‘I took a semester break from college in 1997… and have been caddying ever since’
Editor’s note: Throughout 2019, we will have caddies reflect on their respective paths to the highest level of their profession. Here, Damian Lopez — caddie for Michael Thompson — pens his firsthand account of what it took for him to land a bag on the PGA Tour.
I’m 45 years old, born in Odessa, Texas and raised in Midland. I earned Eagle Scout honors as a Boy Scout in 1989 – something most people wouldn’t know – and I’ve been a caddie since a chance happening in 1997.
Here’s how it went down…
At the time, I was working at La Cantera Golf Club – then the site of the PGA Tour’s Texas Open – picking range balls and valeting cars. Back in those days, the Tour played the week before up in Canada, came to Texas, then New York and finally onto Georgia over a four-week stretch. The money wasn’t anything like it is now, so some caddies – rather than drive all the way down to Texas – would skip Texas and go straight to New York.
That meant there were a lot of open bags at the Texas Open. I filled in that week for Howard Twitty. He made the cut and when the tournament was over, I thought, “This is epic!”
To that point, it had been the biggest paycheck of my life. I knew right then I wanted to try this caddying thing out.
I was technically on a semester break from college when all this was happening, so I talked to my dad about spending the next season following the Nike Tour and he was all for it.
My path was simple after caddying the 1997 Texas Open. I asked all the pros that hung around the range how to go about becoming a caddie and one of them suggested I get a rule book and hit the Nike Tour to learn the competitive side of pro golf.
So, that’s what I did.
In 1998, I packed up my little Acura Integra and headed out to the Nike Tour. My first full-time pro job was with Patrick Lee from Oxford, Miss., an All-American at Oklahoma University. I picked him up in Florence, S.C. and rolled with him through the 1998 q-school.
The next season, I started all over again when he failed to qualify.
I cut my teeth on the Nike Tour from 1998-2003 working for different journeymen golfers.
In 1999, I got my first win in the Raleigh Open at Raleigh Country Club with Vance Veazey. It was a solid year and we came close but fell just short of the top 15 on the money list, which is what it took to move up to the “big tour.”
Since that was my second season, it was probably good for me to not have moved up then. In the 2003 Q-School, my player Rich Barcelo – who I had been caddying for the previous two seasons – qualified for the show!
The rest is history. I’ve been able to maintain a player every year since with the exception of 2007 when I spent the season with Chez Reavie, who qualified for the 2008 season. I spent every year picking up rookie bags until one year when I got on with veteran J.J. Henry for a few years and then on to Stuart Appleby for five years and now, currently, Michael Thompson.
So, technically I’m still on that semester break, but I doubt I’ll make it back to class.
Who would have thought that I would have made a career in golf from taking a semester break in college?
My introduction to the game was probably a little different than most others. For me it started just by going to my grandfather’s club in San Angelo, Texas, during summers to collect aluminum cans for recycling.
I was around 8 years old. The course was a nine-holer nicknamed “High Chaparral,” but I think it was really named “Lakewood Golf Club” and it was run by the Pan-American Golf Association.
“Who would have thought that I would have made a career in golf from taking a semester break in college?” — Damian Lopez
My grandfather and I never really played the game together. There was some hitting of balls maybe back then, but mostly my cousin and I riding in golf carts and collecting beer cans from the bins.
There were always golf clubs in the garage, but when my grandpa died in 1986, I didn’t pick up golf until after high school sports had ended. I know how to play the game, but my handicap is high due to lack of practice. I’ll play about a dozen times a year.
I did win the award for highest score in last year’s caddie tournament, though!
To most people on Tour, I’m known as, “D’Lo” – which is obviously just a variation of my first and last name made most famous by Jennifer Lopez, “J’Lo.”
But, to a small, close circle, I’m also known as “The Big Shooter.”
Let me explain…
During the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst, a group of us were sitting in a restaurant bar watching the tournament on the TVs. When the bartender asked what we do for work and we told him we were caddies, he was very excited to hang and pour beers for us.
We were feeling pretty big time.
But then, the bartender disappeared for something like 45 minutes, leaving us all with empty glasses.
When he finally came back, I blurted out, “where you been, big shooter?”
The boys fell off their stools laughing when I said that.
As a result, I get catted all kinds of variations of “shooter.” Everything from “Big Shooter,” to “El Shooter,” and whatever else you can think of with the word “shooter” in it.
So, why the hell did I say that? The only thing I can think of is because “Happy Gilmore” came out around that time and “Shooter McGavin” was fresh on my mind and it just popped out!
