into several interesting places that allowed me to get my Steve Williams on, box out some spectators, rip some ropes stakes out of the ground, toss lawn chairs aside, hold my arms up and yell “Hold still, please!” The power is addicting, believe me. A couple more rounds and I’ll be snatching iPhones from fans’ hands and heaving them into lakes.

The best caddie advice… I got came courtesy Matt Kuchar’s caddie, John Wood:

“Don’t be afraid to go off topic during a round. Get a feel for whether he wants to chat in between shots about other things: family, interests, restaurants, books, movies or sports. No one can fully concentrate on golf for five hours. These can be used to relax your guy, especially if something bad has just happened during the round. It kind of reminds them that the eight-iron they hit in the bunker on the previous hole isn’t actually the biggest issue in the world. It’s not.”

The highest-pressure moment of the week…was my first bunker raking. I’d dodged the sand all Thursday until Trainer fired one over the back pin on 18, where I suddenly realized I’d make my debut in front of the day’s largest crowd. Afterward, Luke Donald’s coach Patrick Goss described the job as “well done, albeit world-record slow.” Golf Channel writer Will Gray was looking on, too: “It truly was a thing of beauty. You could feel each grain being re-positioned with great purpose,” he wrote later on Twitter. That’s good enough for me.

Better than Shipnuck: Bones Mackay, legendary longtime caddie to Phil Mickelson, met us in the fairway at No. 12 on Friday as we waited for the green to clear. “Congratulations on the win in Puerto Rico,” he told Martin, before turning to me. “Heard what you’re up to this week,” he said. “How’s it going?” Great, I told him, though I was worried I hadn’t brought Martin much luck. “Well, that’s all right. It’s not like he’d be better off with Shipnuck,” he said with a smile.

Rookie moves: As we made our way up the seventh fairway Friday, I asked Bones if he had any memorable rookie caddie tales. His eyes lit up.

One year at a particularly soggy edition of the Pebble Beach Pro-Am, he said, Mickelson’s partner and his caddie introduced themselves to Bones. The caddie asked – did he have any advice? “Honestly, if you can make it the entire week without slipping and falling on your butt, that’s a big win,” Bones recalled. The caddie shook his head; he’d been hoping for something more substantive. “I’m serious,” Bones said.

The groups teed off and started off the first tee box – where the caddie hit a wet spot, slipped and took a full tumble down the slope, sending mud and clubs flying, while Bones could only laugh.

Hanging with Bones was an incredible, unexpected bonus from Friday at the Valspar.
Getty Images

Old habits die hard: Every time a player hit his ball into a bunker on Friday, Bones was the first one on the scene. He’d walk ahead, snag a rake and hand it to the appropriate caddie. Once a caddie, always a caddie I guess.

Feeling it: Luke Donald, somehow the No. 919-ranked player in the world, took 22 putts Thursday and came out crazy-hot Friday, too. He canned a 28-footer for birdie on 14 and a 35-footer for birdie on 15 to get to six-under and a tie for the tournament lead. He raised his arms in triumph, fetched the ball from the hole and came over to join his caddie, as close to giddy as he ever seems to get. “Alistair, just put me anywhere on the green. Anywhere!”

The loudest roar: On Friday, we sat at seven over par, hopes of a made cut had all but vanished as Martin hit an absolutely perfect pitching wedge into the 16th green, which skipped to a stop two feet from the hole. When it was Martin’s turn to putt, the crowd began buzzing; the filled bleachers had been waiting for some excitement.

“Give us a birdie, kid!” one person yelled. Martin firmed it off the center of the back of the cup, and you’d have thought from the eruption in the crowd that he’d won the tournament. He raised one arm in sheepish celebration, then thrust both into the sky. No matter his position relative to par, this was worth celebrating.

Caddie callout: As we got to the 7th tee, where Martin had hit driver into a fairway bunker Thursday (but hit 3-wood Friday), Kisner threw a playful (I think?) jab my way. “What, you didn’t want to give him driver again today?” he said sardonically. “I think there’s at least, like, four yards of fairway he could squeeze that thing into.”

