Geno Bonnalie
Geno Bonnalie (right) played junior golf with Joel Dahmen. The two are best friends and Bonnalie has now been caddying for Dahmen on professional tours for five years. Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s note: Throughout 2019, we will have caddies reflect on their respective paths to the highest level of their profession. Here, Geno Bonnalie — caddie for Joel Dahmen — pens his firsthand account of what it took for him to land a bag on the PGA Tour.

Growing up in Lewiston, Idaho, Joel Dahmen was always that kid everyone knew. I don’t remember actually meeting him for the first time, but I can vividly recall how our friendship began.

Back when I was about 15 years old, I really wanted to play in this two-man, best-ball tournament about an hour from where we lived. It was a big deal to me and I was hoping that Joel, who was about 12 or 13 at the time, would be my partner. I had my mom call his mom and we set it up for the two of us to be teammates.

After Saturday’s round, everyone in the field went out and played a “horserace” skins game where each team played alternate shot. If there was a skin earned on a hole, each player had to pay the winning team $10 a man. There were probably around 30 guys playing in this and carryovers counted.

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The first couple of holes were halved, but we made the lone birdie on the par-3, third hole, meaning everyone owed us $30.

We were rich!

And then on Nos. 7 and 8, we made back-to-back eagles and had earned so much money we didn’t know what to do with ourselves. Now as an adult when I think back to how much we should have won with the format we were playing, I’m positive guys didn’t pay up.

Someone still owes us some money.

Joel Dahmen, Geno Bonnalie
That time Joel Dahmen and Geno Bonnalie wore Waffle House hats in the final round of a Web.com Tour event.

From that point on, Joel and I have been best buddies. We’re a little older now — I’m 34 and Joel is 31 — but in a way, we’re still like those teenagers from 20 years ago.

This is the start of my fifth season caddying for Joel with two of those being on the Web.com Tour and this being the start of our third year on the PGA Tour. Last season was a big breakthrough as Joel had 11, top-25 finishes and ended the season 80th in the FedEx Cup standings.

Although we knew each other as kids, Joel went off to the University of Washington and charted his own path as a Tour pro while I went to the University of Idaho with plans of becoming a PGA Professional, working at a golf course. Truthfully, I never thought about anything else. I was obsessed with golf and although I was a pretty good player, I knew I couldn’t compete with some of the local kids like Joel and Alex Prugh.

Joel Dahmen
Joel Dahmen is coming off a career-best year on the PGA Tour, where he finished 80th in the FedExCup standings. Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

I thought that if I couldn’t play for a living, then I should at least work at a course.

I was in the first PGA Golf Management Program at the school and set out to become a “Class A” professional upon graduating. In order to become a professional, you must complete 16 months of internships in addition to finishing extensive book work and a Player Ability Test. During my final couple months of internships, I started to doubt whether or not being a Club Pro is what I wanted to do. I went on to complete the program as well as earn my B.S. in Business/Marketing.

A member at Sahalee Country Club out in Sammamish, Wash., one of the courses I interned at, offered me a job at a staffing and recruiting company in Seattle. I took it and left behind the idea of being a club professional. The PGA of America has a rule that you must be employed at an accredited golf facility a certain amount of time after graduation, or else you must start from scratch and go through the program again. Even though I had put in all of that effort, it just wasn’t what I wanted to do.

It wouldn’t be the end of my time in the golf industry, though.

While I had been working as a Purchasing and Logistics guy, Joel was grinding as a professional golfer. We kept in touch and I followed his career as he kept climbing through the ranks. He reached the Mackenzie Tour in 2010, and was the leading money winner in 2014, a feat that earned him a spot in the Canadian Open. He played pretty well that week, making the cut and finishing 53rd.

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Following that tournament, I knew for sure that I wanted to caddie for him. I waited until the end of the season when he officially finished first on the Order of Merit in 2014 to send him this e-mail:

Hey buddy,

I’ve had this typed for some time but I was waiting until you OFFICIALLY locked up that #1 spot. First off, I want to tell you how proud of you I am. I’ve believed since you were a little tike at Clarkston that you were going to make the Big Time. Not only do I think you’re going to make the big time. I truly believe you will be one of the best players in the World.

That being said, I would like to officially apply for the position of “Joel Dahmen’s Caddie” for the Web.com & PGA TOUR. I have been thinking about this for a long time, and I don’t want to put any pressure on you to hire me, I just want to explain why I would be a good fit for the job and let you decide. I just want what is best for you and I truly believe that you and I would thrive together.

