Babineau: Caddie John Wood on coming oh-so-close with Matt Kuchar at 2017 Open Championship and more
John Wood stopped off a plane early Monday and planted his boots on the ground in a small Scottish village named Dirleton, in East Lothian, not far from the venerable North Berwick West Links. North Berwick opened its first holes in 1832, and it’s just a short drive away from Gullane and the famous Muirfield links.
If you’re a golfer visiting in Scotland, the game can’t help but creep into your soul. Wood, who has been on Matt Kuchar’s bag since November of 2015, loves plying his craft across the pond. Golf there is played differently, a game contested along the ground. Every day that the winds whip off the Firth of Forth presents a new puzzle to be solved. For somebody who deals most weeks with strict by-the-numbers, target golf, the challenge is refreshing.
This week, Wood and Kuchar will be at Gullane Golf Club for the Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open. And next week it’s on to the brutal links of Carnasty, er, Carnoustie, for the 147th Open Championship.
If you recall, Kuchar made a terrific run at the Open a year ago, falling in a classic Sunday duel with fellow American Jordan Spieth, who was nothing short of magical over the final nine holes at England’s Royal Birkdale. Kuchar and Wood went back across the pond with the Silver Salver that’s given to the runner-up to the “champion golfer of the year,” and plenty of heartache to go with it.
Kuchar had a one-shot lead with five holes to play and birdied two of his next four holes. Spieth, who made an incredible bogey from the practice ground at the par-4 13th, answered with this run starting at the par-3 14th: Birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie.
Spieth led by two heading to 18. Kuchar went flag-hunting on his second shot, his ball finishing in a left-front bunker. He failed to get up and down from a plugged lie, and Spieth won by three.
“Even on the last hole, we felt we had a chance,” Wood said. “A two-shot swing on the last hole of a major is nothing. So, we figured we’re going to give it everything we can. When it became obvious we weren’t going to catch him, it was a deflating feeling. You’re so high all day, and so clicked in, tuned into what you’re doing. It was disappointing and deflating, for sure.”
But being in such an arena at the world’s oldest major championship is the very reason that Wood caddies. Having the opportunity to loop in the Open Championship is special. To be there in the mix on the 72nd hole, in front of a huge gallery in the stands and that iconic giant yellow scoreboard, well, it was something he wouldn’t trade.
Wood first caddied at the Open Championship in 2001, for Kevin Sutherland, now on the PGA Tour Champions. That was Sutherland’s first Open, too, and the pair combined to do a terrific job figuring out Royal Lytham & St. Annes, where Sutherland, with a tie for ninth, notched his first top 10 in a major championship. David Duval won his only major that week.
“I love caddying in the Open Championship,” Wood said. “That and Augusta (Masters) are my two favorites. It’s so unique. We don’t get to do this kind of caddying at all. It’s usually one week a year we get to do this kind of thing. On one hole, a 9-iron goes 220 (yards), and the next hole a 9-iron goes 65! It’s just fascinating trying to figure out where you want to land it, how much roll you think it’s going to get.
“Most courses we play, week in and week out (in the U.S.), you get some firmness, but usually you want to fly it, and it stops. It’s a game played through the air. Over here, there is just so much more to figure out. It’s thrilling … there’s so much more that goes into picking a shot. I think it’s a blast.”
Though the game is played differently across the pond, golfers and caddies try not to stray too far from normal preparation, Wood said. One added attention to detail the days leading into the competition will be to figure out wind direction, as the strategy on holes can alter greatly depending on conditions.
“If you’re forecast for one wind direction on one day and a completely opposite one the next, you really have to go through the holes before the day even starts to figure out, ‘OK, if the wind is doing this, we’re going to want to hit this shot,’” Wood said. “You really want to go through that beforehand so that you’re not guessing in the round.”
Typically, there also might be a little more player-caddie dialogue over shots on links, because there usually are more options. Here in the states, a player might face 140 yards to a hole location, and he simply needs to hit it 138. In Scotland, there are different options to produce a shot. A caddie will compute his yardage, and that pretty much can get tossed aside.
“OK, that’s the number (yardage), but I want to land the ball 35 yards short of the green, because it’s going to run and maybe jump a little bit,” he said. “I want to take danger out of play – you know, ‘I can make 4 from over here’ – so a lot more goes into shot selection over here than at a normal tournament. There is more decision making.”
Wood, who estimates he has caddied in 15 Open Championships, said Kuchar’s great run at Birkdale last summer would be his favorite Open moment (“The whole deal was a thrill”). He will return to Carnoustie with some good memories, too. In 2007, Wood was on the bag for Hunter Mahan in Mahan’s third Open Championship. Mahan shot a bogey-free, 6-under 65 on Sunday to leap 25 players and climb all the way into a tie for sixth.
As Opens go, Wood says nothing surpasses the overall atmosphere of the Old Course at St. Andrews, where the entire town is abuzz. He has enjoyed working at all the courses in the Open rota. Asked for a favorite, he said it would be Royal Lytham & St. Annes.
“I love the look of it (Lytham),” he said. “I can’t say I like this shot, or that shot, I just thought the look of it was really pleasing to the eye. I think a lot of courses over here, even though they’re great courses … I mean, I love St. Andrews, but if you didn’t have a caddie there you literally wouldn’t know which way half the holes go. There’s nothing out there. I think Lytham is very good visually from the tee shot. I love that place.”
In Great Britain, where golf fills a man’s soul, John Wood pretty much likes ‘em all.