You see some interesting stuff on the golf course.
The funniest thing I’ve ever seen actually came from a player I was caddying for at the time.
We were in Lakeland, Fla., for a tournament in 1999. I’d rather not use the player’s name and I think he’d appreciate that. But it was early in the tournament and his ball was resting in a hazard.
He was one of those pop your collar-type guys, so I knew he didn’t want to get his clothes dirty and he was like, “I’m not ruining these good clothes, but I’m not taking a drop either.”
So, down to the boxers he went. I remember thinking, “I’ve seen it all now,” and then Henrik Stenson did the same thing a few years later.
I can’t remember any of the other details since it was so long ago. But, yeah, that gave me a good laugh.
I feel like the Average Joe doesn’t understand how difficult it is to rely solely on another person to earn them money. If a caddie’s player is in a slump, the caddie is in a slump, too!
As a caddie, you can relay information like yardage, wind, air density, or whatever it is the player needs, better than any other soul in the world. But if the player doesn’t do their job and execute the shot or shots, then it’s out of your hands.
“Fear of missing out” has been around in the caddie game a long time. What I mean by that is – even when your player is in a slump – there’s this belief that they’re going to turn the corner soon and start playing at the highest level. More times than not, you spend way too long in the trenches not making money in fear of missing out once you do move on.
When things are tight, you definitely change the restaurants you eat at, the hotels you stay in and more. You live under budget.
This job is so difficult to get in and maintain that you never quit… unless you have another player already lined up. If you do quit, then it must be a situation where your quality of life is suffering – and trust me, it can get to that point without you even knowing it.
My favorite courses on Tour are the old-school courses. I love Torrey Pines South, the whole rotation when we go to Pebble Beach, Riviera, La Quinta Country Club, Colonial Country Club, Quail Hollow (before the all the changes) and Harbour Town, just to name a few.
The biggest thrill I’ve had on the course as a PGA Tour caddie so far came in the 2005 Buick Championship at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell, Conn. I was on the bag for Tjaart van der Walt. After 72 holes, he was tied for the lead with Brad Faxon – a fan-favorite there since Faxon is a New Englander and the tournament is in Connecticut.
Faxon fired an incredible 61 that day to tie the course record (since broken by Jim Furyk’s amazing, PGA Tour-record 58 a few years ago).
During that first hole of the playoff, Faxon hit his drive into the left side fairway bunker exactly as Jerry Kelly had done on the 72nd hole of regulation play. Jerry was only able to manage a shot up near the green left, so I’m thinking if Tjarrt can find the fairway then we’ll have a big advantage!
Tjarrt hit is drive within one foot of his divot from the 72nd hole, so we already knew the yardages and club to use. It was very difficult to stay grounded and not get ahead of ourselves because we had just had the exact same play 10 minutes earlier. That course is an early Pete Dye stadium-style course, so people were lined up on both sides of the fairway and all around the green. It was a pretty amazing circumstance and Faxon, the local hero, was up first.
I’m thinking he’s going to have a tough time getting it to the hole… boy was I wrong! He hit his ball out of that bunker high and it came down so soft, what looked like feet away from the hole, and the entire place erupted in cheers like someone had just scored a touchdown in the Super Bowl. It was electric!
I told Tjarrt to wait until everyone quieted down to hit his shot. He waited patiently and then, when he was ready, he hit his pitching wedge from 134 yards and it never left the flag and then – boom! – it hit the stick making the loudest sound I’ve ever heard, and the fans erupted again. The ball was close so Tjarrt and I blew up the knuckle bump and our feet never touched the ground on the walk up – it was awesome!
As we approached, we could see Brad’s ball was closer. Ours was five feet, so we went first. Tjarrt burned the edge. Moments later, Brad lined up his three-footer for the win, which he didn’t miss.
So, my playoff record is 0-1.
While that’s an on-course highlight I’ll never forget, my overall highlight as a caddie has been the fundraising for charity that the caddies as a whole have done. We’ve been able to raise over $100,000 for the St. Jude Children’s Hospital so far.
Meeting the group in Memphis and having them appreciate what we are doing has been more rewarding in life than anything I’ve done on the course. Giving back feels good!
The thrill of being in the hunt for a championship is what I love most about my job – the roar of the crowds on Sunday. The butterflies in your stomach before the tee time, the energy of all the fans, the excitement of the situation.
“The most difficult part of the job is getting your player to trust himself — and you — when the pressure is on.” — Damian Lopez
When a clutch putt falls in and the stands erupt as a ball flies through the air and you hear and see the reactions of the crowd, there’s nothing like it.
