First-time Players Championship caddies — and players — pumped for their debut
The Players Championship presents one of golf’s biggest stages. So for every caddie or player that finally makes it to TPC Sawgrass for their debut, it can be a lot to take in. It’s a huge moment in their careers. For some caddies making their first appearance at the Stadium course this week, this is the biggest event they’ve ever worked.
Take Reid Martin for example. He loops for Mark Hubbard and they got the very last spot in the Players when Tiger Woods pulled out last Friday.
Ah, the ups and downs of life on Tour. As Hubbard and Martin finished their 7-over 79 on Friday to miss the cut at Bay Hill by six shots, they were informed that Woods’ withdrawal got them into the Players at the eleventh hour.
Lanto Griffin’s caddie, Chris Nash, will also be caddying on as big a stage as he’s seen before this week at Sawgrass. The three-year pro looper never caddied in a major or the Players, so there’s a lot to take in about the course.
“It’s the biggest tournament I’ve caddied in, ever,” Nash said.
But there is a saving grace here: This is his player’s home course, which he’s played well over a hundred times.
Will that take some of the pressure off?
“Absolutely, it’s taken off some of the heat for sure,” Nash said.
Nash actually played the course for the first time earlier this year, and he knows Griffin is obviously very comfortable there.
“Lanto knows the course by heart,” Nash said. “I’m going to be paying attention to things like wind and helping with club selection, but he’ll know where to miss out there.”
Nash will also get a couple special family guests cheering him on at Sawgrass: his mom and brother.
“My mom (Suzie) has only been to one tournament so far, the Houston Open that we won. So I told her that you need to come to the Players for some luck,” Nash laughed.
Suzie used to play collegiately at the University of Texas and now she’s about an 8 handicap and often plays with her son Chris (a 5 handicap) as they both still live in Houston.
“It was really cool to have her there for Lanto’s win,” Nash said. “I was born in Houston and played a lot of Houston golf. We grew up playing Champions Golf Club there, but yeah it was pretty special to win down there for sure.”
As far as this week at Sawgrass, Nash says he’s gotten some advice from veteran caddies but specifically he got some help from veteran Tour star and current NBC analyst Paul Azinger on Monday.
“Paul helped me a lot with visual lines off the tee,” Nash said. “Certain tee boxes, it’s easier if you set up on one side of the tee, like on 18, tee up on the left side and it opens up that fairway a little bit.”
As Nash walks the famous fairways this week he’s also reminded of his sentimental connection to TPC Sawgrass.
“I played the video game Tiger Woods all the time growing up and I’d always select Sawgrass to play on it,” Nash said. “It seemed like it was on every version of Tiger Woods. It was one of my favorites.”
And of course he’s pumped but also dreading the chance to hit a tee shot in the caddie challenge on 17 Wednesday.
“The last two shots I’ve hit have been shanks with Lanto’s clubs, so I’m going to take some different clubs out there,” Nash said after hitting practice-round shots on Pebble’s No. 7 and a par 3 at Mayakoba. “Hopefully I can get one airborne and get it on land.”
Martin is also a little nervous about that tee shot.
“I used to play golf all the time (used to play to a plus 3) and still play a little bit, but that shot on 17 is going to be really nerve-wracking I’ll tell you that,” Martin said. “I don’t want to embarrass the heck out of myself.”
Veteran player Keegan Bradley sees that tee shot as a fun moment for loopers, even if some bring their nerves to the tee.
“It’s just really unique for them to be the ones hitting a shot in front of fans for a moment, get them a chance to do something they don’t normally do,” Bradley said.
Who can forget last year when Geno Bonnalie made his Players caddie debut and hit a tee shot on the green after eating what he called the spiciest chip in the world.
“I said if I can hit the green after eating that chip, then there’s no excuse why anyone should ever miss it,” Bonnalie said.
"We're gunna make it, it was touch and go for awhile there." – @GenoBonnalie
— Mackenzie Tour (@PGATOURCanada) March 18, 2019
For Nick Heinen, making his Players caddying debut for Players rookie Matthew Wolff, he’s played hundreds of competitive rounds on the Korn Ferry Tour so that shot on 17 won’t feel too crazy.
But No. 17 has imprinted a special memory for both he and Wolff.
“Watching No. 17, when Rickie [Fowler] stuffed it in a playoff in 2015, we were all at Oklahoma State and I remember we were all watching it together,” Heinen said. “It was pretty cool watching him hit it right then, just throw it in there about five feet and end up winning.”
But hands down the TV moment from The Players that sticks out to most first-time players and caddies is Tiger Woods’, “Better than most,” putt on 17 during his win in 2001.
“I remember watching that putt live like it was yesterday,” Martin said.
But wait a minute, the now 28-year-old was only 9 years old at that time.
