EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was originally published in January 2019.
Life on the PGA Tour is pretty sweet.
Those who make their living on the Tour – as players and caddies – are chasing the sun most weeks, traveling from one vacation destination after another, after another.
And that isn’t to say life on the Tour is a vacation. It’s not. Their offices are usually just a lot cooler than yours.
But on Saturday, January 13, 2018, life on the PGA Tour was briefly harrowing for those who were in Honolulu – paradise – for the Sony Open in Hawaii.
That’s when anyone who had a smartphone – and who doesn’t these days – received a terrifying alert that read: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
The push alert was issued shortly after 8 a.m., so not many were at Waialae Country Club for the third round just yet.
Within 10 minutes, it was known the alarm was nothing more than a big mistake. But that timeframe depended on how connected you were. For many on the island, it was between 30-60 minutes after the message before they knew for sure that it was a false alarm.
Regardless of the timeframe, every second had to feel like an eternity under the circumstances.
Check out this video of a man enjoying a casual round of golf that morning… before he received the alert:
— Alohi Gardner (@GardnerAlohi) January 13, 2018
With the anniversary of that week here, we asked 10 caddies to give us their firsthand account of what those uncertain moments were like.
Scroll through to read their stories…
From Joe Etter, caddie for 2018 Sony Open Champion Patton Kizzire:
That was an interesting weekend to say the least. Funny thing about my experience though… I slept through it!
I had my phone on a charger across the room at my hotel in Waikiki. We had a later tee time, so I knew I wouldn’t need an alarm. New Guy (Ryan Rue) was in the bathroom doing his business when it came over and never said anything.
I walked over to my phone around 8:30 a.m. and saw both the incoming missile message and the false alarm message basically simultaneously. I remember thinking to myself, “Man that’s a big mess up, I bet people have been freaking out!”
Ha. Totally oblivious.
I know Patton was freaking out and had a weird morning with all that going on. My experience was that of blissful unawareness. We hit our first tee shot OB right on Saturday, but played the rest of the round in 8 under. We got that out of our system and he was able to refocus on the golf.
From Mark Urbanek, caddie for James Hahn, runner up at the 2018 Sony Open:
At 8:08 a.m. on Saturday, January 13, 2018, a text came across my phone that wasn’t quite the same as the others I had ever received. We’ve all seen the amber alerts and severe weather alerts pop up from time to time, so it was no surprise to receive an emergency alert from an agency that isn’t on your favorites list. However, this one struck a different chord.
In all caps it read, “BALLISTIC MISSLE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
Hmmmm… OK. Before I could even comprehend what I had just read, my phone rings. It’s my two roommates that week whose players had both missed the cut. They had decided the night before to rent a car and drive up to the North Shore at sunrise to check out the high surf. Lucky bastards were on the safest part of the island, cruising on the beach, almost mocking me at what I was going to do. What are friends for if you can’t make fun of each other when a missile is coming anyway?
“Did you see that text? What are you going to do?”
Lots of tough guys at the course that day, claiming no chance that it was real and how they couldn’t believe anyone would believe that for a second. Maybe I understand percentages a bit better than they do, or maybe I just feel like I have a few more things that I’d like to contribute to the world before I meet my maker. — Mark Urbanek
“Well, I’m going to put some pants on and get down from our 23rd-floor condo in central Waikiki for starters! Keep in touch if you hear anything else.”
We were all in agreement that it was probably nothing, but there was no way anyone without direct knowledge of the mishit button didn’t at least have the slightest inkling that it could be real. Even if it was 1-in-a-hundred real, that would still be enough to get the panic juices flowing. If I told you that skydiving had a 1-in-a-hundred chance of having your parachute not open, I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t go. Or maybe you would, but that’s an entirely different situation altogether.
So, with a quick scramble to find some drawers and my wallet, I head down the elevator to the lobby to see what else I could learn. Morning exercise complete, coffee and a light breakfast ingested, I was on the next step of my morning ritual… I’ll spare you the details, but what was going to be a lovely, peaceful event on the friendly confines of my home-field for the week took an eventful turn when the elevator doors opened on the ground floor.
I was not ready for what I was about to encounter.
