Commentary

Often ex-players make the best caddies

Updated: August 8, 2011, 11:01 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

JOHNS CREEK, Ga. -- Damon Green returned to his real job last week, with high-fives and congratulations all around. He put Zach Johnson's bag back on his shoulder and headed inside the ropes, where he worked instead of played.

[+] EnlargeDamon Green
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesDamon Green, who normally works as the caddie for 2007 Masters winner Zach Johnson, won $52,370 for his finish at the U.S. Senior Open. It was his biggest check by far -- as a player.

A week prior, Green, 50, had tied for 13th at the U.S. Senior Open, a remarkable feat for a guy who long ago had put aside the dream of playing professional golf to caddie.

"Stevie Williams thought it was the greatest golfing accomplishment of the year," Green said. "That's pretty good coming from him."

When you consider that Williams just described his victory on Adam Scott's bag at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational as the greatest week of his caddie life ... well, maybe Stevie was just in a good mood.

If nothing else, Williams has helped shine a bright light on the caddie profession these past few weeks in the aftermath of his firing by Tiger Woods and his glorious victory romp at the WGC event with Scott doing the real heavy lifting -- hitting the shots and making the putts.

Meanwhile, as the PGA Championship begins this week at Atlanta Athletic Club, Woods is still searching for Williams' replacement as the golf world absorbs the surreal scene Sunday of Williams ripping his former boss.

Caddies typically do not cause this kind of commotion. The mantra "show up, keep up, shut up" is still prevalent, even in a world of six-figure salaries and occasional travel on corporate jets.

But it sure is not what it used to be like, when guys slept six to a hotel room, traveled in caravans, drank too much and generally led the lifestyle of gypsies.

"I think the guys are more professional," said Joe LaCava, longtime caddie for Fred Couples who now works for Dustin Johnson. "They are more clean-cut, they take it more seriously, they have families, they do it for a living.

"It's not that the [previous generations of caddies] didn't take it seriously, but there's more at stake. I think caddies work harder today, they walk the courses and learn the greens. There is a little more detail to it and the players expect more."

LaCava got his start caddying in 1987 working for Ken Green, with whom he was buddies in Danbury, Conn. He had limited experience as a caddie, having worked some as a country club looper.

More than anything, LaCava figures that today you have to know somebody to break in, that you certainly are not going to just show up and start working for a tour pro.

"A player is not going to just grab somebody they've never seen before," he said. "They can choose from a lot of different people."

That's why there has been so much speculation over Woods' choice. He's had just two full-time caddies as a pro, Mike "Fluff" Cowan and Williams. Cowan has since worked for Jim Furyk. Williams has moved on to Scott, who for years employed Tony Navarro, longtime caddie to Greg Norman.

Phil Mickelson has never had a full-time caddie other than Jim "Bones" Mackay, who has been on his bag since 1992.

"It seems like with the top 50 players, there is not much change," said Damon Green, who is in his eighth year working for 2007 Masters champion Johnson. "The other guys, it seems like they change much more often. Sometimes it's like a marriage that gets stale."

And yet, Dustin Johnson made a change this year, and now has LaCava on his bag. Martin Kaymer was No. 1 in the world earlier in the year when he switched caddies. Scott parted ways with Navarro after tying for second at the Masters -- paving the way for the Williams move. And leading to speculation that Navarro could be on Woods' list.

For now, Woods is using friend and business associate Bryon Bell, who worked last week at Firestone and will do so again at the PGA Championship. Bell has caddied for Woods a handful of times over the years, but is not the long-term solution.

Asked what he is looking for in a caddie, Woods said:

"Someone who obviously understands the pressure of the game coming down the back nine, someone who probably has been there before and who understands it and can deal with that. So an experienced caddie who's been there before and understands it, knows how to handle the situation. That's something that I will definitely be looking for."

Perhaps he will seek someone with an excellent playing pedigree. Brett Waldman, who had caddied for Camilo Villegas, pursued his dream last year and qualified for this year's Nationwide Tour, although he is struggling. Perhaps he gets back in the caddie game, as more and more, players are using caddies who are excellent players themselves.

For Damon Green, it was a golf game that was not quite good enough that drove him to caddying. He was a mini-tour legend in central Florida, racking up numerous titles, but unable to get to the PGA Tour.

In 1994, he missed earning his PGA Tour card by a stroke, so he embarked on the Nike Tour for two years. Then it was back to the mini tours before he finally decided his playing career was not going to take off.

"I was so broke," he said. "This was my only option. I didn't want to be a club pro. It just kind of worked out perfect for me."

Green eventually hooked up with Scott Hoch, caddying for him for four years. Now he's in his eighth year with Johnson, consistently among the top 25 in the world if not better.

And he's learned that having been a player helps.

"There are a lot of good caddies who don't play," Green said. "But I think it's a big advantage to have been a player. I think a lot more are coming out nowadays. There must be something to it. As far as reading greens and knowing what you're feeling in certain situations when you're pumped, to pick a different club. When to say something, when not to."

Jimmy Johnson played the South African tour for 17 years, and along the way met Nick Price. They forged a 10-year relationship as player-caddie. Johnson moved on to Charles Howell and now is in his fourth year with Steve Stricker.

"Having played helps you because you have this feel for what they are going through," he said. "It depends on the player, but I think [it] helps to know a little bit how they are feeling what the different situations present."

In today's world, caddies can serve many roles. In addition to carrying the bag, cleaning clubs, raking traps and getting yardages, they might serve as cheerleaders, sports psychologists, swing coaches, trainers, valets and personal assistants.

They do what it takes to keep their player happy and in a good frame of mind.

But when stepping inside the ropes, they are the only person a golfer can confer with or get advice from. So the more the caddie knows about the player and how he works, the better.

"All you want in a caddie is someone who wants to go out there and work and wants to win as much as you do," said Hunter Mahan, who has John Wood on his bag. "When you have someone like that on your side, it's a great feeling to have because it's not just a job to him. He can do a lot of things, but he chooses to caddie because he loves it."

That is certainly the case for Damon Green, who also showed he can still play.

Last fall, he earned conditional status on the Champions Tour, and decided to play occasionally during off weeks. Before heading to the British Open with Johnson, he qualified for the U.S. Senior Open. Then on the Monday following the British, he played in an 18-hole qualifier for the Senior Open Championship at Walton Heath.

Green made the field, tied for 70th, then headed to Toledo, Ohio, for the U.S. Senior Open, where he shot a first-round 67 and ended up 9 strokes behind winner Olin Browne.

The $52,370 he earned was his biggest check by far -- as a player.

With 10 percent purse commissions going to caddies on the regular tour -- Williams is believed to have earned about $140,000 for Scott's win at the Bridgestone -- Green figures he knows his place.

"This is my job," he said. "Playing is a thing I do on the side."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com