This is how once-aspiring PGA Tour pro Damon Green became a world-class caddie
Damon Green had had enough.
Enough of the short, missed putts. Enough of the bad bounces. Enough of the cheap hotels and fast-food meals. Enough of the long car rides and longer rides home. Enough of taking more time looking at his scorecard than his bank statement.
He had won more than 70 mini-tour titles around Orlando and spent two full seasons on what was known as the Nike Tour. He won often enough he came up with his own victory dance – the Chicken Walk.
Green could play this game. Heck, he was a missed 30-inch putt from making it to the big show, the PGA Tour, in 1994. He just didn’t know how to make much of a living playing this game.
At 38, after years of aiming at pins, he was ready to go the conservative route. It was late 1998.
“I was going to sell insurance and work for my brother-in-law,” Green says. “I had taken all the courses and was getting ready to take the state exam.”
Then he got a phone call from his buddy, Jimmy Green (no relation). The Greens always had a deal where when they played in the same tournament, whoever missed the cut would caddie for the other player the final two rounds if they made the cut.
“I got to caddie a lot,” Green quipped.
Jimmy called Damon with a plea. He needed to finish in the top five at the Nike Tour Championship to earn his card on the PGA Tour. Let’s get the band back together?
Damon put his insurance career on hold, and it paid off. Jimmy finished in the top five and they were headed to the PGA Tour. Even better, Jimmy holed out for eagle on the final hole at their first event, the Sony Open, to finish T7 and earn $75,000.
“I made $7,000,” Damon said, “and I felt like the richest guy in the world.”
And that’s how it started. That’s how Damon Green became a caddie, leading to a career where he worked for Scott Hoch, then helped Zach Johnson win two majors and 11 PGA Tour events during their 15-year partnership before they surprisingly parted ways last month.
In truth, that’s how most guys become caddies on the PGA Tour. By accident or fate.
Few guys grow up dreaming of caddying on the PGA Tour. Most of them dream of playing on it, then they get a reality check when they realize there are hundreds of players out there a lot better than them.
Some move on to caddying after giving up on playing, like Damon. Some are fortunate enough to have friends who become stars and they get the opportunity to share in that success by becoming their looper.
Unfortunately for the Greens, their partnership didn’t last long. Jimmy had two more top-25s that year, but no more magical finishes. He was back at q-school the next year.
Damon got another phone call, this one from Hoch — otherwise known as golf’s human ATM machine. Hoch was in the middle of a nine-year streak of earning $1 million-plus on the PGA Tour. Green had caddied for Hoch in a couple of Florida-based events and were both members at Bay Hill.
“He knew I was good at reading Bermuda greens and he wanted to know if I would come work for him,” Green said. “I told Jimmy about the call and he said, ‘Dude, you have to take that job. All he does is make money.’”
And Damon did take the job. During the four years they worked together, Hoch won two PGA Tour titles, posted 26 top-10 finishes – a caddie usually gets 7 percent of a top 10 –and earned almost $7 million.
Hoch didn’t just earn Green a lot of money, he made him a better caddie.
“I learned a great deal from Scott, especially with course management,” Green said. “On the mini-tour, you’re just firing at every pin trying to win. He taught me how to play tour golf.”
The only problem was Hoch was in his mid-40s and dealing with a worsening wrist injury. Green would show up at a tournament and Hoch would call him and tell him he wasn’t coming because his wrist was hurting.
During the 2003 offseason, Green ran into Johnson at a club-repair shop in Orlando. Green reached out to the 27-year-old Johnson as he was preparing for his first season on the PGA Tour.
“Having a good caddie is an important thing out there and I’ve got some friends of mine who I think would be good for you,” Green told Johnson.
Johnson didn’t hesitate.
“Well, you’re at the top of my list,” he said.
Green had something to ponder during the holidays. Did he stick with a proven money maker in Hoch, even though he was getting older and starting to break down physically? Or did he go to the young kid who had dominated at every level and looked to be an emerging star?
Was this even a decision?
Green went to Hoch’s house to give him the news he was leaving, but they were so close it took several attempts for Green to tell Hoch he was leaving.
Green showed up at Kapalua for the season-opening event to work for Hoch, who told Kenny Perry he didn’t think they had stopped working together.
“Did we break up in the offseason?” Hoch asked Green on the range.
“Yes, Scott, don’t you remember the conversation at your house?” Green replied.
“So out with the old and in with the new, like in basketball,” Hoch said. “I wouldn’t have brought you here if I’d known that.”
Hoch was half-kidding, but he was thrown off guard by the reversal of roles.
“I’ve got to be the first player out here who got fired by his caddie,” Hoch said.
Johnson rewarded Green’s confidence by winning their ninth tournament together, in Atlanta. They had different personalities, but the relationship immediately clicked.
“I get a little impatient out there. Damon is a pretty mellow guy, so he kind of keeps me loose,” Johnson said that weekend. “We’ve got a good system.”
Their system really worked three years later at the Masters. They went into the week, played in cold, windy conditions, with the plan to lay up on every single par 5. Johnson, who is not a long hitter, played to his strength – the short game.
