Part Time Job

I was once asked whilst caddying in a pro-am what I did with all my time off, given that I “only work four days a week – Thursday to Sunday – and only two days a week if he misses the cut!” The fact that it was Wednesday had either escaped my interrogator or he thought the pleasure of his company was payment enough (it wasn’t).

Just in case you labour under a similar misapprehension that we just rock up on a Thursday and caddie until our player has either taken the trophy or been told to go home, here are a few numbers from last week at Close House.

Not counting the four hours it took me to get up to Newcastle at the start of the week or the four hours it took me to get home again at the end of it, I was “at work” for just shy of 60 hours last week. Seven eight-and-a-bit hour days in a row doesn’t sound terribly taxing, but that’s not how the work tends to get split. The tournament days lasted around ten hours each, and a few of them featured disgustingly early alarm calls.

On the second day of the tournament, we had a “late” tee time (12:30). I got up at 07:30 and went to the venue to walk a few holes and check a few of the hole locations. After the round, we went to the range and the short game area to work on some things. We got back to the hotel around 20:00, in time for a quick dinner, a shower and something normal people refer to as sleep.

We made the cut on the number, so at 05:30 the next morning the alarm was ringing again, and we were heading back to the venue. We got back to the hotel at around 16:30. In less than a day and a half, I clocked about 22 hours of work. And I am lucky. I work for a sensible player who manages his time really well.

I walked just shy of 120 kilometres (75 miles) in the seven days. I have no idea what kind of elevation change to factor into that number, but it felt like a lot, especially for a first tournament back since early March.

For a decent proportion of that distance I was carrying a bag that at times, to borrow Churchill’s line about golf clubs, felt “singularly ill-designed for the purpose”. A decent estimate for the weight of the bag is around 18 kg (40 lbs) but it varies in weight depending on several factors.

In bad weather, it can feel fairly light because the player and caddie are wearing just about everything they put into it at the start of the day. In good weather and when we’re feeling brave, the umbrella comes out and the waterproofs never need to go in.

In weather like we had last week, the bag can reach its heaviest. Picture the scene: the rain comes down, so the waterproofs go on and the umbrella goes up. Five minutes later, the sun comes out, so the waterproofs come off and the umbrella goes back in the bag, but both are now considerably heavier than they were when they were dry.

During practice rounds, the bag can also get very heavy if your player can’t decide whether it’s a week for the two-iron or the hybrid, or which driver he really prefers, or which wedge combo will work best at this particular layout. If you’re lucky, he might also pick up the three dozen balls he gets for each week from the tour van on the way to the first tee. If you really hit the jackpot, he might also have forgotten to take out last week’s spent ammunition.

All of which sounds like I’m moaning. I don’t mean to. A crap day at my current job is still preferable to some of the best days I had at my old (“normal”) job. There isn’t another job I can think of that I’d rather be doing at the moment and I realise more and more each day that we’re back out here how much I missed it during lockdown. But it’s a seven-day week, and none of us does it for free, no matter how pleasurable the company is.

Do Less Better

Some players do a lot badly and need some help to do less better. That reads like a line from a Spike Milligan poem, but there’s logic in it, albeit, well concealed.

Time management in the week of a golf tournament is an acquired skill. Getting yourself to the first tee on the first day of tournament play feeling energised and ready to play is a lot harder than it sounds. Getting yourself to the tenth tee on a Sunday afternoon feeling energised and ready to contend for the title is even harder. Neither is made easier or more likely by spending too much time at the venue from Monday to Wednesday.

It might appear on TV that we all turn up on a Thursday morning and have three days off in between tournaments. Nothing could be further from the truth. The current orthodoxy condemns a lot of the younger players to a grind that will not only stop them improving but might also shorten their careers as they burn out long before they should.

It used to take longer to get from venue to venue. Before I started caddying, flights were less frequent (or more expensive at useful times), so caddies and players would usually part company on a Sunday night with a promise to “See you next Tuesday”. Sometimes, if the previous week had gone well, they weren’t even subtly abusing one another.

The more recent expectation has been that Mondays are fair game for practice, with some players even playing 18 holes. If you don’t do anything on Monday and you’re not participating in the pro-am on Wednesday (less than half the field do in a normal week), you will almost certainly play 18 on Tuesday.

On Wednesdays, you’re either playing 18 holes with three amateur partners (who have no chance of getting around a course set up for professional tournament play in less than six hours no matter what tees they play off), or you’re on the range all day trying to make up for the fact that you’re not allowed to go out and play.

Like a nervous student cramming for an exam, some of the younger guys can end up playing 18 holes on a Monday, 18 holes on a Tuesday, and then standing on the range all day on a Wednesday. By the time they get to the first tee on Thursday, they are physically and mentally exhausted before they’ve even hit a shot. Given the overwork in the build-up, they’re likely to miss the cut, and then spend all weekend hitting balls in something that looks more like self-flagellation than meaningful practice.

That would be an exhausting week. Put four weeks like that back-to-back and you’re a racing certainty to be heading home early for a word with your doctor and your shrink on that last Friday night.

