Steve Lopez is the tour manager for the band Widespread Panic and through that has become friends with several PGA Tour caddies. Over the years, some have watched him operate backstage during the band’s concerts. Recently, Lopez tasted their life inside-the-ropes.
His job in music and passion for golf coincided last month at the RSM Classic, the annual PGA Tour event on Sea Island, Georgia, when he caddied for Panic’s lead singer and rhythm guitarist, John Bell, in the Wednesday pro-am.
Lopez began playing golf in his hometown of Portland, Oregon, as a kid and became a regular golfer after graduating high school. He started with Widespread Panic in 2000 as a production assistant. During those first tours with the band he noticed Bell, former Tour manager Trey Allen and Garrie Vereen, the late equipment manager, brought their golf clubs on the road. Lopez soon followed suit, filling out the foursome, swapping tickets for tee times at fine courses around the nation.
RSM Classic host Davis Love III’s son, Dru, and friends are ardent fans of Widespread Panic, which formed in Athens, Ga. in 1986 when founding members Bell, Mikey Houser and Dave Schools were attending the University of Georgia. The band has played thousands of shows — each featuring a unique setlist — over the last three decades, drawing inspiration from a passionate, devoted fanbase that includes Harris English and dozens of PGA Tour caddies, present and past.
“They reached out to have JB perform during the tournament, if not, to be part of the pro-am,” Lopez said. “He sat and thought for a while and said, ‘Why not? Let’s play the pro-am.”
Bell, making his PGA Tour debut if you will, asked Lopez if he also wanted to play.
“No, I’ll just caddie for you,” he said.
Every couple of weeks prior to the event, Bell touched base with Lopez to make sure he was still committed to the adventure. Lopez was already preparing. During the band’s three-night run in Milwaukee in October, the Tour caddie and Panic fan Chris “Crispy” Jones gave Lopez yardage books from the Sea Island Plantation and Seaside courses.
Bell and Lopez attended the pro-am draft party on Tuesday night. Their team received the second pick and on Lopez’s suggestion selected Webb Simpson, the U.S. Open and Players champion, fresh off his third Ryder Cup appearance.
“And then I said good night,” Lopez said. “Our tee time was 8:30 in the morning. I couldn’t really sleep and wasn’t sure I could carry the bag.”
When word of Team Bell’s draft choice leaked out, Lopez’s phone rang. It was Jones — and English, who told Lopez: “Webb is one helluva golfer. He might have won more tournaments than I have but he hasn’t seen more Panic shows than I have.”
Callaway Golf custom made the bag Lopez carried, inscribing Bell’s name and the band name on the panel. After the round Lopez, assisted by a PGA Tour player representative, placed the panel on a table in the locker room and asked the RSM Classic pros to sign it. Bell added his signature and Panic will auction the golf bag to benefit their Tunes for Tots program which has generated more than $2 million over the past decade to purchase musical instruments for public schools.
The next morning, Jones arrived at the practice tee to help Lopez prepare for his inaugural loop, making sure his bib was properly stocked, his towel was damp and he had the requisite yardage book and pin-placement sheet.
“From watching on TV, I kind of knew what I was doing or pretended like I knew what I was doing,” Lopez said. “The first couple of holes were nerve-wracking, just trying to keep quiet, not sure what it was like and just trying to watch everything else.”
A smooth drive down the first fairway calmed Bell’s nerves. Simpson and his caddie, Paul Tesori, made them feel comfortable as the round unfolded. Simpson’s phone, in his back pocket because his wife, Dowd, was eight months pregnant with their fifth child, buzzed throughout the round. Not with baby updates, but with texts and calls from friends and relatives requesting photos and any morsel of information about the experience of spending a morning with a musician they’ve admired for years.
“I had no idea who (Bell) was,” Tesori said with a laugh. “I’m just not that big of a music guy. The amazing thing for me, is you’re getting all this information from caddies, getting some extra visits from Tour guys and stuff like this … so often when we get paired with musicians or actors or anything else, they’re so used to being the center of attention that they seem to act like they’re the center of attention. That man was humble, kind, respectful … He asked as much about my family and Webb’s family as anything else. And his caddie, Steve, was amazing. It hugely stuck out to me the amount of humility they had.”
Lopez and Bell admired Simpson’s prodigious tee shots and their detailed work dissecting each shot and the intricacies of each green.
And, regardless how often a person has performed in front of thousands of adoring fans, a complimentary word from a Tour pro on a golf course still resonates to the soul.
“Webb would say: ‘Nice shot, JB’ or ‘Nice shot John’ and JB’s eyes would light up,” Lopez said. He’d say ‘Did you hear that? He said good shot.’”
Lopez had played enough golf with Bell to understand his boss likes to play by feel and not be overwhelmed with information. During the round he might point out a side of the fairway to favor, or a particular hazard to avoid, but basically turned Bell loose and let him unleash his low fade down the fairways. Lopez was proud that Bell “only lost a couple of balls in the water.”
By the end of the round, word of Bell’s participation in he pro-am had spread around the tiny island in Georgia and 40 fans or so followed outside the ropes. The Simpson/Bell foursome finished outside the money, but the day was a resounding success.
Lopez is eager for another shot on the bag in the PGA Tour arena.
From day-to-day, the responsibilities of a band tour manager and PGA Tour caddie are similar in one way. They must be prepared for the unexpected and aim to handle the details and minutiae so the performer or player can focus on performing or playing. When unexpected situations and distractions arise, a sharp tour manager or Tour caddie remains calm and addresses the issue smoothly.
“If we did more than one tournament there would be a lot more comparisons,” Lopez said. “I wasn’t fully in charge. On the road he knows when to be where and what to do next. On the course the player is the boss. The roles were a little reversed. If we did more than one tournament I’d probably take over the logistics of time and travel.”