The legendary caddies typically have distinct personalities and faces to match. Think of Eddie Lowery, Francis Ouimet’s cocky boy caddie. Or Carl Jackson, Ben Crenshaw’s solemn Augusta sideman. Or Fluff (Michael Cowan) or Bones (Jim Mackay). Or Steve Williams, with those piercing eyes that have read a million greens.
And now comes Michael Greller, Jordan Spieth’s caddie. He’s just starting out—this is his second year of four majors—and he got a late start. (He’s 37.) But the highlight reel of his past four months alongside Spieth is a career.
It was only a few years ago that Greller was a sixth-grade math teacher working doubles on weekends at Chambers Bay to help pay the rent and save for an engagement ring. On Sunday night at Whistling Straits he was carrying two bags again, but only from the scorer’s trailer to the plush players’ locker room. Greller had Spieth’s bag on one shoulder and Jason Day’s on the other while the new PGA winner and his caddie, Colin Swatton, tended to the matters at hand. Greller knows what that’s all about.
Greller is tall, dark, bearded and as unflappable and reserved as Spieth is emotional and open. They both have easy smiles and deeply held religious values that they do not wear on their sleeves. On the course Greller hews toward careful shots and conservative lines, while Spieth is forever pushing the envelope. That difference is common enough. What’s less common is this: Many Tour players have antagonistic relationships with their caddies, and that antagonism, while endlessly complicating things, can make the relationship work. But the Spieth-Greller team is different. It’s out of the Japanese corporate management playbook, where there’s no boss, no subordinate, just workers with different roles and the same goal. That’s the theory, anyway.
“Jordan’s figured something out,” Tom Watson’s veteran caddie, Neil Oxman, said the other day. “Two heads are better than one.” What a concept.
Greller is deeply respectful of the men (and women) who paved his way, and he is forever trying to learn something from them. At Augusta last year and again this year he sat with Jackson in the caddie clubhouse and asked a long series of questions, yardage book in hand, of the winner of two Masters. Greller’s work ethic is obvious. At Whistling Straits on Thursday he was on campus about a half day before his man’s 1:20 tee time because the caddie room had the morning coverage on TV and his digs for the week did not. At 8 p.m. on Tuesday at St. Andrews, after a long day on the range and the course with Spieth, Greller was on the links without his boss, rolling balls from far off the Road Hole green, trying to figure out the whole play-it-on-the-ground thing.
“I’m a rookie caddie,” Greller said last week. “I have a lot of catching up to do.”
Something’s working. Spieth and Greller have just completed one of the most remarkable years in majors ever: win (Augusta), win (Chambers Bay), shot out of playoff (St. Andrews), solo second (Whistling Straits).
Every Tour caddie has some distinctive trait. For many, it is on-course strategy. Greller’s stock-in-trade is people in general and Spieth in particular. Like all the best caddies, Greller does far more than lug his man’s bag. Greller, ultimately, is more like Spieth’s pitching coach, taking a trip to the mound in the heat of battle, offering his boss choice 15-second pep talks that have an actual chance of making a difference.
It is hard to think of another major champion more open to his caddie’s insights than Spieth, although here we must pause to make a nod toward Day, the newest member of the club, and Swatton. When Day was drifting as a youngster, Swatton, a golf teacher at an Australian boarding school, gave him the direction he sorely needed. Swatton is like a surrogate father to Day. On that basis, the Spieth-Greller relationship is more like a marriage, albeit an arranged (and platonic!) one. The Day-Swatton relationship is moving, in good times and bad. Still, there is no player more generous in using the word we than Spieth.
“Whenever Jordan wins, and he talks about Michael, the other caddies are like, Yeah!” Johnny Wood, Hunter Mahan’s caddie, said at Whistling Straits. “It’s good for Jordan, it’s great for Michael, and it’s good for the caddies. It tells you a lot about Jordan, how secure he is, that he’s so comfortable giving credit to Michael.”
Mackay says that Greller is one of the most secure people he has ever met. This union of secure people is an important part of the Spieth-Greller chemistry. So are the stakes. Just on his caddie percentages, Greller will make enough this year to get him easily in the top 125—for players. Then there are the other incentives. At the PGA, Greller was wearing Under Armour shoes, socks, shorts, shirt, hat and glasses. We don’t know about his undershorts.
Bruce Edward calmed Tom Watson. Jackson inspired Crenshaw. Mackay counsels Phil Mickelson. Swatton doubles as Jason Day’s swing coach. But Greller, in a manner of speaking, is Spieth’s teacher. Now and again he is able to come up with the right words at the right moment and thereby help his young charge play better golf. Those same words, from another caddie to Spieth, or from Greller to another player, might mean nothing. But Greller isn’t really a Tour caddie. He is Spieth’s caddie.
Throughout this remarkable year Spieth, who turned 22 last month, has offered insights into intimate aspects of their working relationship. Greller encourages Spieth to be “freewheeling” on the course. On the greens he encourages him to be “stubborn.” When Spieth is deeply annoyed about a shot he has played—”pissed off” is his preferred phrase—he will sometimes stop in mid-fairway and tell Greller what went wrong. When Bubba Watson does it with Ted Scott, it’s venting. Here it’s more like … sharing. Spieth wants Greller to understand what just happened, as it might be helpful, somewhere down the road.
Regarding Greller’s face: He’s sort of a chameleon. Sitting with Jackson on a bench near the Augusta clubhouse, Greller looked as if he might have been born in one of city’s black neighborhoods. In the morning cool at Chambers Bay, wearing a tight-fitting ski cap, he looked like a big-wave Pacific Northwest surfer. At Whistling Straits, surrounded by Wisconsin farm fields, he looked as if he had just slid off a vintage John Deere. Post-tournament, backpack on his shoulders, he looked like a grad student. As an undergrad he attended Northwestern, but that was a long time ago. Being 15 years older than Spieth is part of what makes it all work. Greller is a grown-up.
On a Saturday night in April in Humble, Texas, Mackay and Greller arranged to have dinner at an Outback Steakhouse. Greller apologized for being five minutes late. He had been across the parking lot, at Target.
“What did you need?” Mackay asked. He is just old enough to remember when caddie motels did not have complimentary shampoo.
“My wife’s coming in tomorrow,” Greller said, as Mackay recalled it. “I wanted to make her an Easter basket.”
And Mackay thought, Where is this guy from?
At Whistling Straits, Spieth was in the last pairing with Day on Sunday. After a birdie at the 10th, Spieth had the honor. He trailed by three, the par-5 11th was reachable, the wind direction was tricky and Greller was in his man’s ear. Game on; play hard; the wind’s off that flag. Spieth, wasting no time, smashed a drive.
“Being stubborn means just keep going after it, keep fighting,” Greller said. It applies to Spieth, and to himself too. “As a teacher, you’re in all sorts of situations, and you just adjust what you say, how you say it. Caddying is the same.”
Right about then, Spieth was in the press tent, summarizing his remarkable year for a throng of reporters. The fact is, it’s hard to know what these caddie-player relationships are really like, unless you can hear what the caddie and player say to each other, along with what the player says in public. On Sunday night Spieth said, “We did what we could, but it was not enough.”
Regarding the four majors he said, “I hope we can do this again.”
There’s that word again.