Longtime PGA Tour caddie Piddler Martin has sights set on Kentucky Derby
EDITOR’S NOTE: The 2020 Kentucky Derby was rescheduled to September 5, 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This story was published in February 2020.
Having been a PGA Tour caddie for more than 20 years, Greg “Piddler” Martin is used to having some strange conversations.
But nothing prepared him for the day in 2007 when his wife, Kathleen Sands Martin, had news for him when he returned home from the tour.
“Sweetheart, we’re in the horse racing business,” she said.
Piddler, as he has long been known on the Tour, looked as if he just shown up two hours late for his player’s tee time. Which, by the way, would be living up to his nickname.
“You’ve got to be nuts,” Piddler said. “Jesus, horse racing? We just bought a house!”
Kathleen was non-deterred — it’s obvious who calls the shots in this family — as she calmly told her husband she had taken $20,000 out of her 401k and invested it into a horse share-ownership program at Sackatoga Stables. She had seen an ad in the local newspaper and thought it was worth a shot.
“He looked at me a little funny,” Kathleen said. “I just thought, ‘Why not? I thought it would a great experience. I never went into it thinking I would make money.”
Nor did she think they would have a chance – make that two chances – to win the Kentucky Derby. But longshots happen in horse racing, especially for those with faith.
First thing is the nickname. How did Greg Martin become Piddler? We know all old-school caddies have nicknames. How did Martin get his?
“We were in Boston getting ready to go see a Red Sox game, and I was with Bruce Edwards and some other caddies,” Martin said. “I’m a little slow – it takes me 90 minutes to watch an hour-long show. Finally, Bruce said, ‘Stop piddling around.’”
A nickname was born. Greg Martin became forever known as Piddler. Or “Pidds.”
Piddler wasn’t in a hurry to get into the caddie business when he graduated from the University of Portland. He got a marketing job, but was lured into the sport when he started dating Ginny Burkey, who had aspirations to play on the LPGA Tour. Piddler bought a video camera to record her swing and he also caddied for her.
The relationship didn’t last long, but at least Piddler left with the camera. He had an idea: He would go to the pro-am before LPGA tournaments and offer amateur partners lucky enough to get paired with stars Nancy Lopez and Jan Stephenson a chance to have their round recorded on camera.
“Everybody wanted to play with Nancy and Jan, and they all wanted to have a videotape on playing their round with them,” Piddler said.
Piddler soon crossed over to the PGA Tour where he made a deal with Fuzzy Zoeller and started filming his amateur partners during pro-ams.
“Fuzzy is such a great guy, people would pay $600 for me to tape their round,” Piddler said.
Piddler’s days as Martin Scorsese came to a quick end, however, when he was robbed in New Orleans and his camera was stolen. He had to find another line of work.
He stayed in the sport and lined up his first caddie job on the PGA Tour, working for Joe Inman. It was a brief partnership. Piddler’s life changed when a young pro named Dan Forsman hired him in early 1986.
“I knew Greg had a good reputation, and he had expressed interest in working for me,” Forsman said. “I had used a lot of local caddies until then because I had a sponsor and I needed to cut costs. We talked at Pebble Beach and I took the next two weeks off and our first tournament together was at Bay Hill.”
As fate would have it, Forsman had a chance to win at Arnold Palmer’s winter home. Because of weather issues, Forsman played 36 holes Sunday in the final group with Raymond Floyd and Roger Maltbie.
Forsman birdied the 15th hole (the 33rd of the day) to take a one-shot lead and finished with three pars to win by a shot over Floyd and Mike Hulburt for his second PGA Tour win.
“What can you say after a start like that?” Forsman said. “We ended up working together for more than 20 years.”
Forsman won four PGA Tour titles with Piddler and added two more victories together on the PGA Tour Champions. Their personalities were not similar at all, but they had a unique chemistry.
“Greg is really bright, really intelligent,” Forsman said. “And he was timely – he knew when to speak and when not to. He loved what he did, he had a real passion for the game. He was an optimist in many respects. He always saw the good side of life and in people.”
What about the nickname? Was Piddler and his deliberate ways tough to work with?
“Greg is very detail-oriented,” Forsman said. “He wants everything done just right. He’s not a guy who just wings it. He’s very consciousness. Sometimes, you’re like, ‘Let’s go, Piddler.’”