Just recently at Riviera, Michael holed out from the fairway – 98 yards out – for eagle. There couldn’t have been but 30 people around and the place erupted like Augusta. We had a high-five and a chest bump. It was cool.
That’s what excites me about being a caddie.
I’d say the easiest part of my job is keeping the clubs and golf balls clean.
The most difficult part of the job is getting your player to trust himself — and you — when the pressure is on.
Tiger Woods won the Masters the same year I caddied for the first time at the Texas Open, my lone 1997 PGA Tour event before spending a few years on the Nike Tour.
In all those years, though, I’ve only been in a group with him once. It was during a practice round at the Players Championship one year when I was caddying for J.J. Henry. Pat Perez was with us, too.
There was only one camera when we started around first light that morning. By the time we were finishing up, there were probably 500 cameras. It was fun.
Tiger and his caddie have their game plans. I don’t know what that is, all I know is that you must put on blinders because of all those people.
So, that day at TPC, we set off like any other practice round. I was doing my thing to prepare for the tournament and so was Tiger. There wasn’t much conversation between Tiger and me personally, but my player was soaking up as much info as he could. As far as being around him daily, I feel like you would become immune to what’s going on outside that bubble.
He didn’t even notice the cameras, I bet. I did, but only because even I took one picture walking off of a tee box.
Tiger is considered a G.O.A.T. I think in order to be a G.O.A.T. you have to learn how to deal with all situations, which he has done like a gentleman – good or bad situations. I’m stoked that he’s healthy again and playing more.
If I wasn’t a PGA Tour caddie, I would probably be flipping vintage cars or even wrenching on them, or possibly be a bike mechanic.
My hobbies are bicycles and cars. I raced BMX as a kid, so I’ve always had a passion for the bike. I didn’t ride them much in my 20s and 30s but have started again recently and I enjoy finding and restoring BMX bikes that I raced, or wanted to race, back in the 80s.
My 15-year-old nephew, Aydan Lopez, is a BMX racer now on the USABMX national circuit. He’s a Factory LDC team rider. They travel across the U.S. a few times a month to race on weekends.
Just like golf – and all other sports – there’s a final at the end of his season. It’s in Tulsa every Thanksgiving weekend. Aydan got into BMX back in 2010, when my town built a track. So being in our blood, we found the track and here we are nine years later, full circle, from the mid-80s traveling to races and having a great time.
When I’m on the road, I like hunting for cars, bikes and parts now. It’s just a fun hobby. Vintage VWs and all old cars are what I dig. Learning how they work and bringing them back to life is cool.
The interest in cars started with my younger brother. We always like checking out the low-rider paint jobs on these old classics and even though I’m older, he was the one that inspired me to learn more about makes, models, engines and all the working parts of cars and trucks, so I’m a bit of an encyclopedia of cars for some makes.
My current expertise are Volkswagens. I have two of them right now.
Before, I got into all that, meeting new people was what I enjoyed most about being on the road.
As far as fellow caddies go, I probably hang out the most with Scott Sajtinac, Joe Etter and Matt Hauser on the road. We communicate a little when we’re all at home, but it’s minimal – we all value our home lives. When we get back on the road together, it’s like picking up where we left off.
When I’m home, I love spending time with my family grilling, going to the BMX track, working on old VWs and messing with the vintage BMX bikes.
The game of golf has been very good to me so far in my life.
It all started as an 8-year-old kid driving golf carts, collecting aluminum cans for recycling to earn summer money with my cousin at a nine-hole course in nowhere Texas and has taken me to the highest levels of competition.
Golf has afforded me the luxury of seeing and visiting many parts of the globe. I have experienced cultures and countries that I don’t believe I would have been able to without golf. For example, traveling Down Under to the Southern Hemisphere and visiting Australia was an experience that I’ll never forget.
I was able to visit the Sydney Zoo, see the Sydney Opera House, I saw a one-day test match in the Melbourne Cricket Grounds (a sport most Americans know nothing about), and to see how people live their daily lives there, which is not unlike here in the States. It was amazing.
I was able to travel to Scotland and visit not only the Home of Golf, but one of the oldest countries and civilizations in the world. I ate haggis, sipped Scotch whisky and visited ancient ruins.
I was able to see places that I only read about in history books before ditching college. Golf has given me more than I could ever imagine – not only have I been able to make a career, but a lifestyle out of golf.
Golf is a sport that can be played for life and I’m grateful that it has taken me in and made me who I am today.