First off, I want to tell you that Holly and I are comfortable financially and we would not rely on you winning in order to live. I don’t want you to have any additional weight on your shoulders of you thinking you have to perform so I can eat. This is a job and I understand there may be weeks without any revenue.

Last time we spoke you said something along the lines of “it’s not as fun as you think it is”… I don’t think you realize how much I love golf, everything about it. It literally consumes my thoughts. I promise you that no one would work harder than I would. I will be at the course earlier than everyone, I will be a charting/documenting machine. I feel like you and I have the type of relationship where this would be a good fit. You are one of my best friends, and I feel like I can express my opinions and concerns to you without having it affect us personally (not that we would have any issues… just saying). I also understand that you need alone time and time to spend with your friends on Tour. I do not plan on spending every waking second with you, but we will definitely have our time to celebrate after successful tournaments.

You and I also talked about how caddying full-time on the Web.com tour may not be a viable option… I think I could make it work. I know Bob is going to caddie in Mexico/South America, but when you return to the U.S., I would like you to consider me being your guy. I already have a plan to get rid of my truck and buy a Honda Civic and modify it to be my house. I have also looked at the schedule and know that there are some weeks where it is over 1,000 miles to the next location. That’s okay. That’s only 16 hours & $125 in gas… easy. I know there would be a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in my future, but I have a way of surviving on nothing. I made it through college, J. If you would prefer that I only attend a couple events, that’s fine too. But I think it’d be best for our partnership if I were to be able to learn your game and how you like to practice, and learn the courses as much as I can. 

The hardest part for me will be being away from Hudson. I’m not going to lie, it’s going to be tough. Holly’s mom has already talked about getting a place in Lewiston and helping out with him if needed. On the plus side, in our off times I would get to spend quite a bit of time at home.

I do have some requirements from you though if you do consider me for this:

  • I expect you to give it 100% every week
  • Never give up
  • Be completely honest with me at all times

Again, I don’t want you to feel like you have to hire me. I want you to hire me because you think I will be the best person for the job. If you think someone else will do better and be a better fit… great. As long as you are successful, happy and come home to play golf with me every once in a while, I will be a happy camper.

I love you, and I am so proud of you!

WOOOOO!

He soon said yes, and that was the start of our professional relationship as player and caddie. Joel had earned his way to the Web.com Tour by virtue of his play on the Mackenzie Tour, and we’ve grown together over the past five years.

Perhaps the greatest moment I’ve had as a caddie came back in 2016.

We came into the final Web.com Tour event of the season ranked No. 22 on the money list and knowing a made cut would solidify our PGA Tour card, while a missed cut would almost certainly mean we would have to go through the Web.com Tour Playoffs to earn one. There was so much pressure those two days and unfortunately, it was not our week.

READ: A year later, caddies recall the terrifying moments after receiving ‘incoming ballistic missile’ alert at Sony Open… which turned out to be a false alarm

However, the guys who were behind us on the money list from Nos. 23-29 all missed the cut as well. While that helped, we were still not optimistic about earning our card. My wife and I made the drive home to Lewiston on Sunday morning as we watched our projection move from No. 25 to 27, back and forth with the completion of every hole. It came down to what two guys did on the final hole (Xander Schauffele, and Jack Maguire). If either made birdie on the par 5, we could lose our card to them.

Ultimately they both made par, I freaked out, and here we are starting our third year on the PGA Tour. Golf is a crazy game.

Caddying for Joel is an amazing gig. He’s super easy to get along with and doesn’t spend forever hitting balls in 100-degree heat, which I really appreciate.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a tough job with plenty of struggles. The hardest part, as I indicated in my email to Joel, is leaving behind my wife Holly and 5-year-old son Hudson, although the weeks when I am home are great because we get to spend a ton of time together. We still live in Lewiston, Idaho, which makes for some intense travel to tournaments.

Typically, I pick up a one-way rental car every Sunday evening, set my alarm for 1 a.m. on Monday morning, drive two hours to Spokane, Wash., catch the 5 a.m. flight to Denver, and from there I can generally get to my destination by Monday afternoon/evening.

Geno Bonnalie
Geno Bonnalie with wife, Holly, and their son, Hudson.

If there’s one thing people don’t fully understand about caddying, it’s the sacrifices their families have to make along the way. From my wife to her parents to my parents, a lot of people have been instrumental in me being able to do what I do. From using their airline miles to buy me flights, to sometimes driving two hours each way to drop me off at the airport (because leaving a car at the airport is too expensive), to running a household and taking care of a baby while I’m on the road 25+ weeks a year, they have always been the ones making this possible. Without them, I’d still be sitting behind a computer complaining about wearing a tie.

