• There is so much more to the modern professional golfer than just the professional golfer. It’s a team effort, and the caddie is an integral member of the team.
By Daniel Rapaport
June 14, 2019

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — The worry was that something other than the golfers would become a story this week. The prime suspect: the course—the big, bad USGA would find a way to bungle even the most bungle-proof track, Pebble Beach, and the U.S. Open’s reputation would sink even lower. That was the big fear.

The good news: besides a few half-ass complaints that it played too easy on Thursday, the general consensus is that Pebble has absolutely held its own this week. We haven’t ventured anywhere near “we’ve lost the golf course” territory, at least. The interesting news (not bad, just interesting) is that another non-golfer theme has emerged: player-caddie relationships.

It all started on Thursday, when Fox’s delightfully sensitive microphones picked up Jordan Spieth giving his caddie/amateur psychologist, Michael Greller, a stern talking to. Spieth had hit his tee shot on the par-4 8th hole through the fairway and into the water, an inexcusable mistake. After he took his penalty drop, he hit his third shot over the green, an inexcusable mistake.

“Two perfect shots, Michael!” Spieth said. “You got me in the water on one and over the green on the other.”

Spieth venting to Greller is nothing new; what was striking was to hear Spieth address Greller in the second person. Spieth, and virtually every other professional golfer these days, talk in public about golf as though it’s a two-man endeavor. A team sport. We did a good job executing our game plan. We need to clean it up to have a chance. We are right where we want to be heading into the weekend.

Always the team player, Spieth returned to first person plural when discussing the incident after the round.

“We were talking about potentially one less club on the third shot and I said, ‘But isn’t it playing about 60 with a fade? And then [Greller] said ‘yes.’ So we both agreed on that…at the same time, when you hit a couple of shots exactly where you want to, and the first one is in the water and the next one is dead over the green, I’m going to be frustrated that as a team we didn’t figure out how to make sure that didn’t happen.”

By the time the team of Spieth and Greller had teed off for their second round, that “argument” was already water under the bridge for them. Spieth didn’t blame his looper when his shot from a fairway bunker on 2 hit a hidden rake, even though it’s probably the caddie’s job to see that. “It’s on me,” he said after the round. And despite Spieth’s roller coaster Friday—seven birdies, five bogeys, five pars—their interplay was healthy.

The crowds that greeted the supergroup of Spieth/Greller, Tiger Woods/Joe LaCava and Justin Rose/Gareth Lord, however, served constant reminders of the 20-second conversation that happened to go viral. For every “let’s go, Jordan!” there was a “We love you, Michael!” Golf Twitter and Golf Instgram sprung into action with Spieth/Greller jokes galore.

You’d be excused for thinking Greller, a former math teacher, might legitimately be on the hot seat. Or, at least, that Spieth is less-than-thrilled with his guy. Nah. Spieth knows and appreciates just how vital it is to have someone he can be honest with on the bag.

“All the stuff I used to hold in my head before, I’m able to kind of just call out now. It’s very important.”

Not everyone feels this way. The contrast between Spieth and Greller’s constant chatter and the few-words-here, few-words-there exchanges between Woods and LaCava were striking. Woods only brings LaCava in to read a putt when he himself is flummoxed, and you certainly won’t find Woods berating LaCava for an error. On the 8th hole today, LaCava suggested Tiger play his birdie putt inside the left edge. “Perfect,” Woods said. The putt broke across the hole and missed to the right. Woods looked to the sky in frustration…with himself and an uneven putting surface, not the read. There wasn’t another word about it.

Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Woods trusts himself above everyone else. He is old school in that way. Earlier this year, Jack Nicklaus was asked about the increasingly we mentality of today’s players. He was adamant that players lean too much on their caddies and said there were only three things his guy needed to do.

“Show up. Keep up. Shut up.”

A number of caddies here would probably find that statement genuinely offensive. Chief among them: Steve Williams, who spent 12 years on Woods’s bag and is looping for Jason Day this week. The knock on Williams has been that he takes too much credit for his players’ successes, that he basks in the glory of victory without ever having to, you know, actually hit a golf shot. 

After Adam Scott won the 2011 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational with Williams on the bag, Williams said: "I've caddied for 33 years, won 145 times and this is the most satisfying win of my career." I have caddied. I have won 145 times. Williams is perhaps the best example of the increased stature and importance of caddies. If Nickalus’ caddie was on one end of the spectrum, Williams is on the other.

A big part of this divide is generational—Nicklaus grew up in an age of rugged individualism, whereas today’s players grew up in an age of Instagram and agents and managers and physios and sports psychologists. There is so much more to the modern professional golfer than just the professional golfer. It’s a team effort, and the caddie is an integral member of the team. It’s not bad. It’s just a different.

And before we bash today’s players as softies who don’t take responsibility for their play, let’s remember that golf is a lonely sport, particularly so when you’re not playing well. You’re out there for five hours. It can get boring. It’s nice to have a friend around. It’s nice to feel a part of something bigger than yourself.

And, frankly, it’s nice to be able to blame someone when you hit a ball in the water.

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