Think like a St. Andrews caddie: A 7-point plan to contending at the Open
On Sunday afternoon, St. Andrews will crown a true Open Champion … and also the man they caddie for.
After three days at the 150th Open, it is clear that claiming victory at the Old Course will take not one great golf mind, but two. This week more than any other on the golf calendar, caddies will play a decisive role in choosing the winner, and one needn’t look much further than Wednesday morning’s round of press conferences to understand why.
“I’m still trying to figure out hole 12,” Collin Morikawa said Wednesday. “I have no idea what to do. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I could tell you 15 different ways to play it, and all could be wrong.”
Morikawa is, notably, the reigning Open Champion. He’s also one of the best ball-strikers on earth. But he’s quickly learned that at the Old Course, a well-struck shot is ostensibly less important than a well-aimed one. And for those (like Morikawa and his caddie J.J. Jakovac) competing in their first tournament at the home of golf, that’s the hard part: learning where to aim.
“I would hate to be a caddie this week,” World No. 1 Scottie Scheffler agreed. “It’s so hard.”
So what is it that makes the Old Course so difficult? We asked former caddie and current NBC Sports on-course analyst John Wood, who was kind enough to break down a 5-point strategy to caddie (and player) success.
A 7-point plan to contending at St. Andrews
1. The sightlines
Wood has caddied in four Opens at the Old Course, most recently in 2015 with Matt Kuchar. He says the toughest thing about preparing for — and then playing — St. Andrews is that the danger on most tee shots is usually invisible from the box.
“This thing the thing about St. Andrews, often, most of the issues we deal with, they’re off the tee, because everything is so blind,” he said. “You can’t see any of the pot bunkers. You can see the fescue in the course but you really don’t know what is there.”
This is when preparation becomes a vital key in understanding where the danger is and how to avoid it. In his caddying days, Wood used his yardage book to take copious notes on most holes (like the photograph below), including little reminders about sightlines and “preferred” places to miss.
2. The bunkers
“There’s a lot of work off the tee in terms of identifying the depths of the bunkers, because in the yardage book, they all look the same. They all look like little circles, and they look like they’re all exact same, but they’re absolutely not,” Wood said. “Some of them are so deep that it’s literally a pitch-out sideways at best. Some of them are shallow enough that you might be able to hit a full nine-iron.”
The difference between the Old Course and most other great courses is that it forces caddies to learn every single bunker intimately.
“You’ll usually walk a course and you look at bunkers and you can just say say ‘okay, there’s a bunker there, a bunker there,” Wood said. “But this course you really have to go inspect every single bunker, figure out okay, if a ball rolls in here, where’s it gonna go? Is gonna go all the way to the lip? Is it going to stop in the middle? Is it going to stop short so I don’t have a backswing?”
This is why experience is so important for those caddying at the Old Course. While the new blood spends the early portion of this week understanding where the bunkers are, the old heads will be crafting a strategy around avoiding the worst of the sand.
“You really have to do a lot of work just identifying every specific bunker and writing in your book you know very deep or, or shallow or okay for a greenside bunker, which is a totally unique thing,” Wood said. “There’s there’s no other place where you really have to look at the depths of every single bunker on the course figure out if they’re playable or not.”
3. The rough
Obviously, it is a good idea to avoid the gorse and fescue as much as you can. But with fairways like concrete, it is an inevitability that each player will face at least one shot from the Old Course fescue. There is an advantage to be gained here too, Wood said.
“A lot of times standing on the tee you’ll think, ‘Okay, I’ve got fescue or gorse to the right, fescue to the left.'” Wood said. “But when you go up there and look, you might find out that the fescue on the right is pretty thin. There’s a few long blades, that yellowish grass, which can grab your club, but the base is pretty bare, almost like hardpan and those aren’t bad at all.
“Then you go over the left side of the exact same fairway and it looks the same from the tee but there’s a huge there’s a thick undergrowth, there’s that yellow grass, but then at the bottom, there’s a thick, thick, green grass,” he continued. “That is five times worse than the tall, thin fescue on the right.”
Caddies who understand the difference — and further, know the “right” fescue to miss into — will put their players in a position for success.
“You think okay, rough is rough. You play most tournaments, you miss the fairway — rough is rough. But not here,” Wood said. “Sometimes you can tell your player that hey, you can miss this way left here, that fescue or over there is so playable that you’ll be able to run something up. So that’s another thing that’s unique there. It’s the rough is so different from not even from hole to hole — but from the side of one hole to the other.”
4. The player
The toughest piece of the Old Course puzzle, but also the most natural for caddies: understand your player. Know what he likes to hit, which clubs he’s hitting well, and what yardages he hits those clubs. Those small (but very relevant) pieces of information will pay massive dividends when the inevitable uncomfortable shot arises.
“I always thought it was important to try and convince your player to hit clubs off tees that couldn’t go in a bunker, or at least couldn’t get into the worst bunker,” Wood says. “There’s always that option where you can take a club out and say okay, if I hit this, and I’ve got to keep it right at that bunker, because it will reach. I always tried to get guys to take clubs that wouldn’t reach the bunker at all.”
Pro golfers are uber-aggressive, a state of mind that’s amplified in events with huge fields and high stakes. But at the Old Course, the “safe” play is often more conducive to scoring well than the aggressive one.
“It just relieves their tee shots so much,” he said. “You’re talking about maybe one more club in, and having no worries on your tee shot. Unless it was so conservative that it was ridiculous, I always thought it was important to take clubs off tees that you knew couldn’t reach those bunkers. Either they were going to carry the ones you’re looking at, or they were going to stay short of them completely.”
5. The miss
Unless you’re Phil Mickelson, this is not a good week to be hitting blocks, Wood said. The course’s out-and-back routing is conducive to players who play a certain kind of shot shape.
“One of the most interesting I think about St. Andrews is — except for nine and 10 — every single miss off the tee you want is left, towards the middle of the course,” he said. “You go out and everything up the right side is kind of OB-ish and then you’re coming in and you’ve got that fence along the whole side where you know 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18 — that’s all OB to the right. So it’s interesting that almost every tee shot — except for nine and 10 which are pretty much driveable bar fours anyway — you’ve got to miss left.”
6. The wind
“I would rather have it playing into, going out — out of the west,” Wood said. “I think the first eight holes are a little bit easier than [the closing stretch], and then when you make the turn to come home, you’ve got all those holes downwind, which helps a lot.”
(As of Wednesday afternoon, these are the expected winds for both Thursday and Friday.)
7. The road hole
The line off the tee on the Old Course’s most beloved hole?
“You can go as far to the right as the ‘O’ in ‘Old Course Hotel,'” Wood said. “There’s a logo on the wall to the left of the ‘O.’ Right on that is probably a perfect middle of the fairway line. I think most guys will probably try and hit it.”
For those watching from home (and listening to Wood in his new day job at NBC), it’s hard to know just how much goes into every shot a player hits at the Old Course this week. Each piece of the above puzzle will find itself used on nearly every shot.
For those caddying for the first time this week, Wood has some simple advice: enjoy the ride.
“I think the biggest advice I can give is to learn what links golf is about, and then just realize that there there’s a lot more chance to it than in the U.S. in terms of bounces on those fairways,” Wood said. “You have to make sure to keep your player in the right frame of mind, because it can get frustrating when you hit the exact shot you want and you hit the side of a hill and it goes into a place you weren’t planning on it. It’s part of the charm of the Old Course to me. I think Tom Watson used to say that when he started winning, he started accepting all that. That’s just golf, you know?”
Ludicrous as it may sound, the 150th Open at the Old Course may be as much about the people carrying the clubs as it is those swinging them.