Screaming kids, parents crying, guests yelling at the staff for the bomb-shelter entrance, to which I could hear, “there is no bomb-shelter ma’am.”
Complete pandemonium, and all I’m thinking about is, “where is the bathroom?”
After a brief search around the crowded, panic-stricken lobby, I found a back hallway with a men’s room, finally, thank goodness.
Crap, literally. I turned around and jetted towards the neighboring Hyatt lobby. Whether I was to going to find a toilet or not, I needed to get out of this mess at the very least. A couple hundred feet away I found the exact same scene. This is so crazy, I thought to myself. I kept telling myself that it was probably a mistake, but why was everyone else so panicked?
Every minute that passed without someone giving the all-clear seemed to make it all the more real. Every few seconds, I was looking up at the sky over my shoulder to see if something was en route, Independence Day-style. Let’s be honest: the world isn’t at its most peaceful state and North Korea is within range from where I’m standing in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
My hopes of a successful bathroom mission were quickly extinguished when I found the Hyatt men’s room filled with 20 or so men standing around shoulder to shoulder. Either they shared my same affliction, or they were seeking shelter. Either way, that wasn’t where I was going to hang out for my final few minutes on this planet. At this point, it had been 20 minutes or so from the initial text and a thought crossed my mind as I stepped back onto the city street: what if my parents found out that I had received this text and I had 30 minutes to call and say goodbye and I didn’t?
That would be hard to fathom, I imagined. Perhaps they figured I was mid-morning ritual, they know me all too well after all, which could be excusable, but I just couldn’t take that chance, what with phones red-flagged these days.
So I dialed my Mom for what could’ve been my last conversation with her. Not trying to be overly dramatic here, but there was definitely a small chance this was actually going down. Trump and his big mouth, “Little rocket man!”
Damnit, like Dennis Rodman really smoothed that over.
“Hey mom, what’s going on?”
“Oh, your father and I are just driving down to the beach, how’s it going over there? Ready for a big weekend?”
“Yeah, about that… I just received a really weird text. It’s probably nothing, but I thought you should know just in case it isn’t,” all said in my smoothest, most calming manner possible.
“What kind of text?”
“Well, it’s one of those emergency alerts and it says that there’s a ballistic missile coming to Hawaii and that it isn’t a drill.”
“WHAT? MISSILE? WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO?”
“It’s nothing, Mom, don’t sweat it. I’m going to head down to the beach for a front-row seat. It’s chaos everywhere and I don’t want to be surrounded by screaming men, women and children any longer. I’ll call you in a few minutes when I get the all clear.”
And that was that.
I walked about a block towards the beach before my phone rang. It was my buddy Andy on the North Shore, probably calling to tell me how peaceful it is up there.
“It’s over, man. It was a mistake.”
As quickly as relief could come over me, it passed right on by as I took notice of the time: 8:42.
I was supposed to be in a shuttle to the course for our third round at 9. So I hustled back up to my high-rise room for that quick stint in the loo I had been dreaming of and a rinse and on my way. The gears had shifted so quickly from a potential nightmare to a normal day at the office that the rest of the day was a blur. It felt surreal to be out on the course, an hour later, as if nothing had ever happened. A perfect blue sky, birds chirping, a light ocean breeze and all was back to normal on the PGA Tour.
Lots of tough guys at the course that day, claiming no chance that it was real and how they couldn’t believe anyone would believe that for a second. Maybe I understand percentages a bit better than they do, or maybe I just feel like I have a few more things that I’d like to contribute to the world before I meet my maker. Either way, I’m glad it was a false alarm and not afraid to admit that I thought there was at least a chance that it was real.
My boss happened to catch fire the next day and post a final-round 62 that found us in a playoff with the eventual champion. Funny how quickly the world can change. One minute you’re scrambling around town trying to find the best view for the beginning of WWIII and the next you’re on national TV trying to help your man hoist a trophy.
What a journey.
From Terry Walker, caddie for Andrew Landry, who missed the cut at the Sony Open:
My wife and I were having breakfast at our favorite cafe in Waikiki when we received the alert of an incoming missile.
Several people panicked and raced out of the restaurant. My wife and I looked at each other and then she said: “If we’re going to die, then it won’t be on an empty stomach.”
