Cold, Hard Reality

A week that started with such promise came to a crashing end in howling winds and torential rain

Silence. Deafening silence. Mark Baldwin and I had just climbed on the back of the cart that would shuttle us back to the clubhouse. We had just completed the second round of the Evans Scholar Invitational on the Korn Ferry Tour. Mark had bogeyed four of the last five holes to miss the cut by two. We sat in silence. There wasn’t anything to say, no words that would make him feel better. When you are as far down the points list as Mark is, every made cut is vital, and missing one like we just did stings. Badly. I stared down at the bag, not knowing where else to look and trying to avoid making eye contact with Mark. He was slumped in the seat next to me, his head down. It was cold, so cold. The rain was pouring down, and suddenly the weather felt so much worse. The ride from the 9th green (we had started on the back) to the clubhouse is a long one, and near the end of our trip, Mark finally broke the silence. “You remember the Evans Scholar that caddied for me Wednesday?” I nodded. “I asked him what he wanted to do after college, and he said mechanical engineering. I am so glad he didn’t say pro golf.” The cart stopped at the scoring area, and Mark slowly walked over to sign his card.

Mark turned pro in 2006, and he has played all over the world, chasing the dream of getting to the PGA Tour. All. Over. The. World. China Tour? Yep. Asian Tour? Of course. Australasian? Yes. Latin American? Affirmative. Korean Tour? Had a Korean mob boss as a caddie once, in fact. Canada? More than a few seasons. The now-defunct Asian One Tour? Yeah, there too. Do not even try to name the mini-tours he has played; the list would be too long. He has played in a few PGA Tour events and has had Korn Ferry status for the last three years. A journeyman in every sense of the word. At 37 and now with a wife and a one-year-old son, he doesn’t have time on his side. This extended season has cost about $70,000 to play on the Korn Ferry Tour; he has made far less than that this year. The math doesn’t make much sense.

Mark and I became friends through Twitter. He is one of the kindest people I have met, and I’m lucky to call him a friend. I love caddying, but when you are on the bag for a friend, it takes things to another level. I had caddied for him twice before: last year at this event and this year in Las Vegas, when Mark got in as the first alternate. We made the cut at both.

The week before this year’s Evans Scholar event, Mark sent me a message asking, “Can you carry the heavy stuff next week?” I replied that if CD Hockersmith, who I was caddying for at the Monday qualifier, didn’t get through, I would love to. CD missed by a few, so Monday evening, I sent Mark a text that said, “We might as well win the Evans Scholar.” He replied, “Why the fuck not.”

We agreed to meet at the Glen Club in Glenview, Ill., the course hosting the event, at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday. That is probably the busiest day for players prior to the event. Mondays are typically a travel day, and Wednesdays are for the pro-am, so the small range was packed. We squeezed in next to Canadian Ben Silverman. Conversations on the range at a tour event are repetitive, questions about how someone played last week, tee times this week, travel nightmares and hotel issues. This week was no different.

Mark worked through his bag, starting with some one-armed swings to get loose, working his way all the way to full drivers. Between clubs, we talked about family, comedy and Mark’s life on the road. After the last driver, we headed to the putting green and looked for a way to get out for a practice round.

There are no tee times for practice rounds; you show up and fit your way in. Some guys have regular groups they play with that include (unofficial) money games. Some play alone, not always by choice. One player who is notoriously slow with a quirky personality always struggles to find playing partners.

We walked to the 1st tee and joined Monday qualifying legend Chip McDaniel, along with Taylor Dickson and Nathan Stamey. Practice rounds are basically a form of torture. Players often play multiple shots, walk around and make notes, and then comes the time on the green. That’s when time basically stops. Practice cups (discs the size of a cup) are often dropped in areas the players believe the hole will be for the week. (Some players use water bottles or place tees in the ground.) The players then putt and chip to all these spots and make more notes. If you are looking for the slowest round in all of golf, look no further than a Tuesday practice round on most major tours. And players are on the phone constantly; on one swing, I held the phone for Mark’s one-year-old son to watch him hit an approach. This is life on the road.

Tuesday Practice rounds always involve slow play and a lot of times on phones

During this practice round, the wind was blowing out of the southwest at 25 mph; in the tournament, it was forecast to blow 25 mph out of the northeast. That makes learning anything about the course hard. On Thursday, we would be playing a vastly different course than we were playing Tuesday. On the par-3 4th, Mark hit a 130-yard 6-iron into a gale-force wind that plugged in the front bunker. He had seen enough. “There is no real point to this,” he said. “It’s going to be a totally different wind direction Thursday.” We said our goodbyes to the three players and their caddies. “We aren’t far behind you,” one of the caddies yelled, hopeful his player would wave the white flag soon.

