The Double-Down Miracle Shooter

Should I stay or should I go now?
Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go there will be trouble,
And if I stay it will be double.
So you gotta let me know,
Should I cool it or should I blow?
—“Should I Stay or Should I Go?”
The Clash.
Combat Rock.

People sometimes ask me about just what it is a caddie, or what we call a looper, does, which isn’t as easy a question as you might think. There’s the basics, of course—getting yardages and so on. But, unless somebody just really has no idea at all, that usually isn’t what my questioner wants to know. I don’t have that much experience with big-time pro golf, but I do have some: I’ve worked two Nationwide Tour events, one LPGA event, a United States Mid-Amateur (which is like the U.S. Open for everybody who didn’t turn pro after college), a United States Senior Amateur (etc.), and many mini-tour events. What people want to know is what actually happens “inside the ropes” as they say, when it’s just you and your player.

They have watched the hushed discussions on television as, say, Tiger and Stevie, or Phil and Bones, confer—what people want to know is, what are they talking about? The short answer is that it’s likely about who’s favored in that night’s game-of-the-century or … well, Tiger’s in enough trouble as it is. But that isn’t really what they want to know either. What they (you) want to know is, what are they talking about when it gets down to the only question that matters to a pro, which has perhaps been most poetically put by Joe Strummer and Mick Jones of The Clash: should I stay or should I go?

Or, as my pro once asked me in a Nationwide Tour event, “Should I go for the miracle shot?” And yes folks, pro golfers do ask that question. Or at least that guy did—he wasn’t a star, even on the minor-league tour, so maybe it speaks for itself that he was asking me at all. Still, it does happen, and for what it’s worth (usually not much), that’s what you are getting paid to do, something that still amazes me: it’s like standing next to Michael Jordan, waiting for him to ask you if you think he should go to the hole or just shoot the three. What does MJ want you to say—“nah, Mikey, just do a cross-over, beat the guard, take off at the foul line and shoot it over your shoulder, like always.” In no other sport, at least that I know about—I’m told that in auto-racing the driver keeps in pretty close contact with his crew-chief, but I’m not sure it’s the same—does anything like this happen, that an athlete in the middle of competition—not during a time-out—ask somebody else’s advice.

When that happens, and it has happened to me, I’m always tempted to give some smart-aleck reply, or just say “Sure, why not?” Or, “Hey man, if I knew wouldn’t I be hitting that ball?” That isn’t of course what you say though. Your guy actually wants to know—if he knew the answer to that question he would have already asked for the club he wanted. It’s real—MJ really does want to know what you think of Utah’s defense—and he wants to know right now. And this isn’t your buddy asking you during some let’s-skip-out-of-work Friday afternoon, or your brother asking you if you want to play “greenies.” Bobby Jones himself said that tournament golf is different from regular golf, and pro golf is another species entirely. Pro golf is: damn that hotel room cost more than the website said, and how am I gonna pay for it if we miss the cut, and it’s how many hours to Chicago is it from—where am I again? And he wants to know what?

Let me describe what our situation was when my pro asked me that question, and then I’ll go through how I thought about it. We—and yeah, I say we, because in effect it’s my money too—were on what I remember as the 13th hole on a Saturday. It was the first par-5 on the back nine at kind of a tricked-up famous-player helicopter-course—the famous player flies in on his helicopter, maybe hits a shot or two, picks up the check and scoots for the horizon before anybody realizes that the track would be better with a mechanical rabbit—in the kind of state that takes in more federal money than they pay in taxes but likes to complain about “Wash’ton” all the same, not that it mattered.

Our lie was on the thin side, but not terrible. The ball sat in front of the green about twenty yards from the pin. That doesn’t sound too bad, I realize, but the pin was right up against a bunker that we needed to traverse. So the question was, should we try to stick the ball close to the pin, risking leaving it short in the bunker but possibly gaining a birdie or even (with a lot of luck) an eagle? Or should we play safe, away from the pin but with a manageable—though still difficult—lengthy two-putt for par?

On that particular day here’s how I thought about it: first, it was a Saturday. On the pro tours, Saturday is “Moving Day” (thanks, John Feinstein!): it means you’ve made the cut, which means you are going to play tomorrow too. And that means you have a chance to fix whatever happens today. Risk is at a discount on Saturday. Second: it was early on the back nine. That means you’ve had some time to “get into” the round; your player knows how he’s hitting it that day, which isn’t always sure the first couple of holes.