And we continued to eat.
There was a veteran sitting at the counter that turned around and told us it had to be a false alarm. After texting a military man that we met on the airplane, he confirmed the false alarm and we finished breakfast.
From Scott Sajtinac, caddie and President of the APTC (Association of Professional Tour Caddies):
Initially, the weirdest thing about the alert was I was sitting in busy coffee shop off the main drag of Waikiki with Brian Reed (Kyle Stanley), Matthew Tritton (Luke List) and player, Michael Thompson. The coffee spot was super busy, given the time of morning and all at once, in unison, everybody’s phone buzzed or beeped the familiar iPhone text sound.
I remember thinking, “how strange.”
We had an outside table, so not only could I see all the coffee shop patrons checking their phones at the same time, but also the busy foot traffic walking by.
My phone was face down on the table and I never bothered to pick it up, even though mine buzzed, too. Brian checked his phone and read the message out loud to us all and I distinctly remember calling “bullsh**.” He read it again and that’s when I picked up my phone to read the same alert.
Looking around, I could see some worried faces.
After a few minutes, staff from the coffee shop told us all to leave — go find someplace safe for shelter. I turned to the guys and said, “where the f**k would that be?”
My experience with ballistic missiles is limited, but I’m pretty sure there’s no safe place for shelter at a vacation spot like Waikiki.
We began walking back towards the hotel and panic began to rise on the street. People started walking briskly, some even running. One particular lady came up to me, an Australian lady on vacation, and asked, “what’s all the commotion about?” She had an Australian phone and never received the alert. I told her what had happened, and she flipped out and ran off.
I then called fellow caddie Damian Lopez. I knew he was on the mainland at the time and asked if he’d heard anything on the mainstream news on his end. He said he hadn’t, so we made our way back to the hotel.
Right outside the lobby of our hotel we passed another caddie and his wife. His wife was hysterical, so I told her about a New York Times article I had recently read that said the state of Hawaii had just spent tens of millions of dollars on a state-of-the-art alarm system that would sound off in the streets if such a thing would happen.
That was my saving grace as far as keeping myself calm. I thought, if this alert was real then surely the street alarm system would be in full-blown action by now. I also noticed that there was zero police presence. Not one patrol car, not one law enforcement officer giving guidance or direction — and we were already, by now, 15 minutes into the ordeal. Surely there would have been police everywhere giving instructions. There was not one officer in sight.
My gut instinct was it was a false alarm, but just in case it wasn’t, I suggested to the guys, “We have two options if this is real. We go to the beach for a swim or straight to the bar and drink tequila.”
Approximately 15 minutes later, we were informed by the hotel staff it was a false alarm.
No need for the tequila.
John Rathouz, caddie for Seamus Power, who finished T54 at the Sony Open:
What do I remember most about the Hawaiian Missile Crisis? We made the cut!
Seeing the text, “INCOMING BALLISTIC MISSILE… THIS IS NOT A DRILL,” was surreal to read. My initial reaction was, “F**k! Of all the weeks, you had to be in Hawaii on this one!”
However, my roommate Lance and I were both calm (just like you’d like to be on the back nine on Sunday). Thought about North Korea. Thought about Pearl Harbor and World War II. Thought about my girlfriend and family back home. But something didn’t seem quite right.
I remembered a volunteer earlier in the week telling us about how the government had been testing the air raid sirens a lot over the last few weeks and months after them not working for years. Cleaning out the cobwebs. Well, we didn’t hear any sirens and outside it looked like a perfectly normal January, Waikiki day — 85 and sunny. Hmmm.
I remember the hotel alarms going off and them making an announcement, but not really knowing what to do or where to go. We didn’t practice this one in school. Was the entire island just going to blow up, or was it going to be more random? I checked in with the pro to see if he was still expecting me to be waiting for him outside the locker room even though we could possibly be getting bombed.
He said, “yes.”
No, he didn’t, haha.