Piddler also won two PGA Tour titles working with Mark Calcavecchia in the late-1990s. Calcavecchia preferred to switch caddies, so he hired Piddler when Forsman took a week off.
“I just liked his personality,” Calcavecchia said. “He always had a smile and liked to laugh a lot. He made you feel good about yourself. I’m pretty easy to caddie for. I’m not like (Phil) Mickelson, who wants to have a five-minute conversation with Bones (former caddie Jim Mackay) on which wedge to hit.”
Calcavecchia did his own yardage, so he didn’t rely a lot on Piddler. Calc said there was only one thing Piddler did that bothered him when they won their first tournament together.
“I had a 3-foot putt straight up the hill to win Vancouver, and I look over and Piddler is screwing the flag off the pole,” Calcavecchia said, smiling. “I didn’t need that pressure.”
Piddler was just showing faith in his player.
Back to the day in 2007, when Kathleen told her husband they had gone into the horse racing business. There wasn’t much Piddler could do about it, so he went along for the ride.
The way the horse-share business worked, you don’t buy a horse, per se. You invest a sum of money and that earns you shares in the horse. There might be 30 others who own a piece of the horse. Whatever percentage you own is the amount you’ll receive of the horse’s winnings minus expenses.
“Everyone has a different share,” Kathleen said. “It’s like you own an eyelash or the freckles on his face.”
The first two horses Kathleen bought a piece of were Doc N Roll and a filly, Pie In the Sky. Both horses had some success, so the couple was hooked.
It wasn’t long before Piddler got his owner’s license and started to invest in horses.
“Being a caddie, I always liked to horse around,” Piddler joked.
Piddler decided to invest in another share-owning business, West Point Thoroughbreds, instead of Sackatoga Stable, because he thought West Point had a better chance at winning the Kentucky Derby. (Alas, West Point Thoroughbreds owned the 2017 Kentucky Derby winner, Always Dreaming.)
One of the first horses Piddler owned a piece of was Commanding Curve. Turns out he had the same luck as his first tournament with Forsman.
Not only did Commanding Curve develop into a talented colt, he had a chance to race in the 2014 Kentucky Derby. That’s when Piddler appealed to a higher power.
“I’m a Catholic so I said a prayer to St. Jude,” Piddler said. “I told St. Jude if this colt is good enough to make the Derby, I will donate all of my winnings to the St. Jude Hospital.”
So what happens? Not only does Commanding Curve make the Derby, he goes off as a 37-1 longshot and runs a fast-closing second to winner California Chrome.
As amazing as it sounds, a former caddie almost saw his horse win the Kentucky Derby.
“It was incredible, a moment I’ll never forget,” Piddler said.
And did he donate his share of the winnings?
“Of course,” he said. “You can’t lie to God. Marlo loves me,” referring to Marlo Thomas, who serves as a spokeswoman for the children’s hospital her father Danny founded.
Piddler, who had always been taught as a caddie to stay in the background, was thrust into the limelight. Piddler was trending.
“He became more famous than me,” Forsman said. “Everybody was coming up to me asking about my caddie almost winning the Derby. They didn’t want to talk about my golf game.
“I tell this story all the time when I’m playing in pro-ams. People don’t think it’s true. It’s a spellbinding story, almost like a movie script.”
Dottie Pepper, an on-course announcer for CBS and former major champion on the LPGA Tour, also used Piddler a few times as a caddie during her career. She lives in Saratoga and is a big fan of horse racing, so their paths crossed again with Commanding Curve.
“He is a character,” Pepper said of Piddler. “Everyone in the barns know him. They all love him. We had gone to watch Commanding Curve race at Saratoga, and while he didn’t finish last, he didn’t actually wow you.
“I remember watching that (2014) Derby and (husband) David and I thinking, ‘My God, that’s Piddler’s horse that almost just won!’ It’s been great to see this through his eyes.”
It wasn’t the first time Piddler became semi-famous. In 2005, long before Donald Trump thought about running for president and when he had the TV show “The Apprentice,” Trump wrote a book entitled “Trump: The Best Golf Advice I Ever Received.”
Piddler said he was approached by a book company to submit advice from a PGA Tour caddie that would be used in Trump’s book. Piddler wrote the article and, of course, waited.
“They finally got back to me, and they said they loved the article,” Piddler said. “They said they wanted to do a book deal with me on a caddie book.”
