Q. Would you use a local caddie at Medinah?
SERGIO GARCIA: No. I’ll see who I use.
—Sergio Garcia at the Barclays, 25 August 2012
Sergio Garcia, whose earliest professional memories of major championship golf are bound up with Medinah Country Club and the 1999 PGA (he shot a course-record on Saturday, hit a shot that people still talk about on Sunday, and battled Tiger all the way to the last hole), took a local caddie at the Wyndham two weeks ago—and won. This week, at the Barclays at Bethpage, he took his friend Wayne Richardson, who usually works for CBS Sports—and finished third after leading through 54 holes. Naturally, the press corps asked him about his future looper plans, including whether he would use a local caddie for the Ryder Cup at Medinah. Sergio demurred, but the fact that he was asked the question at all simply astonished me—and inspired a bit of fancy. So, let’s say some kind of miracle happened (which it won’t, for innumerable reasons) …
The first thing that a caddie needs to know about his player is how far the player hits the ball with all of his clubs, and as it happens Golf magazine has a feature called “What’s In My Bag?” that not only tells you what clubs are in a player’s bag, but also how far he hits each one. Unfortunately, Sergio does not seem to have a relationship with Golf, or at least he hasn’t been a subject for that column before so far as I can tell. What my research found is that Sergio’s distances have been a matter of debate on golfwrx.com, a website for jesus-these-people-are-nerdy-even-for-me golf wonks, for years. Even back in 2008, as it happens also at the Barclays, the golfwrx people were talking about how the television announcers were saying Garcia didn’t carry a three-iron, as he hit his four-iron 250 yards. (See this page: http://www.golfwrx.com/forums/topic/188848-sergio-garcia-no-3-iron-whats-in-his-bag-at-barclays/). Which is, obviously, absurd.
On first hearing such a thing, I’d say that the amateur’s reaction is “What?” But there are reasons Sergio might actually hit a four-iron that far, including the fact that a lot of people wouldn’t recognize what he’s hitting as a four-iron. Most tour players’ clubs are bent a few degrees flatter, meaning that a tour pro’s seven-iron likely has a loft closer to the amateur’s six-iron—and since most amateur clubs these days have less loft than clubs did even ten years ago, Sergio’s four-iron might be pushing the loft of, say, Tom Watson’s two-iron in 1977.
The other reason is that Sergio’s swing involves what’s called “de-lofting” the clubface at impact. In other words, his hands are so far in front of the ball when the club makes contact (with said ball) that the effective loft of the club might be as much as a club more. When Sergio hits his ball, that is, a seven-iron has effectively become a six-iron, and so on. It’s possible to watch videos of Sergio’s swings on YouTube and other places, so if you feel the need to check this out, go ahead and I’ll wait.
If you’re back (or never left—I usually just keep reading when websites encourage those kinds of jumps), maybe we can proceed. What I resolved to do, in the absence of any better information, is find out where Sergio ranks in driver distance, find a comparable player whose iron distances are known, and kind of work from there. Clearly, there’s a lot of give in that sort of exercise, but this is all fantastical anyway so what the hell.
Sergio is, as of this writing, tied for 74th on the PGATour’s official stats for driving distances, which as it happens is not that far from Ricky Barnes, who’s tied for 78th. Barnes, as it also happens, has been featured in Golf’s “What’s In My Bag?” column, so for the purposes of what follows I’ll be roughly using Barnes’ distances to stand in for Sergio’s. All caveats apply, and all mistakes are, obviously, mine. In a sense I’ll be caddieing for a kind of Barney Garcia monster, but it’s also true that I’ve seen both Barnes and Garcia play in person, and while nobody’d ever mistake one for the other, I’ll try to have an idea where I’m starting to go seriously adrift—and remember, the Ryder Cup is match play, which means that complete precision isn’t quite necessary.
