Editor’s note: After spending over eight years as caddie for South Africa’s Tyrone van Aswegen, Jeff Johnson recently moved on to a full-time job on the PGA Tour Champions for two-time major winner Retief Goosen. Here, Jeff writes that his latest opportunity would never have been possible without van Aswegen giving him a chance.
A little over eight years ago, I sat in my friend’s living room in Los Angeles feverishly typing out Facebook and Twitter messages to anyone from the previous year’s Q-School, asking for the opportunity to be their caddie for the upcoming Nationwide (Web.com) Tour season.
I received a lot of “Thanks, but I’m set” messages in return, a few “I’m set, but I wish you the best of luck” and plenty of no replies at all.
But then, there was a message from a young pro from South Africa just getting his Web.com career underway.
It read: “Thank you for getting in touch with me. At the moment, I don’t have anyone caddying for me in South America,” which is where the Tour was starting that season.
That message was from Tyrone van Aswegen and it would be the start of more than eight seasons and 234 professional events working together.
At that point in 2011, when the season started, I was over the moon. I had always dreamed of playing on the PGA Tour, but unfortunately, no matter how hard I practiced, my game just wouldn’t get me to that level. Being a caddie and being inside the ropes in the thick of the action was the next-best thing, in my opinion. After having spent the better part of the previous 15 years working what you might consider a desk job, I was ready to pursue my dreams again, and this pro who didn’t know me from Adam was willing to give me my shot.
Those first few weeks were filled with learning experiences. The first tournament of the year was in Panama, which for those who are unfamiliar, can be unbearably hot. We’re talking 90+ degrees with upwards of 80 percent humidity every day, the equivalent of a 100+ degree heat index every day.
Coupled with a very hilly golf course, I found myself 30-40 yards behind on every shot. And then the next week in Bogota, although cooler and on a flatter golf course, it was still over 8,000 feet above sea level. Talk about trial under fire your first two weeks on a job. Thankfully, we made the cut in Panama and finished inside the top 10 in Colombia.
It was a blur from that point until late 2013. I was living my dream. Tyrone had steadily progressed and made it to the inaugural season of the Web.com Tour playoffs. We came into the final round of the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship in Columbus, Ohio, in second-place and in great position for Ty to secure his PGA Tour card for the following season. Although the final round wasn’t what we had hoped it would be, Ty tied for fourth that week and all but locked up a card for the following year.
A few weeks later, it became official at TPC Sawgrass as Ty walked across the stage and received his first-ever PGA Tour card. I can’t explain how I felt. Here I was seeing someone realize their lifelong dream after having played some small role in the effort. Actually, I can explain it: I’ve never felt prouder for someone who isn’t related to me by blood.
Over the next five years, Ty and I would traipse the fairways of the PGA Tour in 143 official starts. He was like a brother. Sure, we had our disagreements over the years, but what brothers don’t? At the end of the day, he was committed to his craft and committed to the guy standing at his side the entire way. There were times, early on in his PGA Tour career, when others thought he should “go with a more experienced caddie.”
It was Ty that told them flat out, “Jeff isn’t the one hitting the shots.”
For over eight-plus years, he was the consummate professional. When I screwed up, we had a discussion, and that was it. He knew I screwed up, I knew I screwed up, we talked about it and we moved on. That’s what made him so easy to work for. It’s also what made me want to do everything within my power to do whatever I could to see him succeed.
Off the golf course, Ty and his family have become a second family to me. His wife, parents and friends have always been supportive and encouraging, even during the toughest stretches.
“A few weeks later, it became official at TPC Sawgrass as Ty walked across the stage and received his first-ever PGA Tour card. I can’t explain how I felt. Here I was seeing someone realize their lifelong dream after having played some small role in the effort. Actually, I can explain it. I’ve never felt prouder for someone who isn’t related to me by blood.” — Jeff Johnson on Tyrone van Aswegen
One particular tough stretch, in 2014, had me doubting how much longer I would be on the bag.
But it was a text from Ty’s mom that kept me going: “Don’t feel bad, it will come right.”
I’ve lost count of the number of congratulatory texts I’ve received from Ty’s parents and wife when Ty had a good tournament. It’s those kinds of relationships that make all the travel, the grind and the tough tournaments worth it. Those relationships keep you going. And what no one tells you about being a caddie is it’s those relationships that pull at you when you know it’s time for a change.
All of these experiences and those relationships made the decision I made a couple weeks ago, one of the most difficult of my life.
I received a text from Retief Goosen – a two-time U.S. Open Champion – asking if caddying on the PGA Tour Champions full-time would be something that I would consider. Retief, who turned 50 on February 3, was about to embark on his rookie season on the PGA Tour Champions. Ty had played with Retief the previous two years in the Zurich Classic, the PGA Tour’s team event, so he had seen me work up close.
I had also asked Ty last November if he would mind me asking Retief for the opportunity to work for him when Ty wasn’t playing. Ty didn’t hesitate in saying “no problem” and even put in a good word for me with Retief. At that point last November, working full-time for a multiple major champion was the last thing on my mind. I was just looking for some work during Ty’s off weeks.
Ty was my guy and I was his guy.
However, the more I thought about the text, the more it made sense to accept the offer. It was the opportunity some caddies only dream about. I replied to Retief that it was definitely something I would consider, but of course would have to speak to Ty first. As I hit “send,” it struck me that I would have to speak to Ty. It was going to be one of the hardest calls I’d ever had to make.
It was almost a full 24 hours before I finally got up the courage to call. When he picked up the phone, my throat went dry. I tried to make a little small talk, but realized I just had to get it out.
“I got an offer from Retief to work for him on the Champions Tour.”
Instantly, Ty replied, “That’s great. I knew this call would come at some point, I just didn’t think it would be this soon.”
You see, this is part of what I love about this guy. He obviously wants to succeed, but he’s not going to get in the way of what is a tremendous opportunity for me.
To Ty, I say, “thank you.”
Thank you for giving me my shot. Thank you for sticking by me when others would have liked to see you go with someone else on the bag. I owe where I am at in my career to the confidence you showed in me. Thank you for your dedication to your game. Professional golf can be a struggle sometimes, and some don’t have the staying power to fight through the tough times. I never had to worry if you were going to make it. I knew it in my heart. Thank you for being so understanding of this opportunity. Thank you for being you.
To Ty’s family, I say, “thank you.”
Thank you to Cristin. Your support and encouragement have meant the world to me. You’re the rock. Thank you to Lynn and Gavin for raising such a fine gentleman. Lynn, you were always there with the love and support only a mother can have for her son. Gavin, thank you for introducing Ty to this wonderful sport. I want you all to know you will always be family to me. If there is anything you ever need, I will be there for you, just as you have always been there for Ty and myself.
So off I embark on the next chapter in my caddie career. New tournaments, new courses, new faces and new cities. And, as some of you are aware of my affinity for baseball, new ballparks.
While I’m excited for all of these new experiences, I will be watching — intently — the leaderboards of the PGA Tour to see how my brother is doing.
Kick some ass, Ty!