The odds of playing on the PGA Tour are longer than John Daly’s backswing.
The odds of caddying on golf’s biggest stage? Longer than a World Series game.
Some of the world’s best players use their longtime buddies on the bag (Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler) and others use their brothers (Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson). That doesn’t leave many open spots for a job that can earn six figures a year – even in a week.
Look at it another way: There are more billionaires in the U.S. than PGA Tour caddies.
But that hasn’t stopped “Shakes” from trying, for most of his adult life.
The 48-year-old Shakes got his biggest taste of the PGA Tour this summer when he caddied for rookie Justin Suh, the former No. 1 amateur in the world who won eight collegiate events at Southern Cal.
Alas, Suh made just one cut in their seven tournaments together. Making matters worse, Suh recently failed to make it past first stage of the Korn Ferry Tour’s q-school.
That left Suh without any status.
And Shakes without a PGA Tour job. But with his hopes still intact.
“I’m not giving up my dream until I reach it, no matter how long that takes,” Shakes said.
Fortunately for Shakes, he continues to be a club caddie at famed Seminole, about to start his 17th season at the Donald Ross gem. Shakes also caddied for 15 years at Oakmont Country Club – his version of PGA Head Professional Bob Ford’s elite double duty – before two years ago moving on to National Golf Links on Long Island for the summers.
Shakes has two of the best club caddie jobs in the business. But it’s not his dream job. Not that he can force his way onto the PGA Tour.
“It’s like it is in any business – it’s who you know,” said Ford, one of the most decorated PGA Professionals in the game.
“Shakes has strengths not only as a caddie, but as a person. He has such a great personality when you’re trying to compete on a golf course. He’s dependable, he’s professional, just a really good person. That’s the guy I would want on my bag.”
Let’s start with Shakes’ real name. It’s Brent Carlson, but virtually nobody knows Shakes as Brent. And we all know how caddies carry around their nickname as well as a 50-pound bag of clubs.
When Shakes started working at National Golf Links, he couldn’t use his nickname on the caddie bib. He had to go with his given name.
“Longtime Seminole members were walking up and asking, ‘Who the hell is Brent?’” Shakes said with a laugh. “People will forget ‘Brent.’ They won’t forget ‘Shakes.’”
Shakes grew up in Atlanta and was introduced to golf by his father, who marshaled at the PGA Tour’s BellSouth Classic. Shakes got as low as a 12 handicap, but never saw a future in the sport. He graduated from high school, went into the service and then got a job at UPS.
Shakes’ world changed when he attended a Christmas party in 1997 with some former high school classmates. A friend who had been caddying at East Lake suggested Shakes call the club and get a job there.
Shakes did just that and was hired by caddie master Jon Migely. It was love at first tote. Why?
“Every day is different,” Shakes said. “You never see the same day twice. A lot of times you wish you did, and other days you’re glad you don’t. I’ve gotten to caddie for some incredible people.”
An early highlight for Shakes was caddying for Jack Nicklaus at East Lake just before the Golden Bear underwent hip-replacement surgery in 1999.
“I got to know East Lake pretty good by then and we’re on the second green,” Shakes said. “I got behind him and read the putt: ‘It breaks about a cup left to right.’
“Jack looks at me and said, ‘Son, I think I’ve done this a few times. You don’t have to worry about reading putts for me.’ ”
On the par-5 15th hole, Nicklaus’ second shot stopped just off the green. When Nicklaus arrived at his ball, Shakes was waiting for him and handed Jack a lob wedge.
“He says, ‘So this is the club I’m using?’” Shakes said. “I said, ‘Yes, sir, you’ve been using it all day and you’ve been pretty good with it.’”
“He proceeded to chip it in for eagle,” Shakes said with a huge laugh.
After five years at East Lake, Shakes was ready for a change. He reached out to Migely, who was now the caddie master at Oakmont, and got a job there.
“I was ready to take a risk,” Shakes said. “And I will tell you that everything I’ve done as a caddie is because of that decision.”
One of the first professionals Shakes met at Oakmont was Pennsylvania native Bob Friend. They hit it off and Friend hired Shakes to be his caddie on the old Nationwide Tour in 2003.
Friend was the one who dubbed Shakes with his sobriquet. Friend called him Shakes the Clown because of his happy-go-lucky personality, but the name took on a different meaning because Shakes wasn’t the best at operating a laser rangefinder during a practice round before a tournament in Richmond.
“I was having trouble getting the yardages because there weren’t reflectors on the pins,” Shakes said. “I shot one hole and told him it’s 220 (to the pin). Bob said that’s not right. He shot it and it was 180.”
Friend picks up the story: “He couldn’t shoot anything that day. We could have been 67 yards away and he couldn’t hit it. I was teasing him pretty hard, calling him a ‘shaky bastard,’ and the next thing you know it kind of stuck.”
A nickname was born: Shakes the caddie.
“And he absolutely loves it,” Friend said.
Friend made up for the moniker when he suggested Shakes get a winter job at Seminole.
“I had never heard of Seminole,” admitted Shakes, who was hired there that fall.
Shakes only worked for Friend for eight weeks. His next notable bag was carrying for Jason Caron during the 2004 Nationwide Tour season.