To begin then—and only to begin, because I’m not so silly as to try to cover the whole course here since reading anything that long would lead to my readers to start demanding caddie fees themselves—with Course Three’s first hole. The first is the one that, in the old joke we like to tell guests—after they’ve hit their fourth shot into some kind of proximity to the green, then chipped up and three-putted—is the easiest one on the course. According to Sergio’s driving distance stats, he averages about 290 yards off the tee. (This is surely nonsense, because even in 1999 I saw him hit a drive that went at least 360 yards on Course Three’s twelfth hole, and during that tournament he averaged about 315 yards off the tee in the first round.) But let’s say Sergio is conservative.
The first hole is only 435 yards or so from the very back, so that Serge—we’re already on a nickname basis—only needs 280 or so off the tee to get it to the 150 yard marker: Ricky Barnes hits his nine-iron about that far, as do most tour pros these days, so that’s about all any of them need to go these days. Past the 150 marker is a downslope, so a good drive that’s further than that will probably end up inside a hundred yards—with the caveat that it’s on a downslope, and it’s harder to hit the ball square on a downslope. The choice Serge will face here then is: try to intimidate his opponent by bombing one down the hill (and risk getting a weird lie), or laying up to a reasonable distance, then sticking the second shot close. What choice he makes on the very first tee, in other words, will say a lot about what Sergio thinks of his opponent’s abilities.
The second hole at Medinah is one Sergio’s had some history on: he holed out a chip there in 1999 for a seemingly-impossible birdie during his opening 66, which set the course record (until Skip Kendall fired a 65 the next day). The second will measure around 190 yards from the back tees during the Ryder Cup, so Serge will probably want to hit a seven-iron (Ricky Barnes hits his seven 180, but Phil Mickelson hits his 190; Serge is probably closer to Phil than to Ricky). But although September is usually fairly mild when it comes to wind speed in the Windy City, that average is weighted.
According to Weatherspark.com, in Chicago “the highest average wind speed … occurs around September 29, at which time the average daily maximum wind speed is 16 mph.” That’s a pretty considerable number, at least for golf; it would mean that Serge would have to hit at least another club to be sure of carrying the water that fronts the hole. Most likely, that wind would be out of the south or west (each has a 17 percent chance, according to Weatherspark), which on the second hole means it would be coming from the player’s right; that would mean that Serge would probably want to hit a left-to-right cut shot, which would also have the benefit of holding the somewhat-shallow green better. The downside is that cut shots usually don’t go as far, meaning that Garce (we are now being slightly creative with the nicknames) might have to club up even more, possibly to as much as a five-iron.
Still, Sergio’s length would probably be to his advantage over nearly anyone on the U.S. squad, which would mean that he’d have the chance to send a really dominating message to his opponent on the first two holes: a huge drive on the first hole, followed by a soaring iron shot to the second green, might be enough to win him the first two holes by themselves. Which would certainly help the Spaniard out, since Sergio isn’t known for his putting prowess—though he’s apparently putting better: he’s ranked 20th this year in the new putting stat, “Strokes Gained,” which measures how many shots a golfer has gained (or lost) against the field each week on the greens.
That brings us to where I might really be able to help Sergio, which is on Medinah’s greens. I don’t mean to boast, but there isn’t anyone on the planet who can read those greens better than I can, and there are a few spots on the first two greens where experience might actually matter even against guys who read greens every week with hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line. Both of the first two of Course Three’s greens have hidden breaks: the first has a mound towards its front that can make putts go the opposite way to where they might appear to want to go, while the second, notoriously, usually breaks away from the water to the green’s front. With good reads, Sergio could easily go birdie-birdie to open his match—and leave the second green with a two-up lead.
I am sure that all of the caddies for the Ryder Cup will see these breaks early in the practice round, but sometimes it’s possible to miss something in the heat of competition, and maybe it’s worth something to have somebody who can say—with authority—precisely the way the greens will behave. If I really did have anything to offer Sergio, or anybody else on the Ryder Cup team, it would be that I suppose. There are some places on those greens that I’ve seen even professionals misread badly; it’s possible, I suppose, that I might be able to help out in that dimension at least. And it might help Sergio—who ended up losing the Barclays to Nick Watney this afternoon—even more. When it was all over, Watney said this: “I made more putts than I made all year.”