Why playing for someone other than just yourself can make you a better golfer
Today, BB Friday turns its wandering golf eye to team play, what with the Bills at Kansas City and the Buccaneers at Green Bay coming at you on this holy Sunday of NFL football. Tom Brady, the TB QB, has come a long way since he partnered with Phil Mickelson in Match II, way back in May at Medalist. (Seems like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it?)
Brady was hacking early on in that round. Eventually, he settled down. Phil helped. He said something that got him back in the game. So today’s theme is what happens when golfers come together, or try to. You know: here-come-old-flat-top, etc. How we lift each other up.
Some of us, at some point in our lives, have caddied in pro-ams. I can recall caddying in an LPGA pro-am one college summer and being struck by the camaraderie among the four gents and their pro, young Lori Garbacz. It was fun.
Usually, in these things, somebody is trying to get everyone on the same page. In the mid-1980s, when the Tour was still holding on (just barely) to its rough-and-tumble roots, there was a group of ams in a pro-am. The ams were having a miserable time. The pro wasn’t helping. He didn’t read greens. He didn’t toss grass for wind direction. He offered no tips regarding bunker play.
“Hey, Pro,” one of the ams said to the man. “You know, a couple of words would be nice.”
“You want a couple words?” the pro said. There is an actual name attached to this actual story.
Yes, said the am. A little something for the team, to say nothing of a modest return on the $2K each had dropped for the privilege of the company.
“Here’s two,” the pro said. “F— you.”
That moment of misanthropy might have had the effect of bonding the ams even closer together, but you’re not going to finish in the money if you’re fighting with your pro. I remember a Tour caddie telling me a couple years ago that the single-biggest problem in most player-caddie relationships is that the caddie and the player have an underlying antagonism, each trying to prove the other wrong, each needing to be right. That can be occasionally helpful, but not typically.
Tom Watson and his longtime caddie, Bruce Edwards, were close. Few player-caddie partnerships have been closer. But you can see some of that I’ll-show-you attitude in even their most famous moment together, at the 1982 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. On the 71st hole — on the par-3 17th, with Big Jack breathing down his neck — Watson was playing his second shot with a wedge, sitting up in long greenside rough.
“Get it close,” Bruce said. He was wearing a black turtleneck and smoking a cigarette.
“Get it close?” Watson said back. “I’m going to make it.”
He did. Big Jack was in at 4-under. That birdie 2 got Watson to 5-under. There’s no club, by the way, that the USGA museum curators covet more than that club, that Wilson 56-degree wedge. Watson got it out of David Graham’s garage in Dallas. Nicklaus said recently that Graham, who was on the MacGregor staff with Nicklaus, was as knowledgeable about clubs as anyone in the game.
That little intra-team exchange was loaded with I’ll-show-you. There it worked. It doesn’t always.
Now and again, not often, I will try to turn casual golf into team play. Winter golf is a good time to do it, when the greens are less reliable (here in the Northeast) and more rounds are played without any action. No reason not to be rooting for good communal play.
On Thursday, playing in a threesome and standing on the tee of a downhill wedge-shot par-3, I said, “Let’s see if we can play this in nine shots or fewer.” A little group pep-talk.
I pull-hooked my tee shot over a greenside left trap and was short-sided and on a downhill bank. The pin was in the back left. I’d do well to make 4.
Eric hit his tee shot thin. His ball finished a yard short of the green and maybe 60 feet from the hole. Chip shot, two putts, more often than not.
David played third and hit his on the face but pushed it. He was hole high and just off the green but about 40 feet from the hole. Not an easy two-putt.
I played first and ran a glorified putt (with an E-Club, if you know that cult club) down the bank, across the trap’s packed sand, up another bank and onto the green with slice break. The ball finished 15 inches from the hole. I picked it up as fast as I could. A casual-golf 3.
Eric played a running chip shot on a perfect line with perfect speed. His shot was clipped. His ball kissed the pin and fell to the bottom of the cup’s cold dark bottom. A birdie 2.
All David needed to do now was three-putt for a group 9 — with the tantalizing prospect of a grand total under 9 if he could get down in two. He struck the putt, which he needed to bounce over a sprinkler head, a little too hard and it finished about a yard and change past the hole and to its right. Eric asked David if he wanted the pin in or out. The flagstick stayed in. The putt went in. The crowd went wild. David signed (make-believe) for 3. We enjoyed a team 8.
We were one under as a group. We congratulated ourselves on the way to the 6th tee. Come together indeed.
These things can be tricky. There was a moment, famous to me, when my friend Gary Van Sickle saw Brad Faxon on a putting green. One of Gary’s golf mantras is you should always be working on something. He asked Brad what he was working on. Brad said, “Not caring.” Maybe our three poor tee shots came from caring too much. I couldn’t say.
I asked David if he felt more or less pressure as he stood over his second shot. More, for sure. True, he only had to three-putt for 9. But 8 would be better, and was part of the original challenge. “I wanted to hold up my end,” he said. I think we liked Come Together. I think we liked Go Team. “It really focuses you,” David said. It did for that hole, anyway.
Tom Brady, in a 2019 game, gave a famous sideline pep talk that went like this: “Hey, guys: We gotta pick things up. We gotta be faster. Quicker. More explosive. Everything. We’re too f—ing robotic. All right?”
I’m gonna trot that out sometime. We’ll see how it goes.
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Michael.Bamberger@Golf.com.