For 48 years and counting, Michael Carrick’s gig as a caddie continues to be ‘one heck of a ride’
There are certain player-caddie partnerships that stand out in golf’s rich history.
Jack Nicklaus-Angelo Argea. Arnold Palmer-Tip Anderson. Gary Player-Alfred “Rabbit” Dyer. Lee Trevino-Herman Mitchell. Tom Watson-Bruce Edwards. Nick Faldo-Fanny Sunesson. Phil Mickelson-Jim “Bones” Mackay. Tiger Woods-Steve Williams (soon to be Tiger-Joe LaCava).
Another should be added to the list, placing them in the top 10: Tom Kite-Michael Carrick.
If the measurements are longevity and success, the Kite-Carrick pairing measures up. They worked together for 21 years and won 16 PGA Tour titles, including the 1992 U.S. Open for the Hall of Famer’s only major.
Heck, in their first week together, when they weren’t even a team, they finished second in the 1978 British Open at St. Andrews.
The Kite-Carrick pairing flew underneath the radar for most of their two decades’ together. Kite was a grinding, no-frills golfer whose tenacity would wear down opponents as much as his talent. Kite didn’t have the charisma or the endorsements to draw attention to himself. Carrick was as soft-spoken as they come, his boss often asking him to become more gregarious on the golf course.
But it worked, and it worked for a long time.
“The main reason it worked is because I got along with Mike really well,” Kite said. “When you spend as much time as we do out on the golf course and at the course practicing, you have to have someone you get along with very well. We very seldom had any disagreements. It was a good relationship.”
It’s been almost as long since they worked together as they did work together – 18 ½ years. It’s easy to see why their pairing isn’t among the first mentioned by golf fans.
“I thought you were dead,” one of the longtime caddies told Carrick. “You don’t look bad for a dead guy.”
At 70, Kite still toils away on the PGA Tour Champions, free to play as long as he wants because he’s a Hall of Famer.
Caddies don’t have that safety net underneath them. They can be gone faster than a Nick Price swing.
When Kite told Carrick after a round in 2001 that their relationship was over, Carrick was shocked. But life moves on quickly on the PGA Tour, so Carrick had no choice but to move on, as well.
Carrick has quietly (that word again) carved out a fine second chapter as a caddie, winning three more PGA Tour events with Jonathan Byrd, Mark Hensby and J.B. Holmes.
“I need one more to get to 20 so I will have a lifetime membership,” Carrick joked recently.
If a player wins 20 PGA Tour titles, he’s given a lifetime membership; not so for caddies.
At 73, Carrick returned to caddying on the PGA Tour this fall, when rookie Harry Higgs advanced from the Korn Ferry Tour. The post-Kite career has been a strange odyssey for Carrick, filled with jobs with dozens of players on three different tours.
Carrick admits it was a little strange when he recently returned to the PGA Tour, especially when he ran into old friends he hadn’t seen in years.
“I thought you were dead,” one of the longtime caddies told Carrick. “You don’t look bad for a dead guy.”
That made Carrick chuckle.
Michael Carrick — he prefers Michael over Mike — grew up in Canada, earned a degree and was a P.E. teacher for two years. He had played golf as a kid and caddied while in college, so he thought this might be an option.
He didn’t want a 9-to-5 weekday job. Caddying is the opposite of a 9-to-5 weekday job.
You’re up before sunrise, on the range until dark. You have an early tee time or a late tee time. You may have the weekend off, your player may go into a slump. There may be weather delays.
And you’ll get to travel, enjoying the sights and joys of sleeping with four other caddies in a cramped hotel room, hoping you don’t lose your job.
Heaven, in other words.
“I like the things that everyone else considers bad about the job,” Carrick said. “I like traveling and living out of a suitcase. I like the uncertainty, too. It’s nice not knowing what’s going to happen from week to week. I did it for a year, planning on coming back to teaching.”
Carrick’s first player was Jay Dolan in 1971. It didn’t last long; neither did Dolan’s pro career.
After visiting a relative for Christmas, Carrick hitchhiked from Miami to Houston and took a cheap flight to Los Angeles, looking for a bag.
“I think I may have had 10 bucks in my pocket,” Carrick said.
He found some early work on the West Coast, then was hired by veteran Dave Eichelberger. They worked together for five years. Carrick then looped for Leonard Thompson before he started caddying for Steve Melnyk.
“Steve was a great guy,” said Carrick, “who could never match his amateur success.”
While caddying for Melnyk, Carrick wanted to work the 1978 British Open. Melnyk wasn’t in the field. Kite’s caddie didn’t travel overseas, so a deal was struck.
In their first pairing together, Kite had his best finish in a major – tying for second with college teammate Ben Crenshaw, Raymond Floyd and Simon Owen, two shots behind champion Jack Nicklaus.
Despite the runner-up finish, player and caddie went back to their “significant others.” Carrick moved on to Lon Hinkle, and thought they would last a while after Hinkle finished third in the 1980 U.S. Open.
