ABOVE: Mark Carens, caddie for J.J. Spaun, has fun when he hits his shot off the tee on the 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass during the annual caddie contest at the Players Championship. [PHOTO: Cliff Hawkins]

When you exit the 17th hole through the tunnel that leads to the 18th tee at TPC Sawgrass’ Stadium course, you leave behind a picture both serene and harrowing. On one hand, a pleasant vignette of green grass and placid water, rippled slightly by a salutary breeze. On the other, the vision of the impossible shot – the island green, the hostile water, like a fever dream from Pete Dye’s warped mind, complete with two trees growing out of the white sand bunker in the background on 16.

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On Sunday, this is where fortunes are decided for the contenders at the Players Championship. On Wednesday, however, it’s also where their caddies hit their most important (read: only?) shot of the entire year.

This is the scene of the annual caddie contest at the Players: one shot only, 134 metres, with thousands watching and glory on the line. And a little more, too – per an announcement posted in the locker room, the winner also gets the donated player funds (sources say they dump whatever cash they want in a bucket at registration), an engraved money clip, a “framed hand-drawn sketch by Casey Jones” and, perhaps best of all, a preferred parking spot in Lot 2. (As any Lot 6 media member can tell you, Lot 2 is prime real estate.)

At approximately noon, the top of the leaderboard showed the name Julien Trudeau, which looks at first glance like Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada. It is not – Julien is the caddie for Mackenzie Hughes, and according to ShotLink, his tee shot wound up exactly 10 feet from the hole. On the tee, Michael Cromie, caddie for Chris Kirk and a former college golfer like Kirk at the University of Georgia, hits a lovely high shot that stops 15 feet away, good in the moment for fourth place. It’s a tenuous spot on the leaderboard, but respectable. John Limanti (Keith Mitchell) hits a 9-iron that looks perfect, but stops short of the ridge and settles at the front of the green. Even so, Mitchell and the others give him a round of mock applause.

“I shanked it onto the other island last year,” Limanti explains afterwards. “And I might have club twirled actually. It was so close to a perfect shot, but it was a shank. I hit it into the bushes, and they were all over me. And I hadn’t hit a ball since December. I came in with one swing thought, and I flushed it. I was over it, and I felt the wind come in, I was playing left-to-right, and I was like, I’m not going to back off, I’m going to commit.”

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That sets the stage for Phil Reedy, the looper for Harry Hall. His ball follows the same trajectory as Limanti’s, but has the extra kick he needs. The crowd wakes from its collective slumber to cheer his effort, and the scoreboard flashes the result: inside six feet. We have a new leader.

“A 9-iron,” Reedy affirms. He’s been playing full-time until recently, but now he’s a full-time caddie, and he considers himself a born-again novice.

“I was nervous,” he says. “I haven’t hit a ball. I thought I was hitting in the water for sure.”

Groups pass, caddies tee off. Balls fly hither and yon, and at one point a graphic shows that of 44 shots so far, 17 have ended in the drink. The birds cry out above the palms. Aaron Flener, looping for J.T. Poston, thins his shot and begs for luck.

“Work out! Hit the pin!”

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It doesn’t, flying instead far over the green. But Jordan Guilford, Andrew Putnam’s caddie, tall and lithe, doesn’t need to beg. He’s carded a 67 once, despite just a year of junior varsity golf on his official résumé, so he has the skills. Most caddies are using a 9-iron, but he opts for a smooth pitching wedge, and though he’s nervous, an aesthetically pleasing swing produces a ball inside nine feet, placing him second in the competition.

“I was kind of thinking it would have to be a nuclear pitching wedge, just smash it, but I didn’t have to,” he says.

He’s happy about second place – no winner of the caddie contest has gone on to loop for the tournament winner, so he’s escaped the curse.

Phil Reedy is the man on the spot instead, and it’s hard to imagine, when you leave just shy of 2pm, that anyone can beat him. But (some) of these guys are good, too. And someone does: Sean McDonagh, on Vincent Norrman’s bag, throws a dart to two feet, one inch.

Vincent Norrman was victorious with Sean McDonagh on the bag at last year’s Irish Open, but it was the caddie who claimed the title on Wednesday at TPC Sawgrass. [Photo: Richard Heathcote]
Somewhere, Harry Hall breathes a sigh of relief; now, there’s no curse between him and the Players Championship.