Jimmy Johnson has had a dream job as a PGA Tour caddie.
Make that dream jobs.
Johnson has worked alongside two of the easiest-going players in sports, Hall of Famer Nick Price and 12-time PGA Tour champion Steve Stricker, taking home a combined 13 18th-hole flags with these good guys. Johnson also looped for PGA Tour winners Charles Howell III and Carlos Franco, who hit about 3 practice balls a day – a vacation for most caddies.
But when Stricker was nearing 50 and cutting back on his schedule, Johnson knew he needed to find another bag. A bag of a younger player who could keep the five-figure weekly checks coming and fill the only hole on Johnson’s caddie resume.
A major championship.
Johnson came close with Price – they were fourth in the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship in 1998 – but he had yet to experience the same thrill as many of his close friends and fellow loopers.
“Sometimes you start to have doubts whether you’re going to win a major,” Johnson said. “I had been doing this for a long time.”
Johnson knew how lucky he was to be able to work for low-key guys such as Price and Stricker. He could count on one hand the number of arguments they’ve had over the years.
“I’ve been fortunate to have a job where every day I go to work I have fun,” Johnson said. “I don’t know what it’s like to have a job where I didn’t enjoy going to work.”
But just as the top jockeys need a Kentucky Derby horse every year, Johnson knew he needed to secure a young thoroughbred to keep that smile on his face and the checks coming into his bank account.
Three years ago, Johnson was approached by then-22-year-old Justin Thomas, who had a stellar junior career but had yet to make his mark as a professional. Though Thomas missed the cut that first week together, at the 2015 Travelers Championship, he finished fifth two weeks later and fourth a few weeks later.
A partnership had been formed.
Now came the hard part: Johnson having to tell Stricker he was leaving him.
“I told him, ‘You’d be dumb if you don’t take this job,’” Stricker said. “We’ve had a good run.”
Johnson looked smarter when Thomas won his first PGA Tour title three months later, in Malaysia. Thomas defended that title a year later, and he hasn’t stopped winning.
Thomas won two more events early in the 2016-2017 season, including shooting a 59. But he struggled during the summer and showed up at last year’s PGA Championship at Quail Hollow ranked 14th in the world, having missed three of his last four cuts.
Thomas got off to a rocky start at the PGA, making six bogeys while shooting a 2-over 73. But he bounced back with six birdies in the second round for a 5-under 66 that moved him into seventh place.
Thomas shot 69 in the third round to position himself nicely, tied for third place, just two shots behind leader Kevin Kisner. Both player and caddie had a chance for their first major.
Thomas made a mess of his first hole Sunday, needing to drain a 12-footer for a bogey. But he regrouped with three birdies to move just one back entering the par-5 10th.
It looked for a second – make that almost 10 seconds – that Thomas’ birdie putt at the 10th would hang on the edge of the hole. Then it dropped, player and caddie sharing a high-five afterward.
“That was big,” Johnson said. “If that putt doesn’t fall, who knows what happens?”
At that point, five players were tied for the lead. What happened next was Thomas chipped in at the par-3 13th to take the lead. Thomas still had that lead when they came to the difficult par-3 17th. There wasn’t much conversation on the tee.
“He said, ‘I know it’s a 6-iron, but I’ve got to hit 7-iron because I’m so pumped up,’” Johnson said. Thomas striped the 7-iron to 13 feet and made the putt.
“It was a daunting shot, and he pulled it off,” Johnson said. “That’s the one shot that stood out for me.”
All Thomas had to do from there was play conservatively on 18, where he bogeyed to finish off his two-shot victory. Thomas hugged his parents while Johnson knew he would be taking home his first 18th-hole flag from a major.
“That was huge,” Johnson said. “I’m not going to say my career would have been incomplete without one, but it sure completed it.”
Thomas and Johnson seem to be an odd mix because of their age difference of 36 years (Johnson turned 61 on July 30 and Thomas is 25). It can make for interesting dynamics between the millennial and the baby boomer.
“I’ll say I’m meeting him at the putting green and he’ll say, ‘Word dog,’” Johnson says.
Thomas is an excitable player, prone to emotional outbursts on the course when things aren’t going well. By comparison, Johnson is a flat-liner who relies on few words.
But it works.
“Because I’m older than him, I didn’t want to come across like a know-it all,” Johnson said. “I wanted to be more of a big brother than a father figure. He had a father.
“Justin trusts me. I’ll let him do something if he thinks he can do it. We will talk through it. We have a total understanding with each other.”
As a young player, Thomas knew Johnson’s experience would be invaluable. He just didn’t know how much.
“There aren’t really any situations he hasn’t been in before, and to me that was great because he is going to know the right things to say to me at certain times,” Thomas said. “He’s also such an even-keel person that he’s always keeping me relaxed, too. We just got along.”
Johnson spent 17 years playing professionally in South Africa, so he’s seen the sport from the side of the caddie and the player.
“Jimmy knows exactly when to talk, when to joke, what to say to a player,” Price said last week. “He has so many great traits.
“I spoke to him right after the PGA and he was over the moon. It meant so much to him, especially with Justin because he has helped Justin immensely. Jimmy so deserved this after all those years of persevering.”
The old caddie and the young player continue to win, Sunday’s four-shot victory at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational was their third of the 2017-2018 season and makes Thomas, No. 2 in the latest world rankings, a prime contender at this week’s 100th PGA Championship at Bellerive.
The caddie-player relationship is not always going to be perfect. After another summer struggle that included a missed cut at the British Open, Thomas actually called a “team meeting” last week in an attempt to hit the reset button.
The meeting worked.
So has this player-caddie relationship. They have combined for nine PGA Tour titles, including the PGA and a WGC event.
For how long? That’s always the unasked question in this business.
“I’d like to do this as long as I’m healthy,” Johnson said. “When you see Fluff (Mike Cowan) out there at 70, that’s impressive.”
Johnson isn’t walking away from his latest dream job.