Shatel: They don't mind being left holding the bag -
Published Saturday, July 6, 2013 at 10:25 pm / Updated at 11:26 pm
Shatel: They don't mind being left holding the bag

My favorite for this week's U.S. Senior Open is a cat who goes by the name “Growler.” Lovely chap.

The Growler once caddied for the late, great Payne Stewart, a three-time major champion. During one tournament, Growler gave Stewart all of his yardages in fives — either 220, 175, etc.

At one point during the final round, after getting a yardage of 180 to the center, Stewart turned to the Growler and said, “You've been giving me yardages that end in zeroes or fives all tournament. What's the deal?”

The Growler looked Stewart in the eye and said, “If you have 83 yards, I'll give you 83 yards. Anything longer than that, you're not that good!”

On the other hand, the favorite could be Bullet Bob. Once upon a loop, the Bullet was carrying the bag of Fulton Allem, the South African pro. Allem was having a bad day. After one particularly poor shot, Allem turned to his caddy and said, “I'm so frustrated. Give me something to break.”

Without hesitation, Bullet Bob said, “Here's an idea: Why don't you break par?”

Then again, the guy to watch at this week's major exercise at Omaha Country Club could be local hero Troy Martin, the professional tour caddie from Omaha who has looped for Dave Stockton, Jerry Pate, D.A. Weibring and Steve Lowery.

About a month ago, Lowery withdrew from a tourney with a back injury, and Martin agreed to work for the first alternate (who shall go unnamed) on a one-week basis on the Champions Tour. At one point during the first round, the alternate faced a 177-yard shot.

“What do you think?” he asked Martin. “Is this a 6-hybrid?”

Martin looked at the player incredulously and asked, “Six-hybrid? I don't know. My mom hits hers 105 yards. How far does yours go?”

These guys are good.

Yes, Tom Lehman, Bernhard Langer and Fred Couples will be the rock stars. Yes, these old guys can still play. They'll attract the big crowds this week. They'll produce the loud roars that will echo through OCC's hills.

But the backbone of this week, and most weeks of golf, are the caddies.

I'm a sucker for the caddies. I love their stories. I love their story. Their place in this game.

They are chauffeur and tour guide and travel agent. They are scientists in the inexact science that is golf. They know exactly how far a shot must be hit. They know how to make last call and the first tee time.

Behind every great player is a guy who knows exactly what his guy can and can't do.

They are colorful, comedians, characters. Though, to paraphrase the line from “Pulp Fiction,” just because they are characters does not mean they have character.

“They come from all walks of life,” Martin said. “Some started on the Tour and came up with their guy. Some guys have quit their jobs and started in the parking lot, just picked up players from there.

“Why would they quit their jobs? They just wanted to do it. These are men who love golf, who love the life. It's not as glamorous as it seems. It's hard. We get blamed for a lot of things, which is fine and is part of the job. This game is so difficult. And a lot of these pros, when things don't go right, they often look for something to blame. And that's you.

“But it's often a thrill. Last week, we were paired with Tom Watson on Saturday and on Sunday with Mark O'Meara. Every day it's something pretty cool.”

The blame game might be a big reason for the camaraderie for the caddies, who at times resemble the cast from “Caddyshack.”

See hole illustrations, insight from course pros, photos and video from every hole and more in our Senior Open course guide.

There's “Piddler,” known for piddling around, Martin said. There's “Due North Dan,” who got the nickname because he once got caught using a compass. Last, but not least, there's “Baghdad.”

“They call him that because he gets bombed every night,” Martin said.

Might have a new leader in the clubhouse.

* * *

How do you become a caddy? Don't ask Martin.

He wanted to be a player. That was his intention after graduating from Millard North High School in 1990, where he played basketball and golf. That is, one year after taking up golf on a regular basis.

After stints at Central Community College in Hastings, Neb., and Kansas Wesleyan in Salina, Kan., Martin turned pro in 1995. That's when he began the very unglamorous life of a mini-tour pro.