Mark had walked the front nine Monday evening when he arrived, but he had not seen the back nine, so we headed there. (We passed the notoriously slow and quirky player, and he was by himself again.) We tried to find a place to squeeze in a few holes, but there were foursomes everywhere. We crested a hill and found the twosome of Scott Langley and Justin Lower on the 12th green. We asked to join them, and as they finished putting, Mark asked Langley about the line needed off the tee. Langley was happy to share the info.

As we walked to the 13th tee, Mark and Scott discussed how many flights they had shared this year. (They both live in the Phoenix area.) “Scott being on a lot of the same flights as me kind of sums up his season,” Mark said on his way up the fairway, a reference that too many Saturday morning flights had been made home after missed cuts.

The rest of the back nine was standard practice-round stuff. A few moments stuck out. On the 540-yard par-4 15th hole, Mark asked me for a yardage. As I did the math, he said, “She is a deuce, a deuce and a half,” a nod to a great line from “There’s Something About Mary.” The laugh broke up the monotony.

I played in the Wednesday pro-am, but I met Mark before that and we again worked through the bag. The routine was the same — one-armed swings all the way to full drivers. Mark played nine holes (tour pros only play nine holes, so pro-am participants play with two players), and he took an Evans Scholar as a caddie.

We agreed to meet the next morning at 7:15, about an hour before his 8:19 tee time. I arrived before 7 and went to the caddie tent to grab breakfast. I hate oatmeal, so guess what the main course of the grab-and-go box was? I ate the cinnamon roll and the apple, went back for another box, and polished off another cinnamon roll. It was a healthy start to the day.

A nice healthy breakfast

Mark is always loose, talkative and easy-going, but he gets a bit more serious come Thursday. I met him at the parking lot, and he went to grab a quick breakfast at player dining. I headed to the putting green. A few caddies hammered me for having a carry bag versus the heavy tour bags they were lugging around. After a few putts, we headed to the range to work through the bag for the third time that week.

We were paired with Dawson Armstrong, who was in the top 50 in Korn Ferry points, and Robby Ormond, a journeyman from Texas who turned pro in 2010 and was in his first full season on the tour.

The 1st hole at the Glen Club is a relatively easy par-5; it eases you into a course that will play difficult. It was cool, hovering around 50 degrees, the wind was blowing more than 20 mph, and as predicted, it was blowing in the opposite direction of the practice round. Mark is one of the longer hitters on tour, and with the wind whipping left to right, he hit a great drive up the right side. A 2-iron from 245 yards out was perfectly struck, and we were putting for eagle. A two-putt birdie was a great way to start. We were on our way.

The rest of the front nine was a grind, but we were happy to continue making pars, which we did until the 217-yard par-3 9th. The wind was back in our face, and we went back to the 2-iron. It was struck superbly and directly over the flag, but it cut through the wind and came to rest just over the green. It left a difficult chip over a ridge by the hole; an almost perfect chip still left Mark a 7-footer for par. We agreed it would work just a bit left, but it snapped quickly, and we had our first bogey. Misreading a putt is part of the caddying, but when it happens, I feel guilty. The line between making and missing cutsis razor thin. One or two misreads can mean your player is packing his stuff on Friday night. The bogey left us even par at the turn, which was nothing to be ashamed of. We were confident as we headed to the back nine.

Again, we ran off a string of pars that was finally broken with a great birdie on 16 after a wedge to about 10 feet. We then began the walk to the par-3 17th. The wind had started gusting; it was easily blowing over 35. The 17th is guarded almost completely by water. The only bail-out is right of the green. The wind was again blowing directly at us, and it was the most intense of the day. After a long discussion we decided on a 2-iron from 166 yards. That will give you an idea of how strong the wind was; Mark’s stock 2-iron goes about 240 yards. He intended to hit a low punch at the right edge of the green. It got up in the wind, though, and landed about 15 yards short. We looked at each other and laughed. We happily walked off with a bogey, knowing plenty of players would make a big number there.

The par-5 18th played into the same wind; a driver, a low running 2-iron and a full wedge left us just short. Mark then chipped just past the hole, leaving him a delicate downhill four-footer. He made a perfect putt and signed for an even-par 71. We were pleased. After the round, Mark said, “I really thought that putt on 18 was important.” We would end the day T38.