The book, entitled “Caddie Confidential: Inside Stories from the Caddies on the PGA Tour,” came out in 2008. It was an inside look on the top players in golf from their caddies. There were forewords written by Forsman, Calcavecchia and Pepper.
“I’ve got a book in the National Library of Congress,” Piddler said. “Someone once told me it sold between 10,000 and 20,000 copies, but I don’t know that for sure.”
Piddler may soon have reason to write another book. On “How to Win The Kentucky Derby.”
A year ago, Kathleen bought a share into a young colt named Tiz The Law. Jack Knowlton, head of Sackatoga Stable, purchased the colt for $110,000 as a yearling in late 2018.
“I want to be clear, it’s Kathleen who is listed as the owner,” Piddler said, “but we really both own it.”
Kathleen said it was love at first sight.
“He’s such a beautiful horse,” she said. “The minute I saw him with that white face, I thought, ‘Oh, my God.”
Tiz The Law broke his maiden last fall in his first start at Saratoga. “This is nice,” Kathleen said.
Trainer Barclay Tagg decided to next run Tiz The Law in the Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park.
“I thought he might hit the board (finish in the money),” Kathleen said. “I never thought he’d win by 4 ½ lengths.”
Tagg then entered Tiz The Law in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs. Tiz The Law was sent off as the overwhelming 3-5 favorite, but struggled in the slop and finished third.
So much for going undefeated.
Tiz The Law took the last few months off before returning to racing Feb. 1 in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park in South Florida. Piddler and Kathleen made the five-hour drive from their Dunedin home to watch one of the major prep races for the Kentucky Derby.
They weren’t disappointed.
Tiz The Law broke alertly and went to the lead. Jockey Manny Franco had a scare on the backstretch when the horse was boxed in on the rail. Franco slowed the horse, angled him out wide and Tiz The Law closed with a rush to win by 3 lengths over Ete Indien.
Talk about a rush: Tiz The Law’s victory has made him one of the favorites to win the Kentucky Derby. His next start will be Feb. 29 in the Florida Derby at Gulfstream.
A lot can happen between now and the first Saturday in May, but for the Martins to have a second chance at winning a Kentucky Derby is akin to a golfer making a hole-in-one and a double eagle on consecutive holes.
“Those kinds of things, obviously, don’t happen,” Pepper said.
Piddler is beyond excited, but his wife is taking a more pragmatic approach. While some of Tiz The Law’s other shareholders were making reservations for Churchill Downs and buying Derby hats after the Holy Bull, she was just thrilled the colt came out of the race healthy.
“I take it one race at a time,” Kathleen said. “I just love the way the horse runs. When he comes into the stretch, he looks to the right as if he sees us all cheering him. He enjoys it.”
So what’s more exciting for Piddler? Helping his player win a tournament or having ownership in a possible Kentucky Derby winner?
“(Golf writer) Jeff Rude once asked me, would I rather win the Kentucky Derby or the Masters?” Piddler said. “At the time, I told him if it was Dan Forsman, I’d probably rather win the Masters.
“Now, I’d rather win the Kentucky Derby.”
The sports couldn’t be more unlike. It takes four days of strong play to win a golf tournament, but just 2 minutes to win the Kentucky Derby.
“Plus in golf, nobody is trying to box you in because they know you’re the favorite,” said Kathleen, who then pointed out a similarity: “There are two persons involved in both – the player and the caddie, and the horse and the jockey. They both have to work together.”
For Piddler, there is a commonality. He said one of the favorite parts of caddying was getting up early and watching his player warm up. He would spend time on the range, talking up his player’s game.
“You want to make him feel great about himself, even if most of it was BS,” Piddler said.
These days, Piddler loves spending his early mornings watching his horses train, especially when the couple rents a home in Saratoga for a month. “I wash them down and tell them how much I love them and how great they are,” he says.
Piddler’s longtime boss, like so many others, is rooting for Piddler and his wife to win the world’s most famous horse race. It’s been a while since the 71-year-old Piddler was a full-time caddie — he spends time serving on the Dunedin Parks & Recreation advisory committee — but he is not forgotten on the PGA Tour.
“I know this: He was beloved in every town we went into,” Forsman said. “He always had this energy and wanted everyone to have fun, whether he was setting up a caddie bowling tournament or whatever. We used to call it Piddler Productions – Piddler would always have something planned.”
What a production it would be if Piddler and Kathleen own a piece of a Kentucky Derby winner. If that happens, heaven can wait.