Prairie Golf Tour. Hooters Tour. You scrap to find a sponsor, friends or family or anyone willing to put up several thousand dollars to pay for your hotel and gas, while you try to make paychecks by hitting 3-woods off concrete fairways.

“I played on some of those events in the South where you are playing on dirt,” Martin said. “It was a place to play. You're playing in dumps and you're driving hours to get there, and by the time you get there, your back's so stiff you don't feel like playing anymore.”

Martin actually had some luck playing on tours in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. Which is to say, he won. And made it out alive.

At one event in Venezuela, Martin and some pros were going to walk across the street from their hotel to have dinner. Martin was wearing one of those therapeutic bracelets. The bellman stopped him and told him to take it off.

When Martin asked why, the bellman said, “There are men out there who if they see you wearing jewelry, they'll just kill you, then they'll start taking stuff off you.”

Another time in Venezuela, the players were supposed to be picked up at the airport in black cars with tinted windows. To hide the fact that they were Americans/tourists/pro golfers from the criminal element lurking everywhere.

The cars were gone when Martin's flight landed. So he had to hail a taxi. His clubs wouldn't fit, so the cab driver tied the clubs down in the trunk, with the clubs hanging out. Big mistake.

“We got cornered in traffic and my cab driver got us out of there,” Martin said. “That's the only time I was really afraid for my life. I certainly would have been robbed and possibly killed if the cab driver hadn't gotten us out of there.”

No wonder Martin said yes when Dave Stockton called him in 2003. Martin had gotten to know Dave's son, Ron, while on the mini-tours. They became friends. Martin found himself hanging out at Stockton's house in Palm Springs, Calif.

Martin was actually leading a mini-tour event in Las Vegas the day Stockton called and asked him to caddie for him in a Champions Tour event the following week. He didn't win that tournament. But that week changed his life. He would go on to caddie for Stockton, Jerry Pate and D.A. Weibring, and won the Senior Players championship with Weibring.

“On the mini-tours I could win and, after I paid my expenses, I might have made $5,000,” Martin said. “Then I go to work for D.A. Weibring, I just point him in the right direction, watch him make a few putts and he writes me a check for $40,000.

“Nice way to make a living.”

* * *

What does being a caddie mean?

It means getting to the tournament on Sunday or Monday. It means finding a yardage book, walking off the course, measuring off where you think your player is most likely going to hit the ball, writing down notes on what clubs he most likely would hit on every hole.

Martin is a golf pro, a former player. But he's in the minority. A lot of caddies didn't play the game. But they know the game. More important, they know their player.

For instance, while I was interviewing Martin last week, he took a call from Cayce Kerr, Fred Couples' caddie. Kerr wanted to ask Martin some questions about OCC. Long ago, Martin started a side business called Bucketboy Graphics, where he makes and sells yardage books on courses on the Champions and LPGA Tours. Martin did the yardage book for the Senior Open.

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“Some of these caddies are good caddies and don't play golf,” Martin said. “But they know what to say to their guy at the right time, and they know when it's a 6-iron or a 7-iron.”

Or what not to say?

“You need to be a cheerleader, keep it positive,” Martin said. “Like Peter Jacobsen said when he was asked what made “Fluff' (Mike Cowan) such a great caddie. He said, 'I don't know, he really didn't do much other than tell me how great I was.'”

Stuff happens. The inexact scientists make mistakes. Martin says he's seen many caddies step off yardages and subtract yards when they should have been adding them. Martin said he twice almost made his player late for his tee time by misjudging the time and going to the wrong tee box (1 instead of 10).

The No. 1 task, he says, is making sure to count the clubs in your golfer's bag before the round to make sure he has no more than 14, the maximum allowable. Martin tells the story of one poor chap who counted his players' clubs twice — once while the pro was practicing chips and another while he was putting. Each time, he came out to 14 clubs. So why did the pro blow his stack when he found 15 clubs in the bag on the first fairway?

