Commentary

Caddies came out of the shadows in '11

Updated: December 13, 2011, 3:47 PM ET
By Michael Collins | ESPN.com

Caddies on the PGA Tour are like vice presidents -- the only time you really see or hear about them is during an election year (in golf terms that's when they're hired or fired).

It doesn't happen very often, but when one of the top players makes a change on the bag, it can make the sports ticker on TV or a li'l blip on the golf radar. That's just the nature of the job. We caddies understand that, and we're fine with it. Like a passing comet or a solar eclipse, there are those rare occasions when big shakeups in the caddie community seem to shake the ground on which we walk. This was one of those years.

[+] EnlargeSteve Williams
Stan Badz/PGA TOURStevie Williams called his victory working for Adam Scott at the WGC-Bridgestone in August the best win of his career.

I'll start with the ones you know, but I'm going to end with the two that had the biggest effect on their players to those of us that truly understand the inside part of the game.

Stevie Williams: He's one of the most well-known -- and now controversial -- caddies in the world. That's because of who he stood next to for the last 13 years, and more recently because of the words he said on two occasions.

One statement was made to the media after a round of golf and another was pointed toward his former boss at what was thought to be a faux award ceremony for caddies. In both cases Williams got what no caddie wants: the full attention and glaring spotlight of the media and everything that comes with it.

The Tiger/Stevie split was gonna happen, but why it was going to happen has been missed by many in the mainstream media. It does go back to the circus that came with the revelation of Tiger's extramarital affairs. But what most people missed (because they don't understand the relationship between player and caddie) was the trust that was lost between Tiger and Stevie.

Most people think Stevie travels with Tiger, stays in the same hotels as Tiger, and that they were together 24/7. That was a myth. They had become extremely close friends, as had their wives, and that is where things began to unravel.

By all accounts, Steve did not and is not getting a divorce from his wife, but as more and more dirt came out on Tiger, it was assumed that Steve knew. Do you think this might have caused a little stress at home for the Williams family?

It's also important to note that a caddie only gets paid when his player plays. That means when Tiger pulled out or missed the cut at an event over the last year and a half that they were together, Steve only got his weekly pay, which was the same as many other caddies on tour.

It has been speculated that Steve was on a big yearly salary, so whether Tiger played didn't matter. This rumor has never been confirmed. Combine that with having to pay all your own expenses, as caddies do, and you start to see how a small rift could develop. Along comes Adam Scott, basically saying, "Hey, Steve, you wanna work for a couple weeks?"

Imagine a reply of, "Nah, I'll stay home and not make any money. I don't know when my current boss is going to play again. But thanks for the offer!"

That's what you would all say, right? Well, neither did Steve. Tiger knew his relationship with Steve was strained at best, so he took the opportunity that was there.

As a caddie, I'll say this (because I've gotten that phone call twice!) When a guy calls you and says, "We need to sit down and talk for minute," you know what's coming, and it's isn't, "I've decided to give you a raise."

So even though it was "officially" done face-to-face at the AT&T National in the early summer, it had unofficially been done previously over the phone.

Working with Scott on a full-time basis seems like a no-brainer now, but as a caddie, I know this for a fact, too: It doesn't matter how much I believe you, as the player, can win. If you don't believe it, we can't win.

Scott had not closed the deal at the Masters and then had not played particularly well afterward. So when Steve took the full-time job, he just didn't know whether he was ever going to get another win.

Now throw in the crowd chanting your name coming down the fairway on the 18th hole Sunday at the WGC-Bridgestone and having a microphone shoved in your face immediately afterward. You might start to see where that emotional outburst came from.

The irony is, when I interviewed Steve that Sunday after he and Scott got their first win together, he said, "I know I don't have a whole lot of caddying left in me …"

I just wonder whether it'll be his decision when he's done. As with most caddies, probably not, and after the last comments made toward his former boss went public, he's got two strikes against him.

Joe LaCava: He was Fred Couples' longtime caddie, who for years and years had been told by the easygoing guy with the bad back to take a better gig if it came along. That better gig seemed to have come along in the form of Dustin Johnson when he and his caddie Bobby ("Don't ask me to sing") Brown split.

[+] EnlargeJoe LaCava
Robert Meggers/Getty ImagesCaddies, like Joe LaCava, are used to being in the background for stars like Tiger Woods. LaCava looped for years for Fred Couples.

Johnson and Couples seemed to have the same laid-back attitude on the golf course, so it looked like the perfect transition for LaCava. We soon found out there's a reason the saying "the grass is always greener" holds so true. Reports started coming out after the British Open that LaCava was not pleased with Johnson's effort coming down the stretch when it seemed he didn't have a chance to win. Plus, the reports said, the effort he was putting in off the course working on improving his game was lacking as well.

That's one thing LaCava's former boss was not known for -- practice -- but Couples was privately fierce about it when he was healthy. LaCava was then contacted by the Tiger Woods camp and, in his words, "it's a no-brainer."

The timing of the switch might have seemed a bit curious for those outside golf since all four of the main characters in this soap opera were going to be together for the Presidents Cup and it would seem that there would be a bit of tension there. Nothing could be further from the truth, especially since all the focus was on the Woods-Williams drama and the opening match that put them all together on the first day.

For LaCava, the fact that Tiger is a sports junkie just like he is will make small talk easy and enjoyable for both of them. The fact that LaCava is married and has school-age children made the thought of a lighter schedule and the ability to be home with the kids a big factor in his "no-brainer" decision.

