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The symphony builds steadily throughout a Sunday morning at a major championship. It’s a distinctive sound. Almost therapeutic.
Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.
One well-struck range ball after another.
The melody wanes into mid-afternoon quiet, and suddenly a caddie is left with the realization there are just two players left on the driving range and a 2:30 p.m. tee time to make. He doesn’t know what the next 18 holes at Royal Birkdale will hold, but he knows one absolute truth.
Four hours from now, something great is going to happen to one of you two, John Wood said.
The veteran PGA Tour caddie could not have known one of the most memorable, surreal rounds in major-championship history would precede the end result.
Wood estimates he’s caddied in one of the final two groups at a major six to 10 times, first for Mark Calcavecchia at the 2001 Masters and most recently for Matt Kuchar at the 146thBritish Open. He checks the weather forecast and wind conditions the night before the round. Tries to stick to the same routine. There’s not much else he can do.
I’m nervous, certainly, but it’s a good nervous, Wood said. I remember being very excited (in 2001), and I’m probably more prepared now just because I’ve seen more, been through more situations than I had then. I think I have more things to go to in terms of talking to your player or calming him down, whatever you need to do.
Wood liked Kuchar’s chances when he arrived at Royal Birkdale fresh off a T-4 start at the Scottish Open. The course wasn’t particularly lengthy, instead requiring players to maintain control of the ball, keep it in the fairways and put it in good spots around the greens. Perfect for a player who excels at thinking his way around the course.
Wood’s read was accurate. Kuchar entered the final round 8-under, three shots behind leader Jordan Spieth and three ahead of Brooks Koepka and Austin Connelly.
In my mind, you’re thinking, ‘OK, we’re in second place and three back.
We need to pick up a shot before we lose a shot,’ Wood said. Because if you’re four back all of the sudden, that’s a pretty big hill to climb. The fact that Jordan bogeyed the first hole, we made par, picked up a shot right away, at that point you really figure, ‘Game on.’
Spieth continued to stumble while Kuchar played steady enough to draw even atop the leaderboard entering the par-4 13th.
Wood heard the reaction but never saw Spieth’s tee shot.
You kind of look up, and when the guys hit a drive you have a visual window where the ball should be somewhere in there, Wood said. I looked up and I honestly had no idea where the ball went.
Wood walked straight to Kuchar’s ball and figured out the yardage. The two talked about how to play the second shot, at which point Wood knew roughly in which area Spieth’s ball had come to rest and that something was happening. Kuchar decided to hit his second shot amid the commotion and gave himself a chance at birdie, the ball stopping about 18 feet from the cup.
Then, Wood said, we had to wait for a while.
Kuchar and Wood waited nearly 20 minutes while Spieth and his caddie, Michael Greller, located Spieth’s errant tee shot and tried to figure out how to drop and play on. A big screen left of the fairway gave Wood a vague idea what was going on as they waited. He doesn’t recall any specific conversations during that time. Kuchar probably talked about his kids. Wood might have discussed a book he was reading. A bit of normalcy amid the chaos.
At a certain point we just started laughing, Wood said. That’s all you could do. You’re going, ‘This is a funny situation. I’ve never been in something like this.’ (Kuchar) didn’t get frustrated by it. He just kept calm, and we were sitting back there telling stories and laughing. That was the best way we could handle it, really.
After taking a one-shot penalty for an unplayable lie, then waiting for official guidance on where to drop then re-drop, Spieth finally hit his third shot from the range. Rather than heading to his ball, he went right up to Kuchar on the green and said, Matt, I apologize. I’m really sorry. He would go on to make bogey, and Kuchar had a one-shot lead. Then Spieth played the final five holes in 5 under to win his third career major. Kuchar played the final five holes 1 under to finish three shots back.
Then it is quiet again and Wood has the locker room to himself. He stares at the floor for a while, weighing the disappointment of opportunity lost and the knowledge that he and Kuchar held up to the pressure. Never let the moment, historic as it would prove to be, get the better of them.
He snaps back into caddie mode, busying himself by emptying Kuchar’s locker and packing his travel bag for the charter back to Canada. The weight of it all doesn’t really set in, but the thrill lingers.
The thick of the major championship hunt is worth waiting for.
That’s why I do it, Wood said. There’s not a better place to be, because you really are a part of it. You’re not just commentating, you’re a part of the competition. If you’re not good enough to be a player, which I never was, to be in that place you can’t have a better seat than that.
(Note: This story appears in the October 2017 issue of Golfweek.)
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