Caron finished 28th on the money list with almost $180,000 and they capped off their season with a third in the Tour Championship. Shakes made his own statement during the final round on Halloween Day. He showed up dressed as a jockey.
“I learned a great lesson that day,” Shakes said. “From the time Jason first saw me until we walked off the 18th green, he never stopped laughing. We shot 66 that day, lowest round of the day.”
Translation: A relaxed player is a better player.
Besides his nickname, Shakes has one other characteristic that stands out: He doesn’t stand out.
Let’s call him vertically challenged. He’s 5-foot-2 and weighs 125 pounds.
“He gets some razzing from the guys,” Ford said, “but he dishes it right back.”
Shakes embraces his height, or lack thereof. In addition to wearing that jockey outfit, Shakes also dresses up as an elf to play in Seminole’s Christmas Day caddie tournament.
The best Mutt and Jeff moment came when Shakes got to caddie for 6-foot-10 Hall of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson. Their difference in height could be measured in yards – 0.55.
When someone questions whether Shakes can carry around two bags at his diminutive size, he mentions to them, “I was a Marine for four years, field artillery.”
That usually ends any concerns.
Shakes’ big break came at the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont, courtesy of the man who gave him his first two caddie jobs.
Migely had five bags that were available for his top caddies at the national championship, and Shakes had earned one of them. Shakes had a chance to work for a pro, but Migely told him he should take a 19-year-old amateur – Suh.
“I knew Shakes’ dream is to get on the tour, and I thought it would be a good fit,” Migely said. “You have to do what Shakes is doing. You have to get these guys on the ground floor.”
Suh missed the cut, but Shakes remained in touch as Suh completed his college career. When Suh was given a sponsor exemption to this year’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, Shakes made the 2 ½ -hour drive from Seminole to Bay Hill.
That gesture impressed Suh and they soon worked out a deal when he turned pro in May. Their partnership lasted just the seven PGA Tour events as Suh was unable to match the start of fellow college stars Matthew Wolff, Viktor Hovland and Collin Morikawa. Wolff and Morikawa each won soon after turning pro, while Hovland earned his Tour card through the Korn Ferry Tour Finals.
“Justin has all the talent in the world, but he had a wrist injury,” said Shakes, who also caddied for Caron at this year’s PGA Championship. “It just comes down to putting out there, and Justin wasn’t putting great.”
Shakes waits for another chance to work with Suh or anyone else on the PGA Tour.
Friend had no doubt his longtime friend could be caddying on the PGA Tour if he got a version of the member’s bounce.
“The biggest thing going on as a caddie is luck,” said Friend, who now sells real estate. “If you find a guy early in the year, whether it’s a rookie or a Monday qualifier, you’ve got to hope he wins an event and you’ve got your guy.
“I can tell you he’s as professional as any caddie who has ever worked for you. He arrives at the ball ahead of you, he has his numbers and has a great attitude. He knows what to say to get his player going and when to reign him in.”
Shakes knows he must work harder because he doesn’t have the resume of longtime Tour caddies. He’s not a backup plan for anybody.
“I was caddying for Tom Gillis once at the Buick Open and he asked me what was the runout on the left side (of the green),” Shakes said. “I told him I didn’t know. He looks at me and said, ‘What do you have in the yardage book? A bunch of pictures of naked women?’
“I learned a good lesson. When I’m out there and your player has a question, you better have the answer.”
Shakes is fortunate to have his Seminole job as a fallback. Unlike on the PGA Tour, caddying at a top club is guaranteed money.
“It’s nice and all, but just not the same,” he said.
By comparison, Shakes estimates he lost about $12,000 this year chasing his dream. There are obviously other major differences between caddying for a pro than a 36-handicapper.
Shakes will never forget the one day at Oakmont where he learned, on the first tee, his guy was playing his first round of golf. Ever.
“One-hundred-ninety-one strokes later ….”
Shakes has learned the value of patience. Not only with how his amateurs play, but how they act.
“You get a different variety of golfers on a daily basis, some good players, some very bad players,” Shakes said. “What I’ve learned is you’ve got to make the best of what you have in front of you. Every day is not going to be a bed of roses.
“The other thing … it blows my mind how some guys get so upset. When you’re on the tour, every shot counts. But when you’re playing at a club like Seminole or Oakmont, yeah, you want to shoot a good number, but at the end of the day it’s not going to affect you.”
Shakes can do more with his hands than carry a bag. He built the trash receptacles that line the tees at Seminole. He also carves the Seminole logo into pumpkins for Halloween.
“He’s very talented and creative,” Ford said.
After caddying for ESPN announcer Tony Kornheiser at Seminole last year, Shakes gave Kornheiser one of his extra caddie bibs and asked if he would put it on the Statue of Liberty in the background of the “Pardon the Interruption” set. Sure enough, it soon appeared with the Seminole logo for a week, then with “Shakes” facing the camera for another week.
“I got my 15 minutes of fame,” Shakes said.
He’d rather have four-plus hours lugging a bag on the PGA Tour. He has already scripted the perfect ending.
“I would get to caddie at East Lake (home of the PGA Tour Championship),” Shakes said. “Then my career would have gone full circle.”
Just like looping a round of golf.