The biggest factor for this top-tier caddie change is the chance to be a part of history. Hunter Mahan's caddie, John Wood, said in an interview with me earlier in the year that the reason you take the job is not for the money, which potentially could be huge. You take the job so that your grandchildren can tell their grandchildren that you were a part of the greatest golfer of all time making history. That's assuming Tiger breaks Jack Nicklaus' record.

Even if he doesn't break the record, having LaCava on the bag will be nothing but beneficial for both player and caddie.

Paul Tesori: Imagine caddying for the guy who's No. 1 in the world (Vijay Singh) and quitting. Then landing a job for an up-and-comer (Sean O'Hair), picking up two wins with him and getting fired during a bit of a slump.

[+] EnlargePaul Tesori
David Cannon/Getty ImagesCaddie Paul Tesori has worked for the No. 1 player in the world and now carries the bag of Webb Simpson. Their strong religious beliefs are a common bond between the two.

Now you get a call from a kid who has a lot of talent but seems to be having trouble getting over the hump of finding his full potential on tour. Can he win? Sure, but it's gonna take a lot of hard work on both your parts, and even then it's not guaranteed.

Do you take the risk or do you just chill at home and wait for a better offer, which will come? For Tesori, the answer was easy. Webb Simpson and Tesori seem like a match made in heaven now. It is their strong Christian faith that factored into them getting together, and they both believe it is a big part of what has carried them to new heights.

Tesori is the perfect example of a caddie who adapts to a player depending on need. When he worked for Singh, the bulk of the work he put in was off the course during practice sessions and then on the course alone getting yardages and making notes about how the ball will break on the greens.

Tesori told me that with Singh, when the tournament started, they were pretty much on cruise control other than his duties for reading greens. With Simpson, Tesori is involved during the round with all the decisions to the point that they are compared to Phil Mickelson and Jim "Bones" Mackay -- another dynamic duo that has had a little bit of success on tour, I think.

What makes this such a special relationship for both player and caddie is the open praise Simpson gives Tesori in the media. In most cases, even if it's justified, players will not openly acknowledge how much of a factor a caddie is during their round. The fact that Simpson has bucked that trend is not only a testament to what kind of golfer he is, but how good a caddie Tesori is and how much an effect having him on the bag has meant to Simpson's game.

I firmly believe that without Tesori on his bag, Simpson is still outside the top 100 on the Official World Golf Ranking.

Steven "Pepsi" Hale: The caddie who had the biggest impact on a player on the PGA Tour got his job by accident. Pepsi was caddying for Jamie Lovemark early in 2011 and they played their practice rounds with Keegan Bradley, who was looking to make a caddie change.

[+] EnlargeSteven Hale
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesSteve "Pepsi" Hale and Keegan Bradley teamed up mainly by accident. But the role Hale played in helping Bradley win the PGA Championship in his first major start was no coincidence.

Pepsi actually helped Bradley find a replacement caddie who was working for another player at the time when Lovemark got hurt and decided to shut it down for the rest of the season. When Bradley called to ask if his new guy was available to start sooner than expected, Pepsi said, "I need help finding a job now, too."

Now the caddie world can be very cutthroat, but there are a few guys out here who wouldn't try to steal the job out from under another guy. Pepsi is one of those guys.

After a brief chat, it was decided that a call would be made to see whether the caddie originally offered the job was still interested in working for Bradley or if he wanted to stay with his current boss. He decided to stay put. I wonder how festive his Christmas is gonna be this year?!

Pepsi and Bradley's first week together was the Valero Texas Open in San Antonio. Six weeks later they were in a playoff back in Texas at the HP Byron Nelson Championship.

Standing on the practice tee waiting to see if he was going to be in a playoff with Ryan Palmer, I asked Bradley how he was doing. "Pretty nervous," he replied. And even though there was that bit of nerves in his eyes, there was a calmness about his actions that you usually only see in a veteran tour player who's been in this situation before.

Pepsi looked like a stage director on the opening night of a Broadway production. He was making sure everything in the bag was right, getting Bradley something to eat and drink because it had been a long, hot day. They are a perfect symphony of what a player and caddie need to be in a high-pressure situation when there's not much to do other than wait.

That paid off in the playoff and again during the PGA Championship, when what seemed like disaster happened to Bradley on the par-3 15th hole after he made triple-bogey. Now, if Bradley looked over at his caddie and saw a guy with his shoulders slumped and his chin on his chest, they'd be finished. What he saw was a guy who looked like they were still winning.

Part of a caddie's job is to be part psychologist, and any sports shrink will tell you that perception can become reality. If you believe after something bad happens that something good will happen, it usually will. Having someone standing next to you to reinforce that at the moment it's needed most is immeasurable. That's what Steven "Pepsi" Hale did in that moment.

As I stood looking at them on the 16th tee box, I got goose bumps, because as a caddie I understood how hard it was for Pepsi to do what he was doing externally knowing what he was going through internally. Bradley has never come out publicly to express what having Pepsi on the bag has meant to him. I don't expect him to, and I don't believe Pepsi has any problem with that at all.

No one caddying has a problem being in the shadows. In fact, 90 percent of the time caddies prefer it. Yes, 2011 was a strange year for caddies with so many big-name players making caddie changes and with the soap-opera drama of Stevie Williams. I expect 2012 to be more "normal" with pros making changes on the bag with little or no mention of it anywhere to be found.

Maybe for all the wrong reasons, 2011 turned into the year of the caddie. The one good thing that can come from all the negative publicity that some caddies have brought is the importance and vital role that a caddie plays on tour. That won't be diminished, no matter how little credit is given publicly.

Michael Collins covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNcaddie@gmail.com.