Green credited Mark O’Meara, who won the 1998 Masters at 41, with the idea for playing conservatively. O’Meara and Johnson had played a couple of practice rounds together at Augusta National.
“Mark never seemed to be hitting the ball that well, but he was always shooting low scores because he would get the ball up-and-down a lot,” Green said. “We learned it’s not about hitting it close, but where to miss it, so you would be left with easier chips.”
Johnson made 11 birdies on the par 5s that week, which helped him win at 1-over 289. (Tiger Woods, who finished two back with Retief Goosen and Rory Sabbatini, made 10 birdies).
Johnson’s patient approach was tested in the final round on No. 13 when he had only 190 yards left for his second shot, but it was from a hanging lie. Johnson didn’t consider going for the green.
“I heard Peter Kostis reamed us on TV for not going for it,” Green said. “Zach lays up and hit it to 4 feet for birdie.
“I went to caddie for Scott in the Legends event a few weeks later and all these old pros like Curtis Strange and Tom Kite were coming up to me and saying, ‘We wish we would have done that!’”
You can understand Strange’s sentiment. He hit it in the water on both par 5s on the back nine in the 1985 Masters to lose a three-shot lead with six holes to play after shooting a first-round 80.
Johnson won at least a tournament in seven of the next eight years, though Green wasn’t caddying when Johnson won the 2012 John Deere Classic. Green was playing in the U.S. Senior Open after contending the year before, when he finished T13 with two closing bogeys.
Green got some national publicity at the 2011 U.S. Senior Open for doing his Chicken Walk after a couple of birdies. Truth is, he had been doing that strut since his mini-tour days, including when Johnson would close out a win.
“Golf is so boring,” Green said in explaining his Chicken Walk. “You’ve got to do something to spice it up a little bit, and I’ve done that for years. Toward the latter part of my career, I was doing them for pars.”
With Green on his bag, Johnson qualified for five Ryder Cups and four Presidents Cups. At the 2006 Ryder Cup, Johnson made two incredible birdies on the last three holes to almost single-handedly halve a match with Chad Campbell against Padraig Harrington and Paul McGinley. The highlight came when Johnson hit a 3-wood from 235 yards to 14 feet at the 16th hole and made the birdie.
“That’s when I knew how special this guy was,” Green said.
Green had more reason to celebrate at the 2015 British Open at St. Andrews. Johnson started the final round three shots back of Jason Day and two others, but stormed into a playoff after shooting a 6-under 66.
Johnson won the playoff against Louis Oosthuizen and Mark Leishman to become just the sixth player to win majors at Augusta National and St. Andrews. The other five are all Hall of Famers: Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo and Sam Snead.
Months later, Green would be asked about the win and start to cry.
“That was the most emotional week for me,” Green said. “To have your guy win at the home of golf … to win his second major, proving he wasn’t a one-hit wonder… it was such a special win.”
To show how strong their bond was, Johnson let Green have the claret jug for a month. It was constantly filled with sweet tea.
But the last three years weren’t so good for the pair. Johnson hasn’t won since the British and failed to qualify for the Tour Championship each of the last three seasons after making it to Atlanta six of the seven previous years.
Whether Johnson’s decision to switch to PXG clubs before the 2016 season played a role in his struggles remains to be seen. He is coming off a T7 finish in his last start at Sea Island.
After the final round at Sea Island, Johnson told Green he wanted to think about a few things. A week later, just before Johnson’s team of agent, caddie, therapist, mental coach, etc., held their annual offseason meeting, Johnson called Green and told him he was making a change.
“Zach said, ‘I think we need to take a break,’ ” Green said. “It’s not a ‘firing.’ We’re too good friends for that.’ I just think he didn’t want to say the word ‘fire.’ I was shocked.”
At 58, Green was without a job for the first time in two decades. But within a week after word got out, Green had a new bag – for Ollie Schniederjans.
Green and Johnson didn’t talk for a week after they parted ways before Green called Johnson after the agreement with Schniederjans was announced.
“I wanted to heal a little bit before I talked to him,” Green said of Johnson. “He’s probably had a Hall of Fame career and I had a front-row seat to it. I just told him it was a great run and thank you for everything. I still love you.”
Green knows how difficult it was for Johnson to end their relationship. Fifteen years ago, he dealt with the same angst when he moved on from Hoch. Breakups may be part of the player-caddie partnership, but that doesn’t make them easier.
Professional golf is not a fun way to make a living. One guy leaves every tournament with a trophy; the other 143 leave disappointed.
A younger Green found that out when he missed that 2 ½-foot putt at q-school in 1994 that would have allowed him to realize his dream of playing on the PGA Tour.
“I cried all the way home,” Green said.
He spent the next two seasons on the Nike Tour, playing in 53 events with three top 10s and $34,966 in earnings – barely covering expenses.
“I’m sure I wouldn’t have lasted long on the PGA Tour,” Green says. “I think I made a smart move by caddying.”
Sure beats selling insurance.