The forecast for Friday was, in a word, brutal: rain with temperatures in the mid-40s and the wind blowing anywhere from 20 to 35 mph. It was going to be a mental grind. In the morning I scoured the suburbs for hand warmers, finally persuading a Home Depot associate to climb to the top of one of those orange ladders to fetch a product that had been stocked away for the season. At Dick’s Sporting Goods, picked up one of those hand muffler belts a quarterback wears. When you are a caddie, the duties don’t always include reading putts and picking clubs.

The forecast was pretty much spot-on. The rain had held off  — it would come later — but we started our usual warmup after packing the bag with hand warmers, winter caps, gloves and extra clothes. As our 1:44 tee time approached, we had a quick talk. Par was our friend; most of the guys would be beaten down mentally by the weather. Last year in this event we encountered similar conditions, and the two players we played with complained from the first shot on. We knew a lot of players would do the same. “Let’s have some fun and make some pars.” We jumped on the shuttle that would take us to the 10th tee.

On Thursday, the 10th was playing downwind and we nearly drove the green, but with the wind in our face, Mark decided on a 2-iron that wasn’t hit perfectly and ended up in the right rough. A wedge came up just short of the green, and after a chip to 6 feet, Mark was facing a testy opening putt to save par. Dead center. We fist-bumped. Par was our friend. At the next hole, Mark hit his birdie putt well by, but he made the 10-foot comebacker. It was a solid start considering the conditions.

Mark continued to grind, and at the 1st hole (our 10th), he hit his tee shot way right, but he caught a break and it left a good look at the green over some trees. Again, he went to the trusty 2-iron from 248 yards. A two-putt birdie left us even for the tournament. The cut line was 2 over, and it looked like it would stay there.

The weather continued to worsen. On the 3rd tee, the walking scorer showed us the radar on his phone. The rain was coming, and it was coming soon. At the par-5 5th hole, the driver that had been giving Mark problems got him in trouble for the first time. He again lost it right, and it ended up in some tall grass far right of the fairway. He hacked out to the fairway. It left a 5-iron to a pin guarded on the left and front by water. The wind was howling left to right, meaning if we wanted to play at the pin, we would have to start the ball over the water, a gutsy play even in the best of times. As we discussed the shot and the options, the rain started. The cut line suddenly felt a lot closer, knowing we would play the last five in a driving rain. Not surprisingly, considering going left was a guaranteed double, Mark missed the green right.

The Home Depot Hero that found us the much need handwarmers

He executed a delicate chip down the hill very well, but the 8-foot par putt slid by. It was a silent walk to the next tee. The rain was steady, it was still blowing like crazy and it was cold. The stress was hanging over us. The word “cut” is never spoken; we both tried to pretend like we didn’t just look at the scoreboard and know we were one off the cut line. But we knew.

Mark was in full grind mode. On the next hole, a drive in the rough and another missed green left him with another delicate chip. He got it within 6 feet and made the putt. A great save at a critical time.

Still, as Mark would say after the round, “It’s a tough stretch of the course, with the worst weather, at the wrong time.” The next hole is a difficult driving test. Finding the bunkers down the left side leads to a sure bogey, and there isn’t much room right. Ormond and Armstrong both found the sand. Mark hooked it left. The volunteer spotter signaled that he had found the ball, but he didn’t signal it was safe. I handed the umbrella to Mark, and we trudged toward the ball. The rain felt like it was coming down harder; I think it was the situation. The ball was buried in the face of a bunker.

As I’ve caddied more, I’ve learned there are times to stay quiet. This was one of those times. We were one above the cut line and were buried in the face of a fairway bunker. This was not the time for encouraging words or rah-rah speeches. We simply talked through our options for the shot.

We needed to play for bogey, knowing that would put us directly on the cut line. That meant getting the ball back in the fairway. With one foot perched on the lip of the bunker, and the other buried deeply in the sandy face, Mark somehow advanced his ball maybe 25 yards sideways and into the middle of the fairway. This left us with 185 yards in driving rain. “All right let’s just make 5 at worst,” I said. The pin was perched dangerously close to the front edge of the green with a steep run-off to a collection area.

The 5-iron was perfectly struck and headed just left of the pin. The ball landed on the edge of the green before agonizingly and slowly trickling down to the collection area. A foot right and we would have had 8 feet for par. The chip from the collection area was perfect, and Mark thought he had made it. When the ball stopped a couple of inches short, he said, “You have got to be shitting me.” He tapped in for bogey.

