Joel Dahmen, Geno Bonnalie
Joel Dahmen and caddie Geno Bonnalie are in Northern Ireland at Royal Portrush this week for their first Open Championship. Photo: Leinani Shak Photography

Geno Bonnalie gets to experience the unique beauty and charm of links golf and his first ever Open Championship this week at Royal Portrush.

This was an event during the 35-year-old’s younger days in Lewiston, Idaho, where he’d get up at 5:30 a.m. on the west coast and watch golf’s best battling sideways rain on beautiful links courses a continent away.

Rarely in any profession do you get a chance to step back and admire just where you are and the magnitude of the accomplishment, but the former class A teaching pro did during a phone conversation with The Caddie Network this week from his rental home at Portrush.

“This is as big as the Masters to me,” Bonnalie said.

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“I’ve always thought this is just the coolest tournament and style of golf. I love the fans, the tough conditions, I like that your golf ball can end up in weird places, and everything about it.”

Of all the majors he used to watch on TV, where does this one rank?

“This was probably my favorite one to watch,” Bonnalie said. “There’s just something about the Open that’s just special.”

This year marks the 148th edition of golf’s oldest championship. There are just so many traditions that make this week stand out. From the Claret Jug, to the sweeping coastline vistas, and the famous grandstands.

But there was one ‘aha’ moment that stuck out on Monday, Bonnalie’s first day at the course.

“I think on the fifth hole, the back of the green looks over a beautiful beach and you can see up and down the entire coastline,” Bonnalie said. “I stood there for a minute, sent my wife a text and said ‘this place is unbelievable!’”

For a guy from the small town of Lewiston, this is a pretty unbelievable milestone to get to the Open. Only two months ago he had never set foot at the site of a major championship as a fan or caddie.

“It’s not like it’s even work this week,” Bonnalie laughed. “Sometimes you don’t want to be at the golf course as much as you are, but this week it’s a privilege to be out here so I’m really excited and I’m just really lucky to be here.”

Bonnalie and Dahmen took the charter flight from the John Deere Classic on Sunday night after missing the cut two days earlier and arrived at Portrush early afternoon Monday. Bonnalie didn’t sleep on the flight and forced himself to stay up all day. He went straight to the front nine and walked each hole trying to pick up the nuances of where to land approach shots and gather target lines off the tee boxes.

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Portrush’s fairways are running fast so far this week, similar to how Carnoustie did early in the week last year when Terry Walker made his Open Championship debut with his player Andrew Landry.

“It was so firm that you could bounce a ball in the fairway and it would come right back to your hand,” Walker remembered.

Veteran caddie Fluff Cowan told The Caddie Network last year that he could also bounce a ball in the fairway at Royal Liverpool in the 2006 Open Championship, the year Tiger Woods used driver only once and let his shorter clubs run out off the tee.

“The ball is running out really far out here,” Bonnalie said. “Joel is not a particularly long hitter, but with conditions like this he’s getting it out there 340 or 350 on some holes.”

Walker remembers Landry driving into the burn (creek) on the 18th last year (about 400 yards) at Carnoustie during the dry practice days, and then hitting it 100 yards short of there during the rainy first round once conditions flipped.

They’re expected to flip again this year with rain and wind on Thursday and the rest of the week.

“It was a completely different golf course when the rain came,” Walker said of last year’s championship.

For a caddie, that’s a huge challenge to deal with, in addition to it being your first glimpse of links golf.

But Bonnalie isn’t worried. After all, he’s from the Pacific Northwest where rain and wind on the course are common.

And he’s already feeling comfortable with learning the nuances of links golf.

“I understand the basics of it, my golf IQ is pretty good,” Bonnalie said. “Learning this course in particular is going to be key. I’ve got to put in a lot of hours this week and try to figure out what our lines are off the tee, where we can hit it to each pin, spots to avoid, putting in the time to see as many shots out here as possible before we tee it up on Thursday. I just like how many different shots you can play, and the number of places you can hit it to be in position to score.”

On Monday Bonnalie and Dahmen practiced with Nate Lashley for roughly nine holes, Bonnalie anticipated nine on Tuesday and perhaps Wednesday as well.

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The Portrush experience will also include trying to understand the unmistakable Northern Irish accents of locals.

“I have a difficult time understanding them,” Bonnalie laughed.

“Monday on 18, I stood there and looked in the yardage book and gave Joel a target line,” Bonnalie said. “There’s a Rolex clock way out in the distance. I said let’s just hit it there. One of the marshals said, ‘yes, give it a wee flick out towards that clock.’ And I said, ‘yeah Joel give it a flick.’ And he said it sounds simple when you put it like that.”

Understanding the Northern Irish locals extends to nights on the town as well.

“The waitress at dinner Monday told me their specials and I couldn’t tell you one thing she said to me. I just grabbed a chicken and pasta dish near my place.”

But don’t expect Bonnalie to stick to the foods he knows this week. He’s willing to branch out and see what Portrush offers.

Walker on the other hand was vastly disappointed with the food options last year in Scotland.

He wasn’t going to touch haggis.

What American comfort food did he miss the most that week?

“Sonic,” Walker laughed. “I’m very Americanized in that way and I just wanted have that or to sit down and have a really good steak.”

That never happened, but Bonnalie has a different approach.

“That’s really funny (for Terry),” Bonnalie laughed. “I like trying new stuff, I don’t know what I’ll get myself into this week but even if there is a Sonic near here, I can assure you I will not be going there. The food is all part of the experience, I think it’s cool.”

And the beer?

“I’m going to have myself a pint or two of Guinness this week and try some new stuff,” Bonnalie said. “There’s a golf course called the Old Course right across the street from my rental house. They’ve got $10 all you can play golf, all day long. It’s like a par 64. So I imagine I might grab a beer or two in the afternoon of our morning tee time on Friday. I plan to take a wedge and cruise around there and I think that would be pretty fun.”

Story behind the boss’s no-look putt

A conversation with Geno Bonnalie would not be complete if it didn’t include his analysis on his boss’s no-look putt last month at the Travelers Championship.

Bonnalie even tweeted the moment on the 16th at TPC River Highlands.

“He made the 8-footer. It was incredible,” Bonnalie said. “I put my hands in the air because I couldn’t believe that he actually did it. The fact that he tried it for starters, and then he poured it right in the middle. It was pretty awesome and I was impressed.”

Losing a bet

After missing the cut at last week’s John Deere Classic, Bonnalie and Dahmen couldn’t help themselves but get into a competitive match against each other at a course near TPC Deere Run on Saturday.

“I went and donated a couple dollars to Joel,” Bonnalie laughed. “We (casually) played the front nine (at Davenport CC), but for the back nine we each picked three clubs to use. He gave me a half stroke (for nine holes), but only that much because he says he stinks at putting with a wedge. I ended up 2 over and he was 1 over.”