“Oh yeah I was,” Martin said confidently, “and I was playing golf at age six.”
Twenty-three-year-old Tour player Collin Morikawa was only four when the Tiger highlight happened, so he’s grown up watching the highlights of Tiger’s putt.
“Even though I didn’t watch it live it’s pretty special to be a part of that championship now,” Morikawa said.
“I look forward to it because that’s who you want to play against, I just love it,” he added. “I’m just going to go out there and have fun. I played there as a junior for the Junior Players about six or seven years ago. So it’s been a while. I don’t remember everything about it, but in the end it’s just another event, so why not try and go out there and win it?”
It certainly feels like a younger player can win the Players now versus 20 years ago when we saw a number of veterans including Hal Sutton, Davis Love III and Fred Funk take the title.
Whereas more recently we’ve seen 21-year-old Si Woo Kim and other young players get the job done against the strongest field of the year.
Speaking of 21-year-olds, Sungjae Im is arguably the hottest player on Tour right now coming off a third-place finish at Bay Hill one week after his first win. And the caddie he’ll have on his bag this week, Kitaek Lee, is making his Players debut.
Lee is only working Bay Hill and The Players for Im, as his main bag is K.J. Choi’s.
The 25-year-old played Sawgrass once in an AJGA event about 10 years ago.
On Wednesday, his quick takeaway about the course was that it’s in great condition and that it’s very soft.
This week is also special for Lee because he went to Arizona State and played on the golf team with Jon Rahm. Rahm, of course, held the 54-hole lead here at Sawgrass last year.
“Jon is one of my best friends and I just went to his wedding,” Lee said. “I love watching him every week, but especially when he’s contending like he was at last year’s Players. I love to watch those highlights.”
There’s a number of key points on the course which he’ll be experiencing for the first time as a caddie in this championship. Any particular approach he and Sungjae will take to No. 17?
“Anywhere on the green,” Lee laughed.
“But when the situation calls for going at it, you better go at it. If it’s a tucked pin and if we’re two or three shots behind, you’ve got to play to win. And it depends. If we just need a par-par to secure the win, you’re supposed to take it left and two putt. So it will depend on the situation. With how good he’s hitting right now, the shots that are tricky right now, he hits a nice high spinning cut on purpose to hold the greens, and he’s able to pull it off.”
For Martin, who played college golf a couple hours away at UCF, walking down 16, 17, and 18 on Monday gave him a good feel of what the finish will be like each day; and the ever-changing swirling winds.
“When I was walking down 16, 17, and 18 the wind was definitely different,” he said. “I remember throwing up grass on 17 and thinking, ‘that wind isn’t familiar to what it’s been all day, especially with the way those stands are.’ The wind bounces off those stands and it swirls, but at the end of the day I’ve got to be decisive and I can’t give my player any reason to question anything I’m saying.”
Heinen says they’re going to enjoy the week and he’s really happy with the way Wolff is playing right now.
Though it’s a new course, Heinen has sought out some pretty solid advice from a caddie who was on the bag for the course-record tying 63 for Brooks Koepka last year.
“I talked to Ricky Elliott Sunday morning (at Bay Hill),” Heinen said. “We had breakfast and I was just picking his brain and asking him how the course was playing relative to the Honda and this week. Obviously we haven’t seen it, but he was telling me how it was playing last year and just giving me a little heads up.”
Heinen’s player — Wolff — is playing his first Players this week and will play his first Masters next month. The young rising star likes the challenge Sawgrass figures to bring this week.
“It’s going to be awesome,” Wolff said. “Obviously it’s a tournament that all the best players in the world are playing and it’s going to be a good test. I’m excited. I’ve played the course one time before in junior golf so I’m not brand new to it but it’s going to be in a little bit different condition than it was back then, but I’m really excited because my game’s coming around.”
For Scottie Scheffler, this will be his first appearance at Sawgrass in the Players but not in total. He also played it in junior golf.
“I think the course is really good. It’s challenging in a different way than what we see out here normally on Tour,” Scheffler said. “I played a junior tournament there a few times, so the conditions will be a lot different. Honestly, I don’t really know what to expect, but I’m really looking forward to it.”
And he’s got Scott McGuiness on his bag, a veteran looper of nearly 20 years.
“That will help me a lot, he’ll know where I need to be out there,”Scheffler said.
Players rookie Max Homa feels the same way about his veteran Joe Greiner.
“It should be a fun week, I’m excited to take my first crack at it,” Homa said.
He says he’s never played the course before this week.
“I’ll listen to Joe and try to hit it as straight and solid as I can, especially on 17 and 18,” Homa smiled.
What will his thought be over the tee shot on the dramatic 17th?
“Hit the green,” the 29-year-old smiled.
Isn’t that a thought that we can all relate to?