The thing about normal PGA Tour stroke-play tournaments is that one shot is always bigger than one shot. Caddies are constantly thinking two or three shots ahead, even two or three days ahead. It’s as much about eliminating the big mistakes over the course of 72 holes as anything else, which means keeping hero golf to a minimum.
That usually isn’t the case in match play, and it’s one of the reasons veteran caddie John Wood is so eager for the Presidents Cup Sept. 28-Oct. 1 at Liberty National Golf Club in Jersey City, N.J.
Playing it safe to escape with bogey? Forget about it. Position putts to avoid 5-foot comebackers? Nah, just try to jar it. Match play favors the bold.
“If you’re playing a guy who’s gonna make par, you gamble if you’re in trouble,” said Wood, who will be on the bag for Matt Kuchar at Liberty National. “If he’s gonna make a birdie and you don’t have a particularly comfortable shot to get it close to the hole, you’re going to gamble, because if you’re gonna lose and make a 6 or a 7 or a 12, it really doesn’t matter because the other guy is making a 3. It’s just one hole. … That’s the reason I feel like in the Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup, just watching on TV, you see so many more putts made and chips holed, because when you get around the greens that’s the only thing that matters.”
It’s a blast for players and caddies to think that way and often simplifies the decision-making process. It’s one of the reasons these events make for such a unique week.
Alternate shot presents an entirely different way of thinking that is unique to team events. Peculiar strategies need to be considered, as it’s no longer just about what’s best for the individual player and caddie. On certain shots, both caddies and both players will consult and make a decision based on what’s best for the team.
Wood was caddying for Hunter Mahan at the 2007 Presidents Cup in Montreal and paired with Steve Stricker, who will captain Team USA in this year’s event. Stricker teed off on a par 5 in alternate shot which left Mahan with the second shot, but he couldn’t reach the green in two. Rather than play their normal shot in that situation, Mahan and Wood called a quick meeting.
“I called Steve over and we were trying to figure out what to do with the shot,” Wood said, “Whether to lay it up well back for a full shot or get it up near the green for a chip or a pitch. So we called Steve over and asked if he’d rather have 110 yards in or have us just hit it up there as far as we can close to the green. He said, ‘Just get it as close to the green as possible and I’ll take it from there,’ so that’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. A shot where maybe we would have laid up with Hunter so we had a full wedge in, whereas Stricker wanted to be as close to the green as possible so he could chip.”
They still have to execute, of course, and if one guy is particularly off in alternate shot it can put his partner in some really tricky spots all afternoon. But Wood said he’s never once been frustrated with a playing partner in alternate shot or fourball, and doesn’t remember a player he’s caddied for ever getting frustrated with a partner either.
Caddies always play a hugely important role on the course, but their pregame input level varies from captain to captain. Sometimes Wood has been in on most team meetings and asked for his opinion, or just welcomed to listen so he’s totally aware of the game plan. Other years he hasn’t been involved until that first tee shot. He cites Fred Couples, Paul Azinger and Davis Love III as the most inclusive captains or assistant captains in regard to caddies.
Overall, Wood thinks people don’t understand the magnitude of camaraderie at team events, which makes Presidents Cup and Ryder Cups his favorite events to work.
“Some of my greatest memories are just getting to know guys over the years in these events,” Wood said. “Being in those team rooms after wins and losses and seeing how guys reacted to both, and how much you learn from each other those weeks. PGA Tour guys are pretty open with information. They share a lot, nobody hides anything from people. (But) that week especially, there’s a lot of give and take. You take things from that week that maybe you didn’t use before, but you’ll definitely use now for the rest of your caddying career.” Gwk