“Caddie Killer” or Killed By Grooves?

The Bay Hill tournament isn’t until the end of March, but I was thinking about it this week watching Torrey Pines (I think it will be policy here to refer to tournaments by their locations or old names unless somebody wants to give me a check, and anyway Farmers Insurance didn’t buy the name until a week before the opening tee shot) because of Robert Allenby. On the 14th hole on Sunday, Allenby was just a couple of shots off the lead, still with a real chance to win the tournament. What happened next has become exhibit A in the “debate” over the rule changes the USGA has made this year about groove changes, but my mind drifted to another situation faced by another player last year at Bay Hill. It might be that what happened to Allenby didn’t have so much to do with rule changes as it does with Allenby—and how he deals with caddies.

The situation I recalled was the one facing Sean O’Hair at the 16th during last year’s tourney at Arnold Palmer’s place in Florida, one of the first tournaments to put microphones on players and caddies during a round. O’Hair started the day with a five shot lead over Tiger Woods, who had slowly run O’Hair to ground throughout the day until Woods tied O’Hair with a birdie at 15. At 16 they stood level, and O’Hair faced one of the biggest shots of his life. His caddie, Paul Tesori, himself a former tour player, urged O’Hair to take more club because of the dropping temperatures—cooler air means less ball distance—but O’Hair, 26 years old, refused the advice of the older man. The result seemed scripted: O’Hair rinses, Tiger makes a ridiculous birdie putt (for the second time in two years) to win the tournament on the 18th. But the best part was on the 18th fairway, when Tesori told O’Hair to take more club, “since we’ve established the ball isn’t going as far …” I.e., since your stupidity just us cost about a half-million dollars, kid. One of the all-time great examples of a good looper’s importance.

Anyway, about Allenby: on the 14th at Torrey Pines he ended up hitting his shot over the green and down a cliff, at least 20 yards too long. The golf press is taking this as a sign regarding the new “groove rules,” which have the effect of reducing spin the ball takes as it leaves the clubface; spin being what controls trajectory, and hence distance. But I had a completely different thought: Allenby’s nickname among tour loopers is “Caddie Killer” because he likes to hire and fire his caddies often; he’s also something of a bear to work for, at least on the course it seems. Looked at from this perspective, the problem groove here might be in Allenby’s head, not his golf club’s.

Looking over the shot at 14, Allenby had 162 yards to the pin. That isn’t a big distance for a tour pro: the longer hitters at that distance under perfect circumstances might be hitting a 9 iron. But Allenby’s circumstances were not perfect: he was in the rough. In past years that would not have been much of an issue because the wide grooves on irons then forced grass and moisture away from the ball at impact, causing the ball to behave much as it would from the fairway. With the new rules, however, shots from the rough have become more of a crapshoot, as it used to be years ago. If water or grass gets between the ball and the clubface, the ball does not spin as much, meaning it will (usually) go higher and tend to roll forward instead of landing gently. In the lingo, it’s called a “flier.” Allenby’s caddie, Mike Waite, wanted to go with a 6 iron; Allenby, fearful of hitting the dreaded flier, wanted to go with an 8. They compromised with a 7. This time though, unlike O’Hair and Tesori’s situation, the player was right and not the caddie—but the result was the same: a blown tournament.

The question is, which the golf press seems to miss, is whether this was really a case of “bad grooves.” The rule was originally made in order to create a “backdoor rollback”—by changing the clubs, and not the ball, the USGA would in theory reduce tee shot distance because players wouldn’t risk hitting it into the rough if they didn’t know how they could recover. By changing the clubs, instead of the ball, the USGA didn’t risk getting sued by ball manufacturers (that ballmakers and clubmakers are for the most part the same companies seems irrelevant). In recent years driving accuracy has become an almost meaningless statistic: all that matters has been how far, not where, because you could always recover from almost anywhere since the lie your ball got was almost irrelevant. Allenby’s situation—compounded by the fact that Allenby also airmailed the 18th green two weeks ago in Hawaii to blow that tournament—seems to confirm the USGA’s theory.

There are however a couple of reasons for the bluejackets in Far Hills to hold off with the backpatting just yet. In the first place, and here I speak from some experience, Torrey Pines is widely known among tour caddies as a notoriously unfriendly place to loop. The weather is often unpredictable and the sea air can vary wildly from day-to-day: a club that works at one distance one day might go a different distance on another. The sprinkler heads with the yardage markers are few and hard to find. One commentator said it was likely there would be more weird flier situations like Allenby’s, where the ball either failed to reach or sailed over a green—before the tournament. That’s calling your shot. But what that means is that the USGA’s theory might not be proved by Allenby’s mishap on 14.

What it might mean is that Allenby needs to re-evaluate his teamwork with his caddie. I was unable to discover just how long Mr. Waite has worked for Allenby, so I don’t know if they have a long-standing relationship or what. Allenby though has a history as a hire-and-fire guy it appears: did that play a role in what happened? Was Waite asking Allenby, say, to hit a knockdown 6-iron (a shot that doesn’t travel as far as a full shot), a suggestion that Allenby didn’t take the time to understand fully before making his decision? (With commercials, it’s hard to tell how long the two conferenced before pulling the trigger.) Or did Waite just, as loopers say, fuck up with a bad number or a bad judgment about how the shot would play? Even that latter doesn’t make Waite a bad caddie necessarily—maybe he hasn’t had very long to work with Allenby, and isn’t really sure about Allenby’s distances or just his style of play. Some players want a caddie to talk them down from the brink, others want their caddie to challenge them to perform. Any of these are possible, despite the instant analysis that blamed the “groove rule.”

What all of this highlights is the very real importance of the player-caddie relationship on the tour, something that is often lost in these days of laser-shot distances and precisely-fitted clubs. Focusing on the “groove rule” does fit with the ruling ethos about that relationship, which is “well, ultimately it’s the player’s decision.” But while that is true enough, it also doesn’t help Allenby figure out what to do next: if it wasn’t the groove rule—and there really isn’t any way to know unless both Allenby and Waite agree to say something, because they’re the only ones who know if it was or not—then should Allenby fire Waite and get somebody else? Or learn to work with loopers better? And more importantly, it’s just wrong: it turns what could be an interpersonal problem into a technological one without determining if it is a technological problem. But then, there’s a lot more places about which that could be said than pro golf.

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Please let me know what you think! Also, if you are having trouble with posting a comment, please feel free to email me personally at djmedinah@yahoo.com. Thanks for reading!

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