Dear Dustin: Hire a caddie with experience

Dear Dustin: Hire a caddie with experience

Dustin Johnson was penalized two strokes on the 72nd hole at the 2010 PGA for grounding his club in a hazard, which knocked him out of a sudden-death playoff.
Kohjiro Kinno/SI

Dear Dustin:

This advice is worth the paper it’s printed on. But as you look for a new man for your bag, you might want to consider this: the buddy-as-caddie thing is not working. The great caddie-player relationships turn into friendships along the way. They don’t start out that way. Steve Williams and Tiger Woods. Jim Mackay and Phil Mickelson. Mike Cowan and Jim Furyk. Tony Navarro and Adam Scott. Dave Renwick and Vijay Singh, before their inevitable divorce. Joe LaCava and Fred Couples.

You might want to think about getting a man who has been on the bag for at least one major victory and contended in others. The next time you are contending–and that will happen soon enough–your heart will race, your walking pace will accelerate, your mind will play tricks on you. You want a man on your side who can take over a little bit: slow you down, help you get your breath, make sure you are committed to the shot.

It’s easy to say the caddie is getting too much attention these days. The fact is, he (or she) is probably the make-or-break thing for you in the thick of it. We all know your clubs don’t matter. You could play any of the leading brands and find something that works. But the caddie who really knows the game, and knows you, can make the difference between winning and losing.

You are famously, amazingly laid-back. Maybe you need a guy who can get in your face. When Couples is not playing, LaCava has sometimes worked for Davis Love III. You and Davis have some broad similarities. Davis had told me that he needs a caddie who can be a general, and LaCava does that for him. Left to his own devices Davis could talk about the Braves’ needing a lefthanded hitter off the bench for a half-hour when he should be working on his long bunker shots.

You don’t have to marry the first guy you audition. Try a week with one guy, a week with another, a week with a third. Have a frank conversation about what happens to you when you’re in the heat of battle. Bring Butch Harmon into the discussion. He was the Tiger-Stevie matchmaker. Say what you will about either of them–it’s by far the most successful caddie-player marriage in golf history.

There might be some untapped talent on the Champions tour. There’s a lot of untapped talent on the European tour. There are scores of retired players who, under the right circumstances, could be lured back out on Tour. Butch knows them all.

Bobby Brown, your former man, seemed like a lot of fun and I admire how loyal you were to him during and after the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship last summer and at Riviera this year. I know he was deeply loyal to you too. Caddying is hard and I’m sure he learned a great deal from those experiences. He maybe would do things differently based on what he has learned. He seems like a good guy and I hope his next bag is a good one if that’s what he wants. But now, as you figure out your next caddie hire, I would be dismissive of anybody who says, “I would have screamed at you, ‘You’re in a bunker, dude!'” What would impress me would be the guy who could say, “At Pebble in ’95, I told my man to chip it out to a hundred yards and take your chance with the putter.” Look for a guy who has been there and can tell you what he did under the gun.

Speaking of putting, the great caddie-player relationships are never rooted there. Bones reads a lot of greens for Phil, but they’ve been together forever and Bones truly understands how Phil likes to hit his putts. A caddie cannot read greens unless he knows exactly how hard his player wants to hit the putt. So don’t worry about that early on. Over time–years, more than likely–you can bring in a guy for a second read when you are really confused. The fact is, you are one of the 100 best putters in the world. Your caddie, unless you hire Stan Utley, is not.

Get a guy who can count to 14, subtract 14 from 122, remember on Sunday what you hit into four on Thursday without having to flip through the yardage book, who won’t go quiet when things get tense and won’t be intimidated by Stevie or Fluff or anybody else. The job’s tougher than it looks. You’ll know you have the right guy when you find him. If he’s good with the writers, that’s a big plus. You could be winning a bunch and a good caddie can fill up the notebook too. I have a feeling you’d like that. Just another way a good caddie can take pressure off his player.