Which Club to Hit? Have a Long Talk With Your Caddie

Have you noticed that discussions between PGA Tour players and their caddies seem to be getting longer and longer?

It used to be that the caddie would give the yardage, the player would pull the club he wanted to hit, and that, usually, would be that. There might have been a consultation if the player was between clubs, if there was some wind, or if there was a decision on whether to lay up or go for it. Even then, it would generally be brief.

Now a growing number of players seemingly will not hit a shot until they have fully discussed every possible variable with their caddie: yardage to the flag, yardage past the flag (and/or short of it), yardage from the flag to the closest side of the green, yardage to a certain shelf on the green, yardage over a certain bunker, yardage to where they want to land the ball, wind strength, wind direction, wind variability, shot shape, whether to swing hard or easy, level of risk, what kind of putt it is from various parts of the green, similar shots they have played on another hole—and that’s just on a routine approach shot. If they are playing out of trouble or deciding whether to go at a par five in two, there are whole new categories for discussion.

Perhaps the most well-known caddie on Tour is Phil Mickelson’s man Jim Mackay, not just because he’s been on the bag for 20 years but because we so often see and sometimes hear them talking about the shot Phil is about to play. It’s a great dynamic, because Mackay serves as a voice of reason to Mickelson’s gambling nature but has to pick and choose his spots because he knows that aggressive play is what Phil is about. But they don’t only talk about risk and reward. Mickelson is the analytical type, so he likes to have all the information; he’s a collaborative type (and he knows “Bones” is a good caddie), so he likes to talk about it; and he’s a creative enough shotmaker to have a number of options on what shot to play. Their discussions, picked up by course microphones, are downright esoteric at times.

A bit more down to earth, but every bit as detailed (if not more) were the conversations between Peter Hanson and his caddie during the Masters. They left no stone unturned and no option unconsidered before Hanson would pull a club and play a shot.

I couldn’t help but wonder what Ben Hogan would think. The ultimate self-made man, it’s hard to imagine Hogan being told what to do by his caddie, as often seemed the case with Hanson. Of course, it was a different era. There were no traveling caddies,* so Hogan had a different local caddie every week, often a kid.

*Aside No. 1 from research for one of my books, Making the Masters about the early days of the Masters: There actually were a few players who brought along their own traveling caddies in the early 1930s, but the PGA made a rule outlawing the practice. It was felt it gave those players an unfair advantage.

What’s more, there were no yardage books, and no 150-yard markers, so there could be no discussions with caddies about yardage. It’s hard for us to comprehend today, but players used to divine the yardage just by eyeballing it*—though it should not be overlooked that they also used experience from practice rounds or prior rounds in the tournament.

*Aside No. 2, this from Miracle at Merion, about the 1950 U.S. Open. I found an article about Sam Snead from 1950 saying that one reason he didn’t win as many tournaments as he should have was that he had a lousy sense of distance and often mis-clubbed. Hogan, on the other hand, had excellent eyesight (that’s not why he was called “The Hawk,” but it could have been). A Philadelphia newspaper reported that before the 1950 Open Hogan told the president of Merion Golf Club that his course was excellent, but the yardage on the scorecard was off. About a decade later, Merion re-measured the course and ended up with lower yardages on nearly every hole, so Hogan was right.

When Hogan debated whether to hit a four-wood or one-iron into the 18th green in the final round of the 1950 U.S. Open, the debate was wholly internal. The caddie wasn’t intimately familiar with Hogan’s game, he would have been guessing about the yardage, and Hogan wouldn’t have wanted to hear what he wanted to say anyway.

On another famous shot, Gene Sarazen did consult with his caddie before deciding on a four-wood to the 15th hole in the final round of the 1935 Masters, a shot he ended up holing for a double eagle. He and his Augusta National caddie nicknamed “Stovepipe” agreed that the ball was sitting down too much to hit a three-wood but the distance was a little too long for a regular four-wood, so Sarazen decided to “toe in” the four-wood for more distance. But the extra time that took caused fellow competitor Walter Hagen to yell across the fairway, “Hurry up, Gene, I’ve got a date tonight!”

Which is a reminder that the player/caddie huddles of today’s era only add to the pace-of-play problem on the pro Tours. It takes about an hour-and-a-half more to play a round now than it did in the old days because players take so much more time between shots—and some of that time is spent on lengthy consultations with caddies. Players are supposed to take no more than 45 seconds to hit a shot—but sometimes it takes longer than that just to pull a club.

Some scenes from this year’s golf telecasts spring to mind: Jonathan Byrd and his caddie having an interminable discussion on a par three tee at Kapalua, Mackay telling Mickelson to wait on the wind he wanted at the Masters, and Brian Davis taking forever to play a shot in Houston, changing his mind a couple of times along the way. The latter situation was so bad that the NBC commentators said his fellow competitor had to be annoyed.

Then there’s caddie Paul Tesori*, who used to parse every situation once and then twice for Sean O’Hair and now is doing the same for Webb Simpson.

*Aside No. 3, not from a book. It’s often noted that Tesori is a former PGA Tour player, but seldom noted that he’s one of the only players ever to make it through Q-School but never earn a penny on Tour. In his defense, there was an injury involved, but over the course of two seasons, 1997 and a medical exemption covering part of 1999, he was 0-for-21 in making cuts.

Taking it a step or two forward from Hogan, can we imagine Jack Nicklaus have these kinds of discussions with Angelo Argea? No. Nicklaus kept the same caddie probably because of comfort level—and later was even more comfortable with one of his sons on the bag—but made decisions mostly on his own.

Does all of this analysis really help the modern player? Well, it actually might. There may be cases where a first instinct might have been better than over-analysis, but more often it’s a good thing to carefully consider all information before making a decision. And, while Hogan might not agree, it helps to have an exact yardage to the hole and to other key points. The gains in equipment have led to Tour setups where the pins tucked closer to edges of greens and edges of shelves than they used to be, which leaves more to consider.

It helps to have a second opinion when you’re not really sure what shot to play or to confirm your own opinion—and to keep you from making a mistake when you’re about to make a bad choice. But it can lead to trouble when the player definitely wants to do one thing but the caddie, either subtly or not so subtly, lobbies for a different choice. In the end the decision is up to the player, and the caddie always ends up telling the player he’s got the right club in his hand and the right shot in mind—even if it’s not the club or shot the caddie was suggesting. That’s the caddie’s job, of course, to give the player a positive thought. But, really, don’t you think the player can see through that? You’ve got to figure they know the caddie is just saying what he has to say.

In any case, player-caddie discussions caught by microphones give us a nice window into what a player is thinking and what type of shot he is trying to play, at least when he is facing a truly confounding situation instead of taking all day to make a comparatively simple choice. And while they are guided by precise numbers, these discussions show that today’s players aren’t devoid of feel or shotmaking ability. The type of shot they are going to play—fade, draw, knockdown shot, low-spinning short iron, etc.—is generally one of the variables.

The rise in consulting does show that players are less self-reliant than they used to be, which goes along with their dependence on swing coaches and mental coaches (there are notable exceptions, of course, like Bubba Watson). And it shows that caddies have a bigger role than ever. We are seeing more and more caddies who are accomplished players or pros, and a big reason for that is they are better able to understand and appreciate the options their man faces on each shot. The old expression that the caddie’s job is to “show up, keep up, and shut up” is no longer true. Now the player wants to know—often in great detail—what they caddie thinks.

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