Two holes left and we were now squarely on the cut line. “We are all right, man, just a good swing here,” I said on the walk to the next tee. “Yep,” he replied. Mark is usually talkative. Not now. One shot at a time is great in theory, but it is impossible not to think about the scores needed to secure a Saturday tee time. It is part of why struggling to make a cut is such a mental battle.

The 8th hole at The Glen Club is usually an easy par 4; on Thursday it was an iron off the tee and a short iron into a bowl-shaped green. On Friday it was difficult. The rain was coming down in sheets and sideways. Groundskeepers were squeegeeing the green. The wind was still howling (in our face, of course, and I began to wonder which holes were downwind). We discussed 2-iron but settled on the driver. It headed right. Luckily, we had a look at the green from the right rough, and Mark decided on 8-iron. I walked away with the bag. But at the last second, Mark backed off and asked for the 7. I agreed. We should have stuck with the 8. The 7 was on a good line, but the ball went over the green. Mark faced another delicate chip, and this time with no room for error.

When you boil it down, this was at least a $5,000 up-and-down situation. Miss the cut, and it’s another week of expenses with no return. Make it, and you will probably make the cut and get a check for at least $3,000 even if you play poorly the next two days.

It was another downhill chip, and right before the shot, the greenkeepers again came out to squeegee. It’s not what we wanted. We wanted it to stop as quickly as possible. It didn’t, and we were faced with another 7-footer to stay inside the cut. With no room for error, it felt much longer than 7 feet. We read it as a ball out. It was two. Another bogey, and we were over the cut line for the first time. I felt a pit in my stomach.

I felt helpless. Mark is a friend, and I have picked his brain about what it’s like to struggle, to leave his family each week and miss another cut. I wished there was something I could have said or done. I questioned whether there was. I should have told him to hit 8; maybe 2-iron was the right play off the tee. I blamed myself for misreads. I felt terrible; I could not imagine what he felt.

“Let’s make a birdie here,” I said as we approached the long and difficult par-3 9th. I said it, but it felt forced. The momentum and the energy — they were gone.

Despite the deflated feeling, Mark hit a great 4-iron to 30 feet. We had a chance. We read it from both sides, but as was the case most of the day with his long putts, Mark powered it through the break. We were done. He missed the meaningless comebacker for par.

We shook hands with the other players. I shook Mark’s hand, but I didn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry, man” was all I could muster. I patted him on the shoulder.

We climbed on the back of the shuttle and sat in silence.

I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for players playing professional golf. They chose this as a career, and they could get a “real” job. But I want people to appreciate what they go through. I wish people could have been at dinner with Mark and me that night. Listen to him reflect on the week, the ending, his career, and what it all means. To listen to the phone call to his wife to let her know he had missed another cut. Say goodnight to his son over Facetime for the 100th time. Some 80 players did a version of the same thing on this Friday night. Dinner was low-key; it would take a night or two to get over how Mark had missed the cut. It was not going to happen tonight.

After dinner, we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways. Golf is a lonely sport that knocks you down far more than it picks you up.

But there is always next week.

A nice Chicago day in late May

–Ryan French

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11 thoughts on “Cold, Hard Reality”

  1. Roberta Bowman

    Good stuff here. I’d gotten used to Ryan in 280 characters. This will be fun to read and watch.

  2. Great article, Ryan. I know caddies live and die with their players, and nothing is more frustrating than not being able to do much when the wheels start coming off. All the best to Mark.

  3. John MacDonald

    Really enjoyed this story, well told. So easy to forget that this is the more common experience rather than NetJet to San Diego for The US Open.

  4. Really moving read. My brother was in the same situation trying to make cuts and finally realized that he could not do it anymore. Had to get a job and move on with life for him. Have to be really good and get some breaks to be in the 1% that actually make it.

  5. This is the best description of a narrowly missed cut I have ever read. When that ball plugged in the lip, my heart sank. Even had to stop reading for a moment. But Mark sounds like he’s putting really well and is on the verge of a good run, where he doesn’t have to endure sheets of rain over the last five holes. As my favorite caddie once told me (while we sat directly at the cut line during a 3 group wait on the 210-yd par-3 17th) “illegitimus non carborundum”. And we made proceeded to make the cut by one! Little victories.

  6. Great article Ryan. I watch the scorecard and every shot weekly cheering Mark on. One of the nicest guys I have ever met. I know he’s on the right path, living his dream, I feel he just needs a break. I hope it happens soon for him. He has so much talent as you know.

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