His caddie forgot to count the club in the player's hand while he was practicing.

These guys earn their keep, which depends on the player and how he's playing. Caddies get a guaranteed salary of between $1,000 to $2,000 per tournament and then negotiate a percentage of the winnings — at least 5 percent, 7 percent for a top 10, 10 percent for a win, etc.

“We're all independent contractors,” Martin said. “We could lose our job anytime. You heard about the player at the U.S. Women's Open who fired the caddie at the turn. I have not heard of that.

“I've heard of caddies firing the player during a round. Baghdad did that. He walked off on a guy, set the bag and bib down, took about 20 steps and turned around and walked back.

“The player said, 'You thought better of it. Good decision.' Baghdad said, 'No, there's your yardage book. You're going to need it.'”

* * *

Last week, while Martin was going over the holes at OCC for Kerr, he was telling him what he thought Couples would hit on each hole. For the 385-yard par-4 No. 1 hole, Martin said, “Fred will hit 3-wood and wedge.”

Three-wood and wedge on a 385-yard dogleg. That's what's coming to town.

“It's going to be quite a show,” said Martin, who has caddied on the senior tour for 10 years. “When people get up close to Tom Lehman and Bernhard Langer and see what kinds of shots they can hit, they're going to be floored. These guys can still play.”

Who are they? Martin knows the players well enough to provide a quick description of some stars.

Couples: “Great guy. He likes to keep to himself a little bit. You're not going to see him out on the town. He likes to play golf and go sit on the couch and watch sports.”

Lehman: “Terrific man. Very strong Christian. Great golfer. Same with Langer.”

Mark Calcavecchia: “Nebraska's best player ever. You're going to watch him hit some of the best shots you've ever seen. And you might see him throw a club pretty far, too. That's just who he is. Great guy and great player. We should be proud to have him as a Nebraskan.”

Corey Pavin: “Good guy. A lot of people don't know it, but he's a very funny guy. He's the only guy out there who plays in the manner that he does. He'll skip balls off tee boxes, take divots with the driver. And at the end of the day have a really good score.”

Fred Funk: “He'll be a favorite. Nice guy. Engaging. I saw him in Birmingham and told him about the statue they have of him at Mutual of Omaha. He said, 'I hope they didn't do my nose to scale.'”

Hale Irwin: “A tough competitor. Always kind, but a little standoffish, all businesslike. He's the greatest player in the history of the Champions Tour. He's become warmer over the years.”

* * *

The phrase “These Guys Are Good” takes on another meaning Sunday at The Players Club at Deer Creek.

On the eve of the Senior Open, 24 caddies will tee it up in 24 foursomes in the “Caddy Am” to raise money for two Nebraska girls. One is Emily Koesters, who turns 10 on Monday and is fighting “Little Giants” disease. The other is Addison Samuelson of Cambridge, Neb., who Martin says is “beating brain cancer.”

Look at the swag that Martin was able to attract for the Sunday night dinner and auction that is open to the public.

Masters flags signed by Arnold Palmer and Couples. Two bottles of Fuzzy Zoeller's vodka signed by the man himself. Authentic golf bags, balls, hats, flags, all signed. And one famous book signed by its famous author: Jack Nicklaus' “Golf My Way.”

Kenny Perry and Loren Roberts donated their Scotty Cameron putters. John Cook took a new Taylor Made driver out of his bag and gave it to Martin.

Maybe the coolest thing Martin got won't be up for auction: a handwritten note from Barbara Nicklaus thanking Martin for asking them to donate to the cause. Palmer sent a similar message.

Tickets for the 7:15 p.m. dinner will be sold at the door Sunday night, where you'll see the caddies doing what caddies do best: telling stories, hanging out and giving back to the game they can't get enough of.

On second thought, these characters do have character.

Contact the writer: Tom Shatel    |   402-444-1025    |  

Tom Shatel is a sports columnist who covers the city, regional and state scene.

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