It had been 17 years since Scott Gneiser was on David Toms’ bag when Toms won the 2001 PGA Championship with one of the most famous layup shots in golf.
There had been a couple breaks in the caddie-player relationship since, but they were back together and Gneiser knew his player had a golden chance to end his major drought at last week’s U.S. Senior Open at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colo.
And what happens when Gneiser’s alarm clock goes off the morning of the first round?
“I woke up with a little chest pain,” the 53-year-old Gneiser said. “Everything seemed fine. I got to the course pretty early to walk a few holes and see how the course is playing, and I told a guy I was with, ‘Keep an eye on me. I’m not feeling that great.’”
The chest pain started to increase. Gneiser, who said he’s never had a heart issue, sought medical attention before giving his boss a heads-up call.
“I knew David’s son, Carter, was in town and I asked David and his wife if Carter would be ready to go if I couldn’t,” Gneiser said. “David told me to go back to the hotel and rest, that Carter would caddie for him in the first round.”
Gneiser soon got a call from a family friend, a heart doctor, who told him to immediately go to the nearest hospital because of the chest pain. What Gneiser had to endure that afternoon felt worse than his chest.
“I’m sitting in the hospital bed, checking my phone for scores and waiting for the golf to come on TV,” he said. “It was the first round I had missed as a caddie in almost 30 years, and it was during a major. It was one of the worst feelings I’ve had in my life. I felt helpless.”
“But I guess that was better for David than me going face-first into the ground in the middle of the round.”
It wasn’t a comfortable situation for Toms, either. He was in one of the featured groups at a major, and he’s hoping his son doesn’t do something silly because of his inexperience.
“I’m playing with Davis Love and Vijay Singh,” Toms said. “I go up to them before the round and I’m apologizing. ‘If he gets in your way just yell at him, whatever, he can take it.’ I never wanted to hit it in the bunker because I didn’t want to see what he was going to — rake job and all that kind of stuff.”
Gneiser was released from the hospital early on Friday, with Toms’ second-round tee time several hours away. Carter, who plays on the LSU golf team like his dad did, remained on his father’s bag in the second round.
More importantly, Toms remained in contention. He opened with rounds of 70 and 71 and was tied for ninth, six shots behind leader Jerry Kelly. Toms credited Carter with the way he handled his impromptu role.
“He did an unbelievable job,” Toms said. “He really kept me in there, especially on Friday, where I was 3-over par early in the round. He was so positive. It was like me talking to him when he was going to play. And I finished really good that round and ended up shooting only 1-over par when it could have gone way the other way.”
Gneiser knew it wasn’t a slam dunk he would return on Toms’ bag on the weekend; this was, after all, his boss’ son.
But Gneiser also knew the difficulty of caddying that week because of the pressure of a national championship and Colorado’s high-altitude, not to mention fatigue. Every yardage was tricky, considering the 10 percent difference in distance because of the altitude and the Broadmoor’s hills also had to be factored into the equation. A mistake could be crippling.
“I gave David the choice,” Gneiser said. “I totally understood if he wanted Carter to work the weekend. David said, ‘No, I think he’s toast.’ Carter was in shape to play golf, but he wasn’t in ‘caddie shape,’ especially on that course and with that big bag.”
So Gneiser returned to Toms’ side. They had worked together for 12 of Toms’ 13 victories on the PGA Tour, including the 1999 Sprint International at nearby Castle Pines, another altitude-challenged course.
With his longtime caddie back in place, Toms fired a 4-under 66 in the third round to move into second place, just one shot behind Kelly. Gneiser wouldn’t have to worry about checking scores on his phone anymore – his boss was in the final group — and Toms wouldn’t have to worry about his caddie’s rake job.
On Sunday, Toms and Kelly each made a birdie and a bogey on the front nine, Kelly maintainig his one-shot lead. Toms finally pulled even when Kelly bogeyed the 11th. They remained tied after Kelly bogeyed the 12th and Toms the 13th.
More than a decade ago, Toms was shown to have the purest putting stroke on the PGA Tour – at least that’s what a computer at Scotty Cameron’s putting lab revealed.
Toms showed that sweet stroke on the par-5 16th hole when he holed a 15-foot birdie to take a one-shot lead over Kelly and, now, Miguel Angel Jimenez.
But Toms hit his drive into a fairway bunker at the difficult par-4 16th, a converted par-5. It took a millisecond for Toms and Gneiser to harken back to that 18th fairway at the 2001 PGA at Atlanta Athletic Club.
Toms led Phil Mickelson by a shot in ’01 and they had to decide whether to hit a 5-wood out of a squirrelly lie out of the rough over the water into a green that normally plays as a par-5.
Some of the gallery booed when Toms chose a wedge to lay up – but those fans were soon cheering Toms when he made the 10-foot par-putt to win his lone major.
Back to Sunday’s 17th hole, and some déjà vu.
“We didn’t bring it (2001) up, but it was definitely going through both of our minds,” Gneiser said. “It’s kind of ironic both holes are converted par-5s. The difference here is we didn’t have a choice. We had to lay up.”
Toms’ third shot, a wedge, stopped 18 feet behind the hole. Just as he did in Atlanta in 2001, Toms stepped up and made the crucial par putt to keep his one-shot lead. Kelly can be seen in the background lifting his putter to acknowledge Toms’ touch.
A two-putt par at the 18th and Toms had his first major on the PGA Tour Champions and his first trophy in more than seven years. He hugged Gneiser, his son – “You’re a part of it,” Toms emotionally told Carter – and the rest of his family.
Gneiser quickly grabbed the 18th-hole flag, but knew there was one more thing to do. He retrieved the 17th-hole flag and handed it to Carter.
“He deserved one,” Gneiser said. “Him caddying for his dad the first two rounds was a big part of this tournament.”
All that is left to do is for Toms to decide how much to pay his caddies. Normally, the winning player pays his caddie 10 percent, in this case $72,000.
“That ought to be interesting,” Toms said, smiling.
Sunday, Toms said he would “probably pay (Gneiser) the normal percent and do something nice for my son – not that I don’t already do.”
Said Gneiser: “To be honest, when you have a chance to win a tournament like that, you’re not thinking about the money. You’re thinking about winning a major.
“It was important for me to be on the bag when David won again. I think I provide a comfort level for him because we have worked together for so long. I’m glad I didn’t miss it.”