A Thin Line

At this year’s Byron Nelson Classic, Jhonnatan Vegas was grinding over a testy four foot par putt on the 18th hole at TPC Las Colinas. He and his caddy, Luis Sira, had looked it over from every conceivable angle. There was a definite left to right break; the question was, how much, and how hard to strike it? He had lipped out a two-foot birdie effort on 13; that had to be preying on his mind. Finally, he stood over the putt and pulled the trigger. The ball took the break, caught the inside left edge of the cup, and dropped in the hole. Player and caddy high-fived and hugged on the green, and then strode triumphantly up the roped-off walkway to the scorer’s table, accepting congratulations from followers and fans.

Did they win? Nope. They made the cut. On the number. Which meant that they would make money that week.

Making the cut is huge for a lot of players, and even bigger for caddies, who are very much reliant on the performance of their man. Much has been written about guys like Steve Williams (Tiger Woods) and Jim (Bones) McKay (Phil Mickelson), both of whom have had long and lucrative careers carrying for consistent, successful players. And it’s that lure that has brought more young men (and a few women) into the caddying game. Depending on the agreement, a caddy will make 8 to 15 percent of what his player earns, an allowance for expenses, and a bonus for victories.

Obviously, there’s a flip side to this – witness Masters Vegas and Sira. Jhonny (yes, Virginia, that’s how it’s spelled, and as my good friend and talented writer/comedian Barry Friedman has noted, “Jhonny Vegas would make the coolest TV detective name ever”) won at The Bob Hope classic back in 2011 and seemed poised to make his mark on tour, but a shoulder injury sidelined him in 2012. He was able to play his way back on tour via medical exemption, but has struggled since then. He finished this season 122nd on the money list, which barely allowed him to keep his tour exempt status. So making that 4 footer in Las Colinas this past May was critical for both him and Luis.

I met Luis through a friend who housed him during “The Byron;” he and Jhonny are both from Venezuela. Luis is very serious about his job (prior to hooking up with Vegas, he carried for two-time major winner Angel Cabrerra, who I had the honor of meeting via Luis), but a pretty free-spirited man once he’s finished for the day – which is probably fortunate for him, as making a living based solely on the fortune of another person is risky business.

Luis also introduced me at that time to Sam, a young caddy from New Zealand who has been trying to find a regular bag for quite a few years. At the Byron, Sam was caddying for Ryo Ishikawa, a ridiculously talented young player from Japan. Ryo’s regular caddy was an Australian who didn’t want to be away from his family for 6 or 7 weeks, so Sam got tabbed for the job. He was back in town recently, and the Golf Nerd Goddess and I caught up with him for dinner and drinks.

As you might expect, the GNG and I were curious about the caddying life and the relationship between player and manservant. As to the latter, Sam really stressed the trust factor – “Showing up on time is probably the most important aspect of the job,” he mused, “It’s amazing how fast word gets around if you screw that up” – as well as understanding the player’s temperament and rules of engagement. “Some guys just want you to hand them a club and back away. Some will ask you for a yardage, you tell him ‘It’s 154 yards,’ and they will fire away based on that alone. Ryo, he’s extremely analytical – you give him a yardage; he’ll immediately start factoring in the wind, whether the shot is uphill or downhill, the slope of the target area, the curvature of the earth . . . what my job is, I need to understand his personality, what will motivate him if he gets off to a rough start, how to calm him down when he gets excited.”

“So you’re really a psychiatrist, then,” noted the GNG.

“Well,” Sam smiled, “that a big part of it.”

Part of the job has gotten easier over the years, says Sam. Yardage books have become much more accurate, which has eliminated the need to find landmarks and walk off yardages “manually.” But, he cautioned, it’s still a good idea to walk the course regardless, relating a story that “Bones” had told him about how one year at Torrey Pines, he had not bothered to do so (his man, Mickelson, had practically grown up on the course and they had played it numerous times on tour). He gave Phil a familiar line off the tee on one hole – only to find that when they arrived at his ball, it was squarely behind two freshly planted trees. “So I always walk the course now,” Bones told Sam.

Plus the bag is heavy and the hours long – besides actual tournament play, the caddy is expected to be on the range and practice green with his man before and after each round, plus be available during practice time.

As for the lifestyle – Sam is friendly with a lot of his fellow caddies; there are a group of 10 to 15 of them who arrange to split transportation and lodging costs. Plus, he notes, it’s beneficial to make friends along the way to stay with when the tour rolls into town. A surprising number of the guys are married – Sam, for his part, is “trying to have a relationship with a girl from Florida, but it’s hard.” It’s something of a gypsy life, but he loves what he does.

And things might be changing for him. Starting in a few weeks, Sam goes to work for Trevor Immelman, a winner of the Masters in 2008 and over $12 million in earnings on tour. Immelman has suffered an injury to the hand and ribcage shortly after winning the Masters, but, given the earning opportunities that winning a major affords, he decided to try to play his way through it and only made things worse. It’s been a rough few years, but he’s now healthy again and has limited status on tour this year.  Sam figures that they have probably 25 events that they can play in, including the Masters (for which, as a former champion, Immelman has a lifetime exemption).

The Tour starts up again next week in Napa Valley. It would be a nice story – the one time star making a comeback with the hard-working caddy looking for a break. No matter what, at some point there’s going to be a short, tricky putt that will need to be made – maybe to win a tournament, maybe to make the top 16 to qualify for next week’s tournament (if not already exempt), or maybe it’s to make a cut to get a paycheck. It’s a hell of a way to make a living, and I’m sure neither of them would want it any other way.

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