However, it appeared we were still both concerned about missing our tee time with so many FedEx Cup points on the line. Thankfully, the PGA Tour sent us a text that the third round was delayed. Solid call. Turned on the TV. Nothing. Packed my backpack with some insulin, a few snacks, change of clothes, and water — should be good to go to survive. Haha. Thought about calling my girlfriend, but I didn’t want her to panic, and although I was trying to be proactive, my instinct was still that there was nothing to worry about. I certainly heard about it from her later!
Eventually, the local news was covering the story but didn’t have much to say. I also remember there being some sort of time component involved, like, “30 minutes to detonation.” And then, like a passing Nebraska tornado, it was over, with no physical damage. We got the all clear and Lance and I were thankful and could kind of laugh about it.
I remember hearing later that another caddie made a shirt that said, “I survived the 2018 Hawaiian Missile Crisis” or something and getting a lot of compliments on the street (Editor’s note: More on that coming up below).
It was certainly a day those who were there will never forget.
Aaron Flener, caddied for Stephan Jaeger, who finished T54 at the Sony Open:
I was still in my bed at the hotel at the time the alert came to my phone. My roommate Matt Erwin (Tom Lovelady’s caddie) was also there and he was like, “did you see that alert?”
I said, “sure did.”
“What do we do?”
“It’s a ballistic missile, bud. I’m unaware how to combat one of those so I’m just gonna stay in bed.”
“We’ve had a good run, I guess,” he said.
I figured it was a false alarm, so I didn’t alert my family because I didn’t want them to worry. I tweeted the screenshot of the alert out, so I had a few friends text me about it. But overall, we stayed pretty calm. After all, there wasn’t really anything we could do.
— Aaron Flener (@AaronFlener) January 13, 2018
After about 30 minutes or so, they came back and officially said it was a false alarm, so we got up and walked out to breakfast. When our waitress came over, I congratulated her on surviving the missile threat and she laughed. And that’s when my wheels got turning.
I said to Matt, “We gotta make a t-shirt.”
And what I meant by that was, “YOU’VE gotta make us t-shirts.”
My guy had made the cut so I had to go to the course and work, but Matt had the whole day free. So, we mapped out what we wanted it to say. This was the result:
From Paul Tesori, caddie for Webb Simpson, who finished T4 at the Sony Open:
I remember it well. Webber was at Starbucks at the mall when the alert went out. I hadn’t seen it. He called and told me people were panicking at the mall and the Starbucks closed the doors. I turned on the local news stations immediately at the hotel.
The stations were all reporting that it wasn’t a test and that the strike was imminent, within the next five minutes. I was pretty calm. I called Michelle and told her I loved her just in case. I packed a backpack of snacks and money in case. I put on jeans and shoes and walked out to the balcony to see if I could see the missiles. I had time to think that the man wasn’t this stupid and that he’d probably explode them in the ocean and cause a small tsunami, so I stayed up high in the hotel.
From Kip Henley, caddie for Austin Cook, who finished T18 at the Sony Open:
I didn’t have to be to the course until later that afternoon, so I slept in. I woke up to that emergency shrill thingy on my phone. When I first read that warning I was so confused. Was it a joke, or something? And then my brain kicked in and I thought, “Oh crap! Tensions have been bad with North Korea lately. This is the real thing!”
I was staying in an Airbnb way up the side of the mountain with a big, beautiful view of downtown Honolulu. I immediately Face-Timed my wife and walked out onto the lanai to watch the missiles fly in and hit the city. I figured that I was probably going to die anyway, and I might as well watch the incredible scene go down. It was weird. I wasn’t panicking or anything. I was like, “Oh well. This is probably the end.”
I actually said a prayer. I stood there talking to my wife for a couple minutes and started thinking, “I wonder why there isn’t any Army or Navy jets flying around trying to shoot it down.”
When I didn’t see anything like that, I started thinking maybe it was a hoax. A few minutes later, the next emergency text came through that said some idiot had dropped his lunch on the wrong button or something.
The chat on the range that afternoon was amazing. I heard Billy Hurley (a Navy veteran), who was staying downtown, actually ran to his car in his hotel parking garage, got in, picked up a caddie he saw as he was pulling out, and started driving to the other side of the mountain away from the fallout. I was 200 yards from the other side of the mountain and wasn’t smart enough to do that.
Probably half the people on the range that afternoon said they knew it couldn’t be real and most just went back to sleep. The other half, like me, thought our tickets might get punched that day.