Golf is not, despite what Bryson DeChambeau would like you to believe, rocket science. As in life, if you don’t know what you’re doing, there’s not only logic but also merit in taking a look around you at what more experienced people are up to and imitating that for a while until you find your own balance.

If you’re practicing too much, one thing you will notice when you start looking around is how many of the very best players you don’t see regularly. Short, focused practice sessions are their preparation of choice. Rest is at a premium. It’s a long week. It’s a long season. The sooner you realise that, the more likely you are to have a long career.

But the Tour could also help. Here’s how.

All play on Mondays and Tuesdays could be monitored and players could be limited to playing the course once, either as 18 holes on either of those days (and none on the other) or as 9 holes each day. You could walk the course without clubs whenever you like, as could your caddie.

On Wednesdays, the pro-am format should be changed. The amateurs would continue to play 18 holes, but they’d play them with three different professionals, each of whom would join them for six holes of their round. Reducing the time commitment for the players would increase their enthusiasm levels and make it easier and more likely for them to provide the (often paying) amateur with a more memorable experience.

It would also expose more of the field to the joys of trying to help an occasional golfer improve their bunker play so that the next time they play, they can better extract themselves from a bunker that it took them twelve shots to get into in the first place.

Range sessions would be more difficult to police, but it could be done, either by limiting the time players can spend at the facility or limiting the number of balls they’re allowed to hit. That would also free up space and time on the range so that no one was unfairly deprived of it, as can sometimes happen now.

Put all of those things together and no one gets to the first tee on Thursday having played more than 24 holes in the days prior or having picked up a repetitive strain (or brain) injury from hitting balls ad infinitum.

Other employers have responsibilities to their workers when it comes to the issue of overwork, and while professional golfers are not employees of the Tour, they’re certainly its biggest asset. If the players won’t protect themselves from the long-term dangers of working too hard (or doing a lot badly), they need to be helped to do less better.

Lovely Bubbly

Packing was never my favourite part of the job. To sit down and make a list of all the things one might possibly need on a trip and then refine that list to make sure all those items fit in one’s luggage would be the sensible thing to do. To leave oneself some time after one has packed to then remember all the things one has forgotten would also seem prudent.

They say that nothing inspires like last minute panic. I would argue that when it comes to packing, the only time I ever feel the urge to do it is when I only have about half the time left that I actually need to do it. The only way for me to do it is haphazardly and with a bit of a grump on. Remember the passport, the credit card and the phone; anything else that you might forget can fairly easily be purchased pretty much anywhere in the world these days. The financial pain of having to buy again something that you already have at home might make you remember it next time.

That’s for a normal trip. But normal is so terribly 2019 these days. Out here beyond the thunderdome, the rules have changed.

The UK Swing (see what they did there?) starts this week at Close House with the British Masters. Five more tournaments in the UK will follow in successive weeks as the European Tour gets back to business. In order to be allowed by the UK government to hold these events, numerous special rules apply.

There will be no spectators, no courtesy cars, and no exchanging of scorecards. There will be regular testing for COVID-19 of everyone involved, social distancing, and handwashing on a scale few could have imagined a few months ago. The Tour have established a Tournament Bubble to keep everyone as safe as possible.

To get into the bubble, I had to bring with me a negative test result from a PCR test I took within seven days of arriving at the venue. I then had to be tested again. If you haven’t had a test yet, there’s nothing to it. A very kind lady swabbed the back of my throat and my nose. A word of advice: if you do have to undergo a test at any stage, have something nice for breakfast. There’s a reasonable chance not only that you might see it again, but that your tester might end up wearing it.

While my mucus and snot were analysed, and once my nose and eyes had stopped watering, I had my temperature taken. 36.5 degrees was considered acceptable and I was given access to the outdoor areas of the venue while I awaited my results. I got my yardage books from Dion and walked the front nine. As I sat on the range recovering (this is a hilly golf course, and 130 days on the sofa have taken a toll), I received an email from the Tour confirming a negative result and welcoming me into the bubble.

The rules of the bubble are many and varied, but the key one for the incautious packer is that once you’re in it, you can’t leave it without needing another PCR test to return. For the next few days, I can be in my hotel room, the bar or restaurant in the hotel (as long as I stay far enough away from everyone else), my car and the venue. Nipping out to Boots because I forgot toothpaste is not an option. Ordering a takeaway is not an option. Running out of… anything, would be catastrophic.

Consequently, my packing strategy this time was different. I made a list and purchased what I didn’t have ahead of time. I gave myself all day on Saturday to pack several bags (having the car at least meant I didn’t have to be as space conscious as usual). I stocked up on every conceivable medicine and food stuff I might need or just fancy over the coming weeks. And then I spent an hour wandering around the house looking at things and wondering if I ought to take them with me.

The PlayStation made the cut. Two dozen books, because I never know what I’ll be in the mood for next. A portable electric hotplate and some tins of baked beans. When I picked up a lamp at one point, my wife gave me the look that says “You’ve taken that too far” and I settled down.

It’s nice to be back at work, even in this strange environment. Spot the caddie can be a difficult task at the best of times, even after a short hiatus. We nearly all wear hats and sunglasses, and a rounder belly or an extra chin can appear almost overnight if the catering was good at the last event.

