We’ve Got Work to Do

Failing to capitalize on the par-5s, Mark Baldwin now has a steep hill to climb at the Barracuda

By Ryan French

TRUCKEE, Calif. — The Grind. We hear the term often, and in golf, the definition has many meanings. In the first round of the Barracuda Championship on Thursday, Mark Baldwin and I were walking up the 9th hole, our last of the day, with zero points in the modified Stableford scoring system. Not much had gone our way. Too many missed putts and a couple of bad breaks had led to a long day. The shiny new bag felt so much heavier than it had when we started our day at the 10th tee, filled with confidence. A huge opportunity for Mark was slowly slipping away. That is The Grind. 

As we walked to the 10th hole at Old Greenwood, a difficult par-4, I said to Mark, “You belong out here. Let’s go prove it.” Players are nervous before their first tee shot. So are semi-pro caddies. As Mark drew his club back for the opening drive, my heart was pounding. The shot was perfect. The 8-iron approach was good too. Although the putt for birdie burned the edge, we couldn’t have asked for a much better start. 

The first sign of trouble came on our third hole, the easy-ish par-5 12th, where Mark drove it left into the trees. The ball came to rest on the side of a cart path. The ball was on gravel, but we weren’t confident it was considered part of the path. We asked the walking scorer to call for a rules official, who agreed the gravel was considered part of the path. 

Mark took relief and dropped the ball perfectly on a tuft of short grass among the tall, wispy weeds surrounding it. In fact, the lie was so good the official quipped, “Practicing that at home, hey?” Mark hit a great shot just short of the green, leaving a difficult chip over a bunker to a back-left pin. From there he simply hit a poor chip into the fringe over the green. He left a straightforward chip 6 feet short. The missed putt for par stung. 

Taking advantage of the par-5s is vital on the PGA Tour; in the Stableford format, it is even more critical. A birdie is worth two points, and an eagle and the five points that come with it can rocket a player up the leaderboard. On Thursday, Mark played the three par-5s in 1 over, which means in a situation where at least six points was the goal, he picked up a net zero points.  

Barracuda

The majority of the next 12 holes were pretty straightforward. Mark had a lot of solid birdie putts he failed to convert, but he played steady golf. The highlight was a bunker shot on the par-5 2nd. Words can’t describe how good it was. Let’s just say this: Playing partner Joel Stalter, who didn’t talk much during the round (he was friendly, just quiet), came over to Mark and said, “That was the best bunker shot I’ve seen in a very long time.” When a pro goes out of his way to say something like that, it tells you all you need to know. Mark described it as a “bucket of balls shot.” In other words, if he had a bucket of balls, he couldn’t duplicate it. 

We came to the par-5 6th with some momentum. Mark had played the previous four holes in plus-2 points (1 under), and with a par-5 and a par-4 ahead, both reachable, we were in position to capitalize. A great tee shot at the par-5 left us 276 yards to a back-left pin. The 2-iron headed in the direction of the back bunker, which would have left a pretty straightforward up and down. Unfortunately, the ball stopped right of the bunker in the thick rough. The ensuing chip shot didn’t clear the slope of the tiered green and ended almost 50 feet away. Another short miss led to the second bogey of the day on a par-5.

Mark was understandably pissed. On the way to the next tee, I said to him, “All right, man. We have to forget about it the best we can. Let’s finish strong.” Mark nodded. 

The 9-iron on the par-3 7th was headed directly at the pin, but the helping wind died as Mark struck his shot, and the ball came up 35 feet short. Another short miss led to yet another bogey. 

As a caddie, there are times you need to know when to shut up. This was one of those times. I had just given the rah-rah speech on the tee. Now it was the time to let Mark vent. He lightly tapped his leg with his putter shaft, then handed the club to me without saying a word. He walked to the 8th tee, and although we had a long wait, he didn’t say a word until it was time to pull a club. 

The final two holes produced routine pars, and we ended with zero points. 

It had been a long day. We were both tired and stressed. Mark signed his card and headed for player dining. When he came out, he said just one word: “Range.” We jumped on a shuttle and headed off. The Grind. 

The top 65 and ties will play the weekend. We are way back in a tie for 108th. But the format is designed to generate excitement, and a player can quickly rocket up the leaderboard. There is no “next week” on the PGA Tour for Mark, so we need to make some birdies. There is time, but the window is closing.

Let’s have ourselves a Friday. 

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