They’re not guessing: You know how the TV guys always seem to know which clubs guys are hitting, especially on par-3s? That’s because the caddies signal to them. From watching the others, I quickly learned you sign with one hand: three fingers for a three-iron, four for a four-iron, five for a five-iron, one for a six-iron, two for a seven-iron, three for an eight-iron, four for a nine-iron, closed fist for a pitching wedge.

The “flag handoff”: There’s a simple rule: If your guy is going to putt out last, you should be the one to replace the flag. It streamlines things for the two guys who have already finished out; they can go prep for the next hole. So when someone putts it close and then marks, indicating they’ll likely finish last, this caddie-to-caddie flag handoff goes down. Great chance to build goodwill.

Bunker etiquette: An even more important chance for caddie-to-caddie goodwill comes if your guy is in a bunker, then hits it somewhere and will still be the next one to play. This happened, unfortunately, three times to Martin over the course of the week, and Duane and Alistair were there each time to pick me up, doing me a favor as well as keeping up the pace of play. While that’s happening, the third caddie up ahead can take care of cleaning off golf balls, etc., for whichever players happen to be on the green. Plenty of collaboration to be had.

These guys are good: From home, it’s easy to picture last place as a player who had everything go completely, devastatingly wrong that week. But consider that Austin Connelly shot 79-77 on a very, very difficult golf course and finished last by two. Martin was only four shots clear of him, and I thought about all the good shots it took – managing touchy up-and-downs, delicate iron shots and tight, threatening tee shots – just to post 10-over. Last place is easy.

The Calf King: You’ve never seen calves quite like those belonging to Kevin Kisner’s caddie, Duane Bock. “These babies are built for power, not speed,” he said a few holes in, when Martin inquired. Duane was friendly, though mostly quiet, but those calves did the talking for him.

It was an unforgettable PGA Tour caddie debut.

Too cold: What is our obsession with ice-cold water? If it’s not roasting-hot, there is no need to bury water bottles in vats of icewater. It was in the 50s and 60s for much of our time on course at the Valspar, which is far too cold for that frozen plunge. Time to change the conversation.

Addicted to giving: It’s an amazing feeling. When Martin would wear one ball out, he’d give it away or instruct me to. And kids’ eyes absolutely light up when they’re handed a little piece of the action, even if it’s a skidded-up Srixon struck by a rookie Tour player and delivered by a first-time caddie. This was absolutely the most rewarding part of the week.

Sometimes, don’t ask: After signing for his final score on Friday, Martin and I cleared out his locker, loaded up the Valspar-stickered Lexus and readied for departure. We walked out to the parking lot with Keegan Bradley. Last I’d seen Bradley’s name, he was holding the first-round lead on Thursday afternoon. I thought about asking how his Friday had gone, but something in his walk told me to hold off. Once I checked my PGA Tour app, I was glad I did: Bradley was well inside the cut line until he tripled 16 and bogeyed 18 to finish at three-over and miss the cut, too. Yikes. It served as a reminder: When players vanish off your leaderboards, they still continue to exist in real life.

Pin in? Or out? It feels like this debate has already started to die down. But on Tour it remains a vexing question and a gray-area decision for most players and caddies. Martin was certain he wanted the pin in from distance, and he was certain he wanted it out from close. In between? He could go either way. He never putted with the pin in from close range, so it never felt super relevant, but it is a bit strange that tending the pin is now just a thing of the past.

Shouldering the weight: Carrying the staff bag around is a commitment. We luckily didn’t pack much in the way of rain gear, but between water, snacks, clubs and the general bulk of the bag itself, I felt like I had a significant load to bear. I’m surprised they haven’t come up with a slightly more efficient means of carrying the sticks, but there’s no denying one thing: when you set it down on a tee, it looks just about perfect.

Self-care: Martin stressed this one above all. “I know people just assume life is good all the time on Tour. But if you let it, and if you don’t take care of yourself, this game will make you miserable. Seriously, you see it everywhere.”

His best remedy? Sleep enough. Exercise. Eat well. Don’t drink. Turn your phone off when you go to sleep. And best of all, don’t internalize your golf scores. All are easier said than done, but he’s committed to living as happy a lifestyle on Tour as he can. I think having the awareness to pursue that particular goal may be his most impressive accomplishment yet.