After twelve holes we had made some birdies, so we were climbing the leaderboard. And there were still five holes after this one, meaning that, again, whatever happens on this hole we had a chance to fix. And third: it was a par-five, meaning that we could still save par after a bad shot. Bunkers don’t really scare pros; in fact, since the surface of a bunker is usually a lot more dependable than grass, most would rather hit out of them than anywhere else on the course. Even if we missed the shot and ended up in the bunker, we probably wouldn’t do any worse than a bogey—too bad but the upside, another birdie to add to our string, made it worth it.

At least that’s how I saw things. What I said was: “Yeah, let’s do it.” Now, this says a couple of things to the player. The first is, I’m paying attention. My pro hadn’t really asked me anything important before this moment the entire week. But when he asked me the question he didn’t have to clarify what he meant, because I already knew. That is not a trivial bit of information, because it tells the pro something significant: “I am not alone.” A lot of golf is played alone, of course: outside of marathon running, which at the highest level takes way less time than a round of golf, there are very sports that are as solitary as pro golf. (Maybe long-distance solo sailboating.) So to be able to tell him that he isn’t alone during an important decision is, to my mind anyway, pretty important. But that wasn’t all I said in those three words.

I also effectively said that not only do I think it’s a good idea, but I trusted him to be able to pull it off. That imparts confidence, no small thing when the difference between first and last place on any given day is maybe 10 seconds out of five-plus hours of golf. Secondly, by saying “let’s” I was effectively letting him off the hook if the shot went south: I agreed to the shot, so my neck was on the line same as his. If it didn’t work out it wasn’t all his fault. Again, no small thing. Psychological studies have been done that show sharing responsibility lessens the burden. (Have they really? Damned if I know for sure. But that’s the way I’d bet.) So, four words, at least four different meanings—actually more meanings than that, but there isn’t that much time. You want to ask me why I’m getting paid again?

As it happens, in this case it did go south. Not only did he put it in the bunker, but then he left the next shot in the bunker too because he was trying to hit another miracle shot. Now, that is a cardinal sin for pro golfers, and it is a pretty good rule for amateurs too: never double-down on miracles. (Actually, that’s a pretty good rule for anything.) The next shot was, naturally, long, and it took three more shots to get down from there for a smooth double-bogey, giving back two of the birdies we’d worked hard to get earlier. We did make some birdies afterwards, but we’d squandered a day where we might have made up six shots on the field. That would have really moved us up the board on a day the course was a nunnery. (Think about it.)

My golfer and I ended up finishing thirty-fourth or something for the tournament, which was that guy’s best finish of the year to that point. On the Nationwide Tour, that worked out to about thirty-five hundred dollars, of which my share came out to about three hundred on top of my per-diem. Not a lot of money, but I did get a compliment on how I’d done my job. Throughout the week I had gotten the correct yardages and done competently all the other things loopers do—I even found his ball in some weeds on the day before, which as it worked out meant that we made the cut. What I got the most satisfaction from that week was that I thought clearly under pressure. On that one shot things didn’t work out, but the important thing, or so I feel, was that I was able to analyze our situation quickly and confidently.

I don’t mean to sound overly complimentary about myself—loopers don’t hit the shots, and this certainly wasn’t the U.S. Open or anywhere close—but I did want to try to reproduce something like what happens during those moments on television when Phil or Ogilvy or whoever is looking at that flag with the tournament on the line and wondering how to get there. Miracles don’t happen by accident: they start by asking, as Strummer et al. put it, should I cool it or should I blow? And then trying to answer it.


3 thoughts on “The Double-Down Miracle Shooter”

  1. I like your style. You kept me engaged. I didn’t appreciate golf
    (chasing a little ball around the grass idea) until I took a college class (needed PE credits for Teaching license). So, have you developed a query letter to get this published?

    1. Well, not exactly: miracles happen by MINIMIZING risk as much as possible—but not by EXCLUDING risk. In other words, if the risk is zero then so is the possibility of reward. The point of the post was to try to show how golfers should think about the risk-reward formula: the factors to take into account when making that decision.

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