The Barracuda Championship Week
Day 5 of my journal caddying for Mark Baldwin at the Barracuda Championship
By Ryan French
Fifteen years. Mark Baldwin turned pro in 2006. And he just made his first PGA Tour cut. We slapped five and hugged. Fifteen years.
On Friday we had an afternoon tee time, so I snuck out of the apartment early to do some laundry and let Mark sleep. I grabbed breakfast for him on the way back, and we hung around the apartment for the rest of the morning. We watched comedy, I worked for a bit, we got the bag organized, and at 11:30 we headed to the course for our 1:40 tee time. We would be playing in the last group off the 1st tee. Such is life for a Monday qualifier, but after accumulating 8 points in the modified Stableford scoring system on Thursday, we had put ourselves in position to play the weekend.
As has been our routine, we went to our respective tents to eat. I had the pasta (not great, but still free) and a salad. And then we met to take the shuttle down to the range. Mark started his normal routine (Matt Kuchar was hitting next to us for a while) and then remembered he had forgotten to leave tickets for some friends. I ran back to the shuttle and hustled to player relations, and the tickets were emailed to Mark. Life on Tour is pretty, pretty good.
We went to the 1st tee, said hello to playing partners Paul Barjon and John Greco (the same pairing as the first day), and Mark hit a perfect drive. He then struck a wedge a bit thin, and it ended up short. A pretty poor chip left him about eight feet, and he missed it. He admitted later there were some nerves. (Cue Johnny Miller.)
It wasn’t the way you wanted to start when you are trying to make your first PGA Tour cut. Someone in the gallery had coughed during his par putt, and Mark was pretty pissed; I let him blow off some steam. His drive on the reachable par-5 2nd leaked into the right rough. We discussed the next shot at length. The ball was in thick rough, and the lie wasn’t great. We decided to take a risk and try to get 2-iron to the chipping area. He made his second-best shot of the day. It ended up right where we had planned with a great uphill look at the hole. Mark decided on the putter and just missed. The tap-in birdie calmed the nerves.
After a bogey on 5, we had a little wait on the next tee. I felt like it was a pivotal moment in the round. Six was a reachable par-5, and we needed to make something happen. His 6-iron into the green never left the flag, setting up about a 10-footer for eagle. The putt just wiggled past, but it got us going again. A 9-iron on the par-3 7th yielded another birdie, and we got another on 8. We were rolling.
After a par at the 9th, Mark made the worst swing of the first two days on his tee shot at the 10th, roping a hook into the hazard. His third missed the green, and after a poor chip, his bogey putt came up short. We dropped 3 points, and most of the progress we had made on the front nine — a respectable 6 points — had been lost. Just like that, we were only one point inside the cut line.
I’ve said this before while caddying for Mark at a Korn Ferry event: Although we didn’t say anything to each other, we knew where we stood. Every player near the cut line knows what the number is, as does every caddie. It adds to the pressure. After the round, Mark said he knew where he stood at that moment and that he was feeling the pressure.
The 11th is a short par-4, but water surrounds the green, so almost every player lays up. We hit 7-iron off the tee, leaving us 113 yards to a pin tucked just three paces beyond the water. You could sense the tension. It was a defining moment in the round, no doubt. Mark drew back the club, and it sailed toward the flag, stopping about eight feet away. He curled in the putt. That wedge was the most important shot of the tournament for us by far. It got us off the cut line, got Mark back in the right frame of mind, and it got us rolling again. After he holed the putt, Mark said to me, “We have the easiest part of the course ahead of us; let’s make some fucking birdies.” In one hole, we got the momentum back. Just like that.
The 12th is a reachable par-5, but you have to avoid the right side, so of course we hit it down the right. It left us with just 195 to the front edge, but there were some huge trees to negotiate. Mark wanted to hit 9-iron to make sure he cleared them, but I pushed for an 8. He said he thought he could get over with 8 but wasn’t positive. “In stroke play, I’m good with the 9 here,” I told him. “But we have to step on the gas; 8 is the play.” He handed me the 9 and pulled the 8. I don’t know how it is for caddies who loop for a living, but I could barely swallow as he stood over the shot. He was hitting the club I called for. It drew perfectly, cleared the trees and landed in the middle of the green. I could breathe again.
As we walked to the green, Mark said, “Good call, man.” It felt really good. I’ve looped for Mark three times now, and each time he trusts me a bit more.
When you are playing in the last group, not many fans are around late in the round, and when a lone fan let out a “wahoooo” from the green on the 230-yard par-3 15th, we knew Mark had hit a quality shot. We got to the green to discover the 5-iron had landed about three feet from the pin. Mark made it for birdie. We got to the par-3 17th knowing we had made the cut, because in Stableford scoring we had enough points. It was a huge (though unspoken) relief.
Mark bogeyed the last and finished the day with 7 points, but we were still T28 and comfortably inside the cut line, which came at 10 points. On the 18th green, I slapped him five and hugged him. After he signed his card, we began the walk to the car. “You have been at this for 15 years, and I’m just really happy for you,” I told him. He put his hand on my shoulder and thanked me. I could feel his excitement.
He then went to the locker room before returning to the car. “When I bogeyed 18,” he said, “I was pissed, but I just sat at my locker for a second and thought about how cool this is.” He sat back in the passenger seat and smiled. Fifteen years of grinding his ass off, and now no matter what happens, he can say he made a cut on the PGA Tour.
His phone lit up as soon as he turned it on. He called his wife and his mother. It was cool to hear those conversations first-hand. These exceptional moments happen often, but I have never gotten to see them up close.
After we got back to the apartment, we talked about how the weekend would be a free roll. This is a huge opportunity with nothing to lose. We go off the 1st tee at 11:20 a.m. PT with John Huh and Davis Thompson. We are going to do what we have done all week: Have fun.
Mark is playing well, and if we can make some putts we can do something special. But that is a long way away. Let’s see what we can do in Round 3.
Editor’s note: Third-round coverage of the Barracuda Championship begins on Golf Channel at 6 p,m. ET.