Caddying ain’t easy baby!
From James Edmondson, caddie for Ryan Palmer, who finished T58 that week:
I remember the false alarm vividly.
I was sitting on the veranda of my hotel enjoying breakfast with my wife. Towards the end of our meal, everyone’s phone was going off in a sound that reminded me of those Amber-alert sounds.
I jokingly said to my wife, “Let me guess, there’s a bomb on the way.”
She looks up in horror and says, “How do you know that!?”
It was my first reaction because of the North Korea threat for the past few years. I immediately jump up from the table and go to the front desk to use their landline. I call 911 and get a busy signal. I then go into fight or flight mentality. I start to remember some underground areas and grab my wife’s hand and head down the escalator to street level. She’s Face-Timing our two daughters back in Texas, while trying to hold back the tears telling them how much we love them.
As we reach the street level, I take us to the spot I had remembered from all the years of being in Waikiki. Two other couples see us and follow us as I tell them to come as we try to take cover. I knew that the PGA Tour has direct contact with Department of Homeland Security, and called Ryan Palmer to see if he had heard anything.
We make it underground and there are about four employees and the head of security is in this location. I talk to the building security and ask about the air raid sirens. None were going off after about 10 minutes had passed from the threat text. This is when things didn’t add up.
I heard from Ryan about 5 minutes later and he said the Tour was informed this was a false alarm. I relayed the message to the employees and two other couples that followed us. My wife and I headed back to the hotel and everyone was standing around the lobby in shock. I saw two girls from Australia and told them the news and they both hugged me while shedding tears. A few other guests asked where we had gone, in case of another possible threat.
After calming the nerves of the guests, with the early news, everyone tried to get back to normal Saturday activities in Waikiki. It wasn’t until 5-15 minutes that “official word” was finally sent to everyone. This was certainly a morning that I will never forget and thank God it was a hoax.
Justin York, caddie for Chez Reavie, who finished T18 at the Sony Open:
I don’t quite remember the time when the alert hit. I was sitting in my room with my roommate, Mike, watching TV and talking on the phone with a friend about the upcoming NFL playoff games on Saturday morning.
Shortly after hanging up my phone call, I believe Mike got the alert first on his phone with an usual sound. As he is reading the ballistic inbound missile threat, my phone receives the alert seconds later.
At first, I thought it was a joke and kind of chuckled. Then a very quiet reality hit me like in the movies. All sound for a few seconds was washed out by the sound of my heartbeat. My friend, who I was just talking to, immediately calls back. When I answered the call, he says to me, “what the f**k?” about 3-4 times over and over.
In that moment, I realized that it was not a joke… at least for now.
I then sent a screenshot of the alert to my wife, letting her know what was going on. She’s the Google-type and immediately looked it up. I don’t remember exactly what she found because this was all only minutes after the alert, but she called me and relayed her findings.
It was something along the lines of, “this is not a mistake and to take the proper precautions.” I began discussing this with my roommate and we shortly determined that if we were in fact going to perish by a missile, then we were at least in good company.
My wife called me back a few minutes later after texting this to a friend of hers that is from Honolulu but now lives in Phoenix. The friend then contacted her dad, who is a retired police officer in Oahu, and he investigated the alert.
I guess after a quick phone call by him, he found out that it was just a mistake and that there was nothing to be alarmed about. Once this got relayed back to me, an unsettling sigh of relief came over me. I then relayed the news to my roommate and friend I had been talking with earlier.
That friend, of course, was also on the island of Oahu. It seemed to diffuse the tension only minimally because we didn’t know officially that we were in the clear. I don’t remember how long until we got the official message that this was just a mistake by the Hawaiian government, but it was very nerve-racking until that point.
In the back of my mind, I thought about this on the course the whole day as did everybody, I’m sure. It was a very scary day to say the least, but we seemed to manage our emotions – well, at least on the surface we did. I’d been skydiving twice before that day, but I’ve never been that nervous in my life.
It made me think of all the people living on the other side of the world where this is a daily occurrence. It’s a frightening feeling thinking that you are going to die, if only for 30 minutes.
It makes a person put things in perspective real quick.