“Two weeks later, Lon told me he decided to make a change,” Carrick said. “He had a family member who was going to caddie for him at the British.”
Carrick reached out to Kite to see if he could caddie for him again at the British, and they agreed. But when Carrick showed up in England, he got concerned when he saw Kite’s regular caddie, Dennis “Disco” Turning, at the course.
After caddying for Kite in the first two rounds, Carrick was told to go to a hotel room with Tom’s wife and his parents while Kite met with Turning. “When Tom came into the room, he smiled and said, ‘Welcome to the team,’” Carrick said.
Kite had only won two PGA Tour titles at the time — though he had four top-five finishes in majors — but Carrick knew one thing: This was a major step up in class over Eichelberger, Melnyk and Hinkle.
“It was pretty neat to know I was going to caddie for a really good player,” Carrick said, “not realizing he was going to be that good and we would be together that long. I was just in the right place at the right time.”
Now that he had a golden job, he had to keep it. Carrick said Kite told him what he expected.
“One thing he said is, ‘Mike there’s going to be times on the course where I will blame you instead of myself. Don’t take it personally. I don’t want to blame myself,’” Carrick said.
“I understood it. He was a pretty demanding guy.”
They won a tournament in each of their first seven years together in the early 1980s. Big ones, too – Honda, Bay Hill, Pebble Beach, Doral, the Players.
So much for being a P.E. teacher.
At the Players, Kite had a two-shot lead when his approach at 18 left him with a 60-foot birdie putt. Chip Beck, who was two shots back, was only 15 feet away.
“I told Mike walking up to the green that I figured Chip is going to make his putt,” Kite said. “He said, ‘Who cares? You’re going to two-putt and it won’t matter.’ It was a nice reassurance from Mike. If I took care of my business, I would win.”
Carrick, was living the dream life, making big paydays and observing golf history. What we wouldn’t have done to watch legendary instructor Harvey Penick give Kite a lesson at Austin Country Club like Carrick had a chance to do?
“Harvey would never let Tom or Ben (Crenshaw) watch when he was giving the other player a lesson,” Carrick said. “Harvey used to say he had to fight to get Ben to the practice tee and Tom to the course.”
Kite and Carrick won 14 times during their first 11 years and Kite qualified for five Ryder Cups. Kite had turned into golf’s ATM – he won a pair of money titles and was the first player to reach $6 million, $7 million, $8 million and $9 million in career earnings, great news for the caddie.
They had done everything but win a major. Kite had come close, with 18 top-10 finishes.
Carrick knew why: “Tom used to put so much pressure on himself at a major to win. He would hit so may balls early in the week and play a bunch of practice rounds, he would be tired before the tournament even began. He wanted it too much.”
In 1992, Carrick sensed a change, when Kite had a solid top-10 finish at Memorial despite having to endure several rain delays. Kite seemed to be in a good place headed to the U.S. Open at one of his favorite courses, Pebble Beach.
“That Sunday night at Memorial, Tom said that if he can stay this patient, ‘I think we’ll have a good chance in two weeks,’” Carrick said.
Kite was prophetic. He shot a 70 in difficult conditions in the third round to move within one shot of Gil Morgan’s lead entering the final round of the U.S. Open. Better yet, the wind was howling off the Pacific Ocean that Sunday.
“He kept saying that he needed a cheerleader on the course. By nature, I’m not a real talkative guy. I would try to encourage him, but I was never a rah-rah guy. He said, ‘If you don’t talk more, I’m going to fire you.’” — Michael Carrick on Tom Kite
“We knew we had gotten what we wanted,” Carrick said, “because Tom is such a great wind player.”
Kite birdied the first hole, but gave two shots back with a double at the par-4 fourth. Carrick is convinced the day’s most important moment came when Kite made a long par try on the fifth hole.
“I think if he misses that and we make another double, it would have been over,” Carrick said.
Kite instead birdied the par-5 sixth hole, then hit the shot everybody remembers. His approach on the par-3 sixth hole went left and he was faced with a chip into a 40-mph wind.
Kite holed it, and never led by less than three until Jeff Sluman birdied the final hole. Kite said it wasn’t just that chip that won it for him.
“That whole day was key shots. There were so many ups and downs throughout that day, there’s no way you can attribute that win to one shot,” Kite said. “Mike did a really good job of making me stay in the moment and not get ahead of myself.”
Said Carrick: “It was just a magical week. He had come close so many times and he really wanted it badly. I’m sure in his own mind, he was thinking, ‘I may never win a major.’ And for it to finally happen on one of his favorite golf courses …”
Kite won twice more the next year with Carrick, but the 1993 Los Angeles Open was the last of their 16 tour wins together. At 44, Kite was in no-man’s land – too old to compete against the guys who hit it 50 yards past him on the PGA Tour, and too young to play on the PGA Tour Champions.
Carrick’s dream job was growing stale, especially as Kite neared 50.