I think some people believe caddies just pack a bag around and cash checks. There’s a lot more to it than that. A caddie has to wear a lot of hats and have thick skin. Golf is a very cyclical game and no matter who you are, you experience highs and lows. It’s always difficult watching your guy struggle. As a caddie, you do everything you can to help, but sometimes it’s just not there. Those are the times that test you as a player and as a caddie.

READ: From Tour player to revered caddie – the story of ‘Last Call Lance’

Luckily, Joel and I are able to keep things light amidst all the pressure.

One great example of that was at the Canadian Open this past season. We were on the 11th tee on Saturday and playing really well. Joel has this little move he does right before he takes the club back, and the second he made that move, the ball fell off the tee. He stood there for a few seconds and starred at it without moving, club still behind the ball. I don’t know what came over me, but I ran in like a ball-boy at Wimbledon and put the ball back on the tee, then quickly ran out of the way. I surely thought Joel would start his routine over, but nope… he took it back and shipped it down the fairway. Everyone around the tee box had a good laugh.

Another amazing part of being a caddie is taking in the atmosphere of a tournament. We were paired with Tiger on Saturday of the Quicken Loans Championship and it was awesome. I’m in that age group where Tiger was my idol from the day he turned pro. That day was as good as it could have possibly been. Tiger was friendly, engaging and playing well. Joel and Tiger both birdied the fourth hole and when Tiger’s went in, the place exploded.

When Joel rolled in his 30 seconds later, no one even noticed. We didn’t care, though, as we were in awe just as much as the gallery. Tiger then went on to birdie 5-6-7 and by the time his putt went in on No. 7, I was fist pumping and screaming like an 8-year-old kid.

Joel Dahmen, Tiger Woods
Joel Dahmen (L) and Tiger Woods (R), talk while walking to the sixth tee during the third round of The National at TPC Potomac at Avenel Farm. Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Beyond the golf, the best part about being on the road is the food. We get to go to some really cool spots around the country, and I love trying new things. Aaron Flener (J.T. Poston’s caddie) and I make it a point to eat Indian food in each city we go to. We love it.

I generally room with Aaron or Dave Stone (Ben Silverman’s caddie), but I can’t seem to drag those two out to the course to play. I probably play the most golf with J.J. Jakovac (Ryan Moore’s caddie). J.J. is really good and pretty much takes my money every time we tee it up. Every couple of weeks or so, I get to sneak away and tee it up on a random afternoon. I still love to compete in amateur events, so it’s nice to have the opportunity to play some on the road. I qualified for the U.S. Mid-Amateur last year (with Joel caddying for me) and I have finished in the top-5 of the Idaho State Amateur four times.

Maybe my most interesting golf accomplishment is that I hold the Guinness World Records for the most number of holes played in one week (2,000) and the most number of birdies (493) in one week as well. The records came about because I did a fundraiser for my wife’s little cousin who has a rare disease called Cystinosis. I was able to raise $15,000 for the cause as I spent one week playing as much golf as possible. I did use a golf cart, but there were no gimmes, the course had to be at least 6,000 yards long and two independent scorers were with me at all times. Everything was 100 percent by the rules.

 

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Did you know that @pgatour caddie @genobonnalie owns THREE @guinnessworldrecords? 😮

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Here are some of the fun stats from that week:

  • Fastest round: 41 minutes
  • Slowest round: 71 minutes
  • Average round: 53.12 minutes
  • Day 1 holes played: 324; Birdies made: 84
  • Day 2 holes played: 288; Birdies made: 82
  • Day 3 holes played: 288; Birdies made: 59
  • Day 4 holes played: 288; Birdies made: 67
  • Day 5 holes played: 306; Birdies made: 81
  • Day 6 holes played: 288; Birdies made: 70
  • Day 7 holes played: 218; Birdies made: 50
  • Lowest score: 64
  • Highest score: 87
  • Most common score: 72 (15 times)

For all of the joy I get out of playing, caddying for Joel is something even greater. A lot of people ask me what I would do if I wasn’t a caddie, and if I were to choose, I think I might want to be a carpenter. My wife and I recently bought a new home and I really enjoy doing projects like putting in new floors, tiling bathrooms and building random stuff. I love all of it, except painting. I would subcontract that out.

That will have to wait for another day, though. For now, I am living the life on the bag with Joel, reveling in that same feeling I had when we were kids.