Editor’s note: This story was initially published the week before the 2018 Ryder Cup in France.
John “Cubbie” Burke started caddying on the PGA Tour in the mid-1980s.
Over the course of that remarkable stretch, Burke had the honor of caddying in four Ryder Cups – two with Brad Faxon (1995, 1997) and two with Davis Love III (2002, 2004).
Unfortunately for Burke, none of those appearances yielded a U.S. victory.
But, it’s OK. He’s got a running joke about it with 2018 European Ryder Cup Captain Thomas Bjorn, who was a member of two of the four European teams that won Cups when Burke was there.
“When Thomas sees me, he calls me ‘O-fer,’” Burke says. “I call him ‘4 & 0,’ because he was part of all four teams that I caddied on.”
Burke is informed that Bjorn was actually only part of two of the Ryder Cup teams (1997, 2002) where Burke caddied and says, “Really? Thomas must have been pulling my chain then when he told me he was on all four of those teams!”
With another Ryder Cup upon us this week, this time in Paris, where the U.S. is attempting to win on European soil for the first time since 1993 – a bloody quarter-century! – we caught up with Burke for some priceless Ryder Cup tales.
WHAT IT WAS LIKE CADDYING IN A RYDER CUP…
“Highest honor in golf,” Burke told TCN. “There’s that ‘us against them’ mentality that always resonated with me because I played team sports growing up and I loved that. You’re out there doing things together. Usually it’s you against them. The environment is off the charts. There’s nothing like it in golf. I never felt the same way down the stretch in a major when my guy was close as I did on the first tee of a Ryder Cup. You’re nervous and anyone who says otherwise is lying. It’s a feeling you have to experience. It’s that special. My first one, Faxon told me I had to slow down. I was walking around like a hockey player that was going to kill someone. But I had fun with both teams. I knew all of them.”
“I’m so grateful to have been to one and I wish every caddie had that opportunity.”
Having been a PGA Tour caddie for nearly four decades, it’s no surprise that caddies are among Burke’s closest friends in life. For that reason, he wishes they could all experience just one Ryder Cup.
“You’re talking to a guy that went 0-4 and I don’t regret it for a second,” Burke said. “I’m so grateful to have been to one and I wish every caddie had that opportunity. There are a lot of guys that deserve it that don’t get the chance. They all work just as hard, but luck was on the other guy’s shoulder. But it’s a special privilege.”
CADDIE INTERACTION WITH THE CAPTAINS…
“The four captains when I was there were Lanny Wadkins (1995), Tom Kite (1997), Curtis Strange (2002) and Hal Sutton (2004),” Burke said. “You have to remember, that in those days, the treatment of caddies was still evolving. Don’t get that twisted – the PGA of America was incredible to the caddies. We were allowed in the team room, but we just didn’t spend much time in there.
“As far as the caddies being involved – there wasn’t a lot of that, but it depended on the captain, really,” Burke added. “There wasn’t a lot of involvement from Lanny or Tom, or Curtis – outside of the usual ball-busting and giving each other shit that we’d do on the range every week anyway… and, shoot, I actually caddied for Curtis in Vegas the week after that tough loss in 2002. I’d have to say that of the four captains, Hal was the best to the caddies. He was really good to us. But again, things have changed. It’s a different perspective, because I’m more of a dinosaur guy. But there’s so many things that make those weeks special. The team aspect – that’s important to me because that camaraderie lasts forever. I mean, you pull for your friends to play well every week, but that’s special. All the captains were good to us, but Hal involved the caddies the most of the four.”
THE 2004 DEBACLE AT OAKLAND HILLS…
In 2004, the U.S. – captained by Hal Sutton – suffered what was then the most lopsided defeat in Ryder Cup history, losing to the Bernhard Langer-led European team, 18 ½-9 ½.
There were a lot of questionable things that happened that week. First, there was that big, black cowboy hat that Sutton wore to the first tee.
Funny story about that – it was actually a caddie gift.
“Yeah, we got Hal that black, cowboy hat,” Burke laughed. “That thing was expensive! Then he wears it to the first tee, the team gets drummed in the matches and Hal just got killed in the media for wearing that hat. Chad Campbell’s caddie, Judd Burkett, was the guy who picked it out. All the caddies pitched in for it, but Judd went and made the purchase. So, it was all Judd’s fault!”
Sutton made a real effort to roll out the red carpet for the caddies, Burke said. So much so, the PGA of America provided the caddies with Cadillac courtesy cars for the week.