As I walked nine holes and bumped into (whatever that expression means anymore) other caddies, I realised the game has been cranked up a notch with the addition of masks, new hairstyles (I think I look like Jim Morrison now; my wife says I look like Micky Flanagan), and some altered body shapes (not all for the worse, either).

A tee time has been booked for practice tomorrow morning – just turning up whenever you fancy is not permitted in the bubble – so I must force myself to bed early for the first time in 130 days. I only walked nine holes without a bag today and already my back feels like a pretzel. Damn it. Pretzels. I knew I’d forget something.

Drive for Show

Distance is the golfing equivalent of junk food. You love it, so inevitably the golf media is going to sell it to you, but don’t let them feed you on a diet that consists of little else.

Long hitters have always fascinated golf fans. In the early 1900s, crowds flocked to watch Ted Ray perform the seemingly impossible task of driving a golf ball more than 250 yards. Arnold Palmer staged the greatest comeback in US Open history in 1960, but the main thing I know about it without searching is that he drove the green at the par four first. In the early 90s, John Daly drew a crowd by smashing his driver unprecedented distances.

Then Tiger came along and said “Hello, world,” but no one could hear him because he was so much further down the fairway than they were. He hit it so far past most of his contemporaries when he turned pro that designers started to Tiger-proof their courses. (The fact that they tried to do that by making the courses longer is a topic for another day.)

The new kid on the distance block is Bryson Dechambeau, who has emerged from lockdown looking like he’s eaten Netflix and created a whole new statistical metric: Strokes Gained – Protein Bar.

The fascination with distance is obvious in many ways and comes from something that is strangely hard to define: the difference between the game you play and the game the best in the world play. If you play off ten and have the day of your golfing life, you could shoot a couple over par around your home track. Then you could go home, switch on the TV and watch Tiger Woods – arguably the best to have ever played the game – shoot a worse score.

There are all sorts of reasons why your respective rounds can’t be compared to one another in any meaningful way. The course you played was almost certainly shorter than the course Tiger played. The greens were slower, the rough was lower and no one was broadcasting your efforts on television to a global audience of millions.

You had a live audience of three. Tiger had one that was three-deep lining every hole. One of your pals might have used his phone to surreptitiously video you nearly falling into a lake. Tiger probably had a camera and sound person covering his every move from the moment he arrived at the course. You probably played for a few quid, maybe even enough to make you uncomfortable, but unless you’re an idiot, there weren’t hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake.

And yet, there will be a part of you quietly thinking to yourself that you beat Tiger that day. I can’t think of any other sport where that can happen. It’s that illusion of comparability that muddies the water when it comes to defining the difference between them and you. But the one aspect of the game that can be compared is distance. You might have beaten Tiger’s score, but you definitely didn’t outdrive him.

The first time you stand next to a professional golfer hitting a golf ball, you immediately know they’re special. The noise alone would do it in many cases. You hear the ball getting squashed into the turf and exploding out to rip a hole through the sky with a fizzing sound that has never graced your Sunday fourball. If you’ve never done it, get to a tournament and get as close as you can to a top player hitting a full shot with an iron. It’s usually enough the first time to make the most sober person come over a little silly.

Watching them hole a six-foot putt doesn’t give you that visceral reaction. Their technique may even look inferior to your own.

As a caddie, I have been asked what the difference really is between them and you. The answer isn’t straightforward. It isn’t just that they hit it much further than you. It isn’t just that they’re straighter than you. It isn’t just that their short games are much better or their mental games sharper. It’s all of those things, and a lot more besides (preparation, fitness, experience, belief, coaching, equipment… it’s a long list).

To steal Bobby Jones’s line about Jack Nicklaus, they play a game with which you’re not familiar, but the one thing you can quantify, on TV or in person, is how far they hit it. That clarity is what gives the manufacturers a toe hold in your wallet and the media an easy headline. They know you’ll click that link or buy that club if they can make it about distance. So they feed it to you. And you eat it.

Sometimes, the story beneath the headline keeps giving – like Palmer driving the green at a par four and going on to overturn a seven-shot deficit in the final round to win the US Open – but sometimes it’s junk food.

Bryson has been making more headlines than most lately with his transformed body and newfound clubhead speed since the PGA Tour restarted. One headline screeched that he had driven a ball more than 400 yards. I read the article and had to get almost to the end of it to discover two things that made me think the headline had been a little disingenuous. Firstly, his drive hit a cart path, and secondly, he took four more shots to get the ball into the hole.

There’s more to golf than distance, just as there’s more to food than McDonald’s. And remember, the next time you’re weighing up which new driver to put in your bag and the manufacturers are dangling the carrot of extra clubhead speed, if you can’t get the middle of the club squared up to the back of the ball with the one you’ve got, what makes you think you might be able to do it with something that’s moving through the air 10mph faster?

Take the money you were about to spend and give it to your local professional. In exchange, get him to give you half a dozen lessons with the driver you have. With the money you have left over, you can buy a shirt that actually fits you and isn’t likely to cause an accident if you get out of your car next to a busy road.