“The last year or two years on the regular tour, Tom had lost a lot of confidence and he was putting poorly,” Carrick said. “He kept saying that he needed a cheerleader on the course. By nature, I’m not a real talkative guy. I would try to encourage him, but I was never a rah-rah guy. He said, ‘If you don’t talk more, I’m going to fire you.’”
Kite’s 50th birthday brought a temporary reprieve. Kite won twice as a rookie on the PGA Tour Champions, including a major, and finished in the top 10 in half of his 18 starts.
The next year, when Kite was defending his title in the Tradition, he took a bathroom break during the final round. When he returned, he asked Carrick what club a playing partner had just hit.
Mike blanked out. “About five seconds later, I told him a 9-iron,” Carrick said. “The rest of the round wasn’t too positive.”
Neither was the post-round meeting.
“Tom said we need to talk,” Carrick said. “He said we’re just not a good team anymore and you’re not helping me.
“It was a shocker. We had been through some rough patches, but to have that happen, I wasn’t expecting it.”
Kite has a more philosophical look at their breakup.
“Most guys don’t last 21 weeks or 21 days,” Kite said. “The time was right. I was playing primarily on the Champions Tour and Mike always enjoyed the PGA Tour more. Once you’ve been in the big leagues, it’s hard to go down.
“After 21 years, we probably had gotten a little routine, if you will, kind of going through the motions.”
There are no going-away parties for caddies. When you’re gone, you’re gone. It can happen in a minute and last a lifetime.
For the first time in more than 20 years, Carrick didn’t have to worry about getting a phone call from Tom Kite.
Carrick spent some of his free time writing a book “Caddie Sense: Revelations of a PGA Tour Caddie on Playing Golf” he co-authored with Steve Duno. It wasn’t close to a tell-all – Carrick would never do that.
It was more a book on the history of caddying and how a caddie helps a player of any skill level during a round.
Carrick also had been active as the president for the Tour Players Caddies Association since he started working for Kite. Carrick had been around when caddies received substandard treatment by the tour and their tournaments and knew they needed a collective voice to engage change.
“People always had a negative image of caddies. They think caddies are illiterate and a lower class of people,” Carrick said. “Fortunately, we’ve been able to change that image and the tournaments treat us much better.”
The association did things such as secure bloc hotel rooms for caddies as well as guest badges. It was not a union – the financial deals were left to player and caddie.
Still, Carrick had to find another day job post-Kite. In late-2001, Carrick hooked up with Jonathan Byrd and they won a tournament together (2002 Buick Challenge) before Byrd wanted to have “one of those talks.”
Carrick was hired by Australian Mark Hensby, and they won their first tournament together (2004 John Deere Classic). Hensby finished 15th on the money list in 2004 with Carrick on his bag. That partnership ended when Hensby’s game went south.
Carrick got another break in 2005 when an agent let him know of a player at q-school who needed a bag. “He hits it 320 with a fade,” the agent told him.
The agent wasn’t lying; the player was J.B. Holmes, who Carrick guided through all three stages of q-school. Two months later, Holmes won his first PGA Tour title (2006 Phoenix Open) in just his fifth start as a pro. By seven shots.
Holmes eventually let Carrick go because he wanted his childhood friend, Brandon Parsons, to caddie for him. For the first time in 35 years — outside of Kite’s brief foray on the 50-and-older tour — Carrick was no longer working on the PGA Tour.
Carrick found jobs on the Web.com Tour. He reunited with Hensby. He worked for Gavin Coles twice. He went to the LPGA Tour and worked there for 4 ½ years for several players.
When asked the biggest difference between the PGA Tour and the LPGA Tour, Carrick laughed and said, “The scenery.”
A few years ago, Carrick came back to his Jacksonville home and took his first long extended break from caddying. He watched a close friend die. (Carrick was married for nine years, but is divorced and has no children.)
Carrick wondered if he would get back to the PGA Tour. He got another call this summer from a friend telling him he needed to caddie for a kid from Dallas on the Korn Ferry Tour. A guy named Harry Higgs.
Carrick gave it a shot. They spent the rest of the year together and Higgs won an event to finish fifth on this year’s Korn Ferry Tour money list. That earned Higgs — and Carrick – a spot on the PGA Tour. Carrick was back in the big leagues.
“It’s almost by accident I found my way out there again,” Carrick said.
Their tenure won’t be over soon. Higgs finished runner-up to Brendan Todd at last month’s Bermuda Championship to earn Higgs $327,000, with Carrick’s take $22,890.
Not bad change for a 73-year-old.
Not a bad career, either. Only Pete Bender and Mike “Fluff” Cowan have been caddying on the PGA Tour longer than Michael Carrick.
That one year turned into 48. And counting.
“I never say I want to caddie for five more years or anything like that,” Carrick said. “I want to caddie as long as I enjoy it and as long as I’m healthy. I can say that is still the case.
“It’s been a heck of a ride.”