“They’ll never do that again,” Burke chuckled. “We were racing them to the course and pulled into our parking spots a little too fast. I don’t think they’ve ever provided courtesy cars to the caddies again at the Ryder Cup and I certainly understand why.”
THE TIGER AND PHIL PAIRING AT OAKLAND HILLS BACKFIRES…
Many will remember that unlike the warm and fuzzies we all get from Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson these days, back in 2004 the “rivalry” was a little more intense. There wasn’t much of a rivalry, per se, because Woods was usually the victor. But they were – and still are – fierce competitors, who respect each other’s games.
But back then, there was just more of a “tunnel-vision” approach for both, something that has softened in the later stages of their respective PGA Tour careers.
That’s why, at the time, eyebrows were raised all over the golf world when Sutton decided it would be a good idea to team the duo up at Oakland Hills in the first two sessions, a move that backfired big time, as they lost both matches, but even worse, gave Europe immense confidence having taken down the world’s top-2 ranked players twice in one day.
“I know what Hal was trying to do there,” Burke said. “It’s like putting Messier and Gretzky together. You’re trying to get two points. It just didn’t work out. That’s all there is to it. As a captain, you’re only as good as your players play on a given day. They were the two best players in the world then and it just wasn’t their day. Nothing more, nothing less. It happens. If it had worked out, Hal’s a genius.”
“I know what Hal was trying to do there,” Burke said. “It’s like putting Messier and Gretzky together. You’re trying to get two points. It just didn’t work out. That’s all there is to it. As a captain, you’re only as good as your players play on a given day.”
Burke was on the first tee with his friend, Billy Harmon, when Woods and Mickelson teed off in Friday morning’s four-ball session.
“Do you remember what happened there?” Burke asked. “Phil’s got first-tee jitters – which happens to everybody at a Ryder Cup — and anyone who says otherwise is lying. Anyway, Phil hits it way out to the right. His coach at the time, Rick Smith, was walking with Phil’s wife, Amy, and we could see Rick motioning to Amy what went wrong with Phil’s swing.
“At that time, Billy was doing a regular instruction piece on Golf Channel. About a week later, I see him on TV and he’s recapping some things from the Ryder Cup, including that opening shot from Phil. He proceeds to motion what went wrong the same way it looked like Rick was explaining it to Amy. Let’s just say there was some wild chuckling as I was watching.”
A HILARIOUS MOMENT WITH MICHAEL JORDAN…
“In 1997 at Valderrama, I’m caddying for Faxon and we’re the second match off on Day 1 with Freddie Couples,” Burke said. “It’s like 7 in the morning over there in Spain. I’m soaking in the first tee experience and I’m looking around. Suddenly, I lock eyes with Michael Jordan, about 3 feet away standing by this partition that looked like a hockey board. I’m getting ready, but I’m nervous.
“Now, remember, we’re talking 1997. This is at the height of MJ. He had just won another NBA title. I had never met him in person. But, like I said, we lock eyes and we have this moment. MJ looks at me and he gives me this awesome fist-pump, the kind you saw all the time when he was dominating on the court, like a, ‘let’s go!’ So, what do I do? I proceed to give back the weakest, lamest fist-pump. A split-second after I did it, I’m thinking to myself, ‘what the f*** was that?!’ It was that embarrassing.
“A few holes later, Fax wants a bottle of water from a cooler,” Burke recalls. “I walk over, and MJ is there again, this time on the back of Tom Kite’s golf cart. MJ’s legs – you know, since they’re about 20 feet long – are in my way. Without missing a beat, I take my hand and I slap him in the legs and say, ‘get your f***ing legs out of the way!’ I had to reestablish my manhood after that lame fist-pump on the first tee! He didn’t laugh!
“Years later, I bumped into MJ and rehashed that story and asked if he remembered. He said he did, and still didn’t laugh!”
PRINCE ANDREW AT VALDERRAMA…
“You never know who you’re going to see at a Ryder Cup, right? There’s MJ, sometimes there are Presidents. It’s crazy,” Burke said. “In 1997, I happen to be walking inside the ropes with Fanny Sunesson, who was caddying for Nick Faldo at the time. Our match was over, so we’re following another match. Somehow, we end up next to Prince Andrew. He says something to Fanny and I’m thinking, ‘Holy shit! The Prince knows Fanny!’
“A couple of seconds later, Europe makes a huge putt and the crowd – including Prince Andrew – starts going nuts. I turned around, looked at Prince Andrew and said, ‘Settle down, Prince!’ Well, that right there broke every monarchy taboo. You had to see their faces. Andrew just laughed and then smiled at me.”
