It was quite a surprise when I turned on the television Sunday afternoon to watch the final round of the Honda Classic and saw Albin Choi caddying for Sungjae Im.
From 2013 to 2016, I caddied for Albin, off-and-on, in Web.com Tour events, qualifying schools and the Canadian Open at Glen Abbey near his hometown of Toronto. Probably close to 25 events from Portland to Nova Scotia and many points in between.
To be honest, I turned on the golf for the first time all week to watch Mackenzie Hughes, one of Albin’s best friends, our frequent practice round companion and like most Canadians I know, a solid human being. After a rough spell on the course over the last year, he was in contention for his second PGA Tour victory.
Just as I was trying to sound like a cool dad and tell my two young daughters that I knew this sharp-dressed man playing golf on the TV (they weren’t that impressed), I saw Albin standing on the same (15th) tee box, wearing a caddie bib with Im’s name on the back. When I tried to explain that I used to caddie for the other caddie in the group, they quit paying attention, certain their father, the man they trust and sometimes listen to, is now and forever a stone-cold fibber.
While I understand how the story could sound unbelievable, one day they’ll understand that truth always trumps fiction. Life is rich, in part, because it can be so strange and because of the friendships we make along the way.
So 24 hours later I was ‘interviewing’ Albin for this piece, because, in his first week as a caddie on the PGA Tour, he steered the uber-talented Im to his first PGA Tour victory.
To be clear, our 45-minute phone conversation wasn’t much of an interview. I didn’t fulfill my part as a reporter, hardly scribbled a note and didn’t bother turning on the voice recorder I use religiously. Mostly, we just caught up. Albin answered my questions and I learned all the details from his life-changing week.
We’ll get there in a minute, but first, the backstory.
After three strong seasons at N.C. State, Albin turned pro in 2013 and we met that fall. He needed a caddie for the first stage of Web.com Tour Qualifying School in Pinehurst. His agent at the time, Thomas Parker, arranged the partnership, a one-week deal borne out of my frustration with the gloomy future of daily newspapers. Parker and I have known each other since junior golf days. He had a couple of young clients who he thought might benefit from a veteran caddie, albeit one a decade removed from his last Tour loop.
He’d never had a professional caddie before and I’d never had a boss young enough to be my son. Despite the age difference, we connected, looked at the game through a similar lens. He had an advanced golf mind, read greens better than me (not hard) and could dissect a course quickly. We grinded through frigid mornings in Pinehurst and Texas to reach the final stage. He finished strong in Palm Desert to earn full status on the Web.com for the 2014 season. He was one of the Tour’s youngest members.
I wasn’t on his bag when he set the (now) Korn Ferry Tour 9-hole record by shooting 27 in Greenville, South Carolina, but it didn’t surprise me when I heard about it. I was on his bag when he shot 25-under for 72 holes at Orange County National and stomped the field in PGA Tour Canada Q-School finals.
I’ve watched him do otherworldly things with every club — long bunker shots to holes cut near water, towering fairway woods to set up eagles, long runs of 1-putt greens and one miraculous escape from the trees, over water, on the hole used as the setting for Roy McAvoy’s disaster in the movie “Tin Cup.”
Tried to talk him out of trying that one and when he pulled it off, we both exhaled.
Albin felt something similar Sunday afternoon as he and Im debated between a 7-iron and 8-iron for their tee shot on the watery par-3 17th. They agreed on the 7 and as the ball was in the air, they were both thinking ‘get down’ if not saying it aloud. The shot landed perfectly behind the hole, setting up the birdie that sealed the victory.
Of course Albin was nervous coming down the stretch on Sunday but that morning he decided he was going to speak up in every situation, not simply agree with his player’s suggestion if he felt strongly otherwise. After back-to-back bogeys on the back nine, Im was discouraged.
“The tournament starts now,” Albin said, encouraging him to forget about a previous decision that hadn’t gone as planned.
Im responded by playing an aggressive shot with a 5-iron and making birdie on 15.
How did Albin get there, carrying the bag rather than playing himself?
He maintained status on the Korn Ferry Tour four of the last five years (winning more than a quarter-million dollars) and won in Canada the other year. When he failed to advance through Q-School at the end of last year and was nursing a wrist injury, he decided to take a break from playing, and began caddying at Old Palm in south Florida.
Im, who he knew from the Korn Ferry Tour in 2018, called him after the Genesis Invitational and asked if he’d caddie for him in the Honda, a course Albin’s played many times and where he advanced through Q-School finals once before.
“Brian, caddying is hard,” he told me Monday night.
Without question. The change in perspective was also an eye-opener. He learned quickly how a caddie can’t dwell on a shot gone awry, must always prepare for the next one and have the answer to any question a pro may ask. He saw the tournament from a different point of view, aware of all the little things inside and outside the ropes that a tunnel-visioned pro golfer might not notice.
Albin paid close attention to Im’s practice regimen, admired his incredible ball striking and the clutch putting that propelled him to victory.
Playing a part in a PGA Tour victory is an experience I never knew. A caddie winning in his first week on Tour has surely happened before, but it’s rare. I gave him a hard time for pulling off such a feat, in jest, of course.
“I thought about you a lot during the week,” Albin told me. “The little things you taught me about paying attention to the wind and looking at a golf course.”
We had our share of disagreements on the course, like any other team. I talked him into a 3-wood on a tee box in Indiana that comes to mind. Be nice to have that one back. Our partnership wasn’t lucrative in the typical sense and ultimately that’s the goal both sides are shooting for out there. It’s a business, after all. But I’m certain we both grew richer from the time spent together. We laughed a bunch too.
Albin wants to play again and is certain what he learned last week will pay dividends when he does. If, indeed, something he learned from me during our days together helped him steer Im home last week, well I was simply sharing what those from the previous generation shared with me.
That’s what makes golf great. Caddies help caddies. Pros help pros. In the end, the roles matter little. All of us are searching for perfection we never will attain, seeking a solution that doesn’t exist, competing hard against one another but at the same time together in a game that gives us more than we could ever repay.