Michael Bamberger’s 7 best things in golf right now, ranked

matt kuchar local caddie
Matt Kuchar's local caddie got a much bigger pay day than expected this week.
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Every week GOLF senior writer Michael Bamberger identifies — and ranks — the absolute, undeniably, very best things in golf right now.

7. Local boy makes good

Matt Kuchar won in Mexico with a local caddie, who had caddied in the event before. In other words, he knew when to rake the other guy’s bunker, among other Tour niceties. Kuchar committed to the event late, his regular caddie, the polymath John Wood (musician, reader, writer, baseball fan), had others things scheduled, and the human ATM known as Kooch won for the first time since 2014. His caddie-for-the-week was a man known as “El Tucan” and whose actual name is David Ortiz. (The colorful big-beaked bird on your box of Fruit Loops is known as “Toucan Sam.”) Week-in and week-out, Tour caddies keep their jobs because they provide the stability and reliability players want. That’s the biggest thing. Tour players detest surprises.

But the local caddie, the sharp one, can bring something beyond Wednesday afternoon’s wind direction, useful though that may be. Scott McCarron won the Senior Players last year at Caves Valley, near Baltimore, with a local caddie, Evan Vollerthum. They had no work history. Ben Curtis won in 2003, at the notorious RSG (Royal St. Georges) with a local man, Andy Sutton, on his bag. Sutton was a veteran European tour caddie, but in terms of accent and insight and everything else, he was a local. Prior to 1983, all the players in the Masters were required to use Augusta National caddies. The policy was changed because of player revolt. Now come Kooch and El Tucan. Mr. Ortiz will be forever an interesting footnote in Kuchar’s long working life. That week with Kuchar might be the highlight of El Tucan’s.

6. The Masters is coming! (Unfortunately, so are more course changes)

Speaking of Augusta National, it’s in its new wraparound season, too. (The club opens in October and closes in May.) Only 21 weeks until the Masters! Players who tour the course before that will be eager to check out the new back tee on No. 5, which lengthens the par 4 hole from 455 yards to 485. The iconic par-5 13th hole has not been lengthened (yet) but give it time. Cameron Champ will play it with a drawing 3-wood and a lazy wedge.

Making a course longer is the least imaginative way to make a course more demanding for tournament play. The fact is, the modern Tour player, with all his athleticism, in concert with modern equipment and modern agronomy, has killed the traditional concept of the par 5 and the long par 4. The idea of a world-class course demanding that an elite golfer play a variety of shots with all 14 clubs has been shattered, too. You can dream about the Masters handing out a tournament ball to the fellas that maxes out at 310 and would require no more course-length inflation, but it will never happen. When will the madness stop? Only when courses run out of land, water, grass seed and fertilizer, and players upon them run out of daylight. It takes a long time to play a 9,000-yard course.

5. What a mirror and cell phone can teach you about the swing

Go into a dark room with a full-length mirror carrying a glowing cellphone. Make some phantom swings with the business end of the phone facing the mirror. You’ll see something astonishing. The swing is round, it truly is, just as it is in the Ben Hogan and Percy Boomer books.

4. The Best-Ever Best Course List

The best list of delightful American and British courses you can imagine is simply the list of courses that have held the Walker Cup. The courses on the American side are very difficult to get on, but in the Kingdom that’s really not the case. Michael Wolf, who, among other things, is Tour pro Jim Herman’s agent, has been making checkmarks on a list of Walker Cup courses he started at age 15. Here’s a sample: The Old Course, Pine Valley, Turnberry, National Golf Links, Sunningdale, LACC. The reason the list is so outstanding is because the courses are chosen not to accommodate tents and crowds and buses, but a couple dozen talented golfers playing match play. There’s no purer list.

royal aberdeen

Many will say the best version of on-site golf viewing takes place at the Walker Cup.

3. The new Jake Gyllenhaal flick (minus the golf parts)

The bride and I saw an art-house movie called “Wildlife” the other night. It was slow, as realistic and artistic depictions of real-life often are, and excellent. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a failed golf pro who, in desperation, becomes a firefighter. This is in 1960, in Montana. Gyllenhaal’s character, Jerry, cites Walter Hagen as an inspiration, but the movie, seeking realism at every turn, has two short golf scenes where almost everything, golf-wise, is wrong, except maybe the heavy leather Eisenhower-era shoes. Jerry, as the pro/greenkeeper, polishes the golfers’ shoes outside while they are sipping post-round refreshments and are still wearing their shoes. I don’t know what it is about golf, but it never looks right on the big screen, unless they’re going for satire. As in “Caddyshack,” or the golf scene in “Sideways.” That’s about it.

2. Shades of Tiger Woods in a … rock climber?

Christine and I saw another art-house movie recently, “Free Solo,” a documentary about the extreme rock climber Alex Honnold. It’s outstanding and I mention it here because Honnold, articulate and reflective, must share fundamental qualities with Tiger Woods. In times of intense fear, Honnold’s sense of himself and what he can do doesn’t contract, it expands. I believe that’s what happens for Woods, too. The climber has no interest in the pursuit of a “happy and cozy” life. That’s pure Woods. Honnold doesn’t actively seek to put his athletic needs ahead of his personal relationships. His body and mental chemistry leaves him no choice. It’s what he is built to do. You could see that DNA in Tiger, too, in his lengthy prime.

1. Project Next

I’m going to Sea Island this week. I’m excited. Harold Varner is in the field (one of my new guys). Lucas Glover is in the field (one of my old favorites). Cam Champ is in the field. Never seen him hit a ball before, not in person. Golf always has a next. Most don’t make it but some do.

Michael Bamberger may be reached at [email protected]