GAMESMANSHIP AND SEVE BALLESTEROS…
The late Seve Ballesteros is a Ryder Cup legend and rightfully so. The flamboyant Spaniard had a knack for finding ways to get under an opponent’s skin.
Burke was able to witness that firsthand at Oak Hill in 1995.
“It was the afternoon four-ball session on Day 1 and Fax is teamed up with Peter Jacobsen against Seve and David Gilford,” Burke said. “We’re playing that little par 3 over the water. Just as Fax is getting ready to hit, Seve does what he was notorious for – he starts clearing his throat while he’s standing right behind Fax. I looked over and I’m going, ‘really?’ and he just acts totally oblivious. But we expected that stuff from him.”
HEARTBREAK AFTER A RYDER CUP LOSS…
Making a Ryder Cup team is the pinnacle for a lot of players. So, it’s no surprise, that a loss can sting.
Sometimes, the player can have trouble letting it go. That’s where the caddie needs to step in for a pep-talk.
“These guys are so focused that it’s not any different from other times – don’t say the wrong thing at the wrong time,” Burke said. “You’ve got to know when to kick them in the ass or cajole them. It’s the normal stuff you do all the time. But during a Ryder Cup, they’re so focused. You have to reiterate what they did to get there. I’ve had to console guys. I’ve had to remind them it’s a competition and you leave it between the ropes. I was there when there was a lot more hate than there should have been. I can remember one where Sergio Garcia was doing snow angels in the fairway after Europe closed out the matches in front of us. That didn’t go over too well with some guys. But I always enjoyed the entertainment level.”
FAVORITES RYDER CUP MEMORIES…
“Shit, there are so many,” Burke said. “I remember at Oak Hill, Fax is playing with Freddie. Freddie chipped in for eagle on 13 and there was this deafening roar.
“Then, at Valderrama, Fax and Freddie are playing together again,” Burke added. “Freddie was playing great and was probably something like 8 under for the match. Fax didn’t have his best stuff, but as is the beauty of match play, it ended up being Fax who made a 10-footer for par to close out that match. Who else would you want putting in that spot, right?”
ENOUGH ALREADY, FAX!…
“Everybody knows what a great putter Brad Faxon is,” Burke said. “So great, in fact, he’s been working with Rory McIlroy this year. I used to have a rule with him: he couldn’t help anyone with their putting in a Ryder Cup year. You know, we’d be hovering around the top-12 on the Ryder Cup list and he’s out there giving other guys putting lessons. Even though I had that rule, he still helped! But that’s just what a great guy Fax is.”
A TALKING TO FROM A FIRST LADY…
If you’ve ever seen Burke without sunglasses, he’s got a good-natured, perma-mischievous look on his face.
No less than First Lady Barbara Bush once took notice.
“This actually happened at a Presidents Cup,” Burke said. “Mrs. Bush took a look at me on the first tee. She had never even met me, but she smiled, pointed her finger and said, ‘you behave yourself out there!’ I loved her for that.”
BIGGEST DIFFERENCES BETWEEN CADDYING IN A RYDER CUP AND A MAJOR…
“There wasn’t any comparison for me,” Burke said. “The most nervous I’ve ever been was on the first tee at the Ryder Cup. The first time. I wasn’t that way the first time at a major or being in the hunt at a major. It’s an animal all to its own. The atmosphere, you can’t compare the two. Not to belittle the majors, they’re awesome. But it’s just different. It’s hard to describe. Somebody who has won a bunch of majors might feel different, but it’s such a privilege and an honor. Golf’s ultimate accomplishment.”
WHAT WILL YOU ALWAYS REMEMBER THE MOST FROM YOUR RYDER CUP EXPERIENCES?…
“When Freddie chipped in on 13 for that eagle at Oak Hill. The magnitude of that roar. It was Freddie being Freddie. It was just fun.
“I don’t have a lot of highlights since we never won, but I’ll never forget Fax always playing his nuts off. And Davis is just such a class act. They all played their hearts out. The event itself is so hard to figure out special moments because the whole thing is so special and beyond description. They take a lot out of you. You get there Monday; the matches don’t start until Friday. Before you know it, it’s over. You have to manage the adrenaline.”
WILL YOU BE GETTING UP EARLY TO WATCH THIS WEEK?
“Is it this week?” Burke asks, facetiously. “Just kidding. I’ll tape it. I ain’t getting up early. I only get up early for Tour tee times. But I will watch a lot of it because I’m home.”