A drinking problem wrecked my player relationship and nearly ended my career
Illustration by Madison Ketcham
Drinking cost me my job on the PGA Tour. How did it happen? It’s like that Hemingway line: “Gradually, then suddenly.”
I always thought I had a safe relationship with alcohol. My first beer was in college, and it’s not like I was vertical on a keg every weekend. I might have a six-pack every Friday and Saturday night. I know that qualifies as binge drinking now, but back then, and compared to a lot of other college students, that was considered moderate.
After graduation, one of my high school buddies tried to chase his dream on the mini-tours. I didn’t have a job yet, so I figured I’d caddie for him and delay adulting as long as I could. He didn’t last a year before quitting, realising his game was nowhere near what it needed to be. I wasn’t ready for an office job, so I found another bag, which led to another bag, and two years later I was on the PGA Tour.
When I started, the leading money winner on tour made less than $US2 million, and only 20 or so guys cracked $500,000. If you were a caddie and weren’t with a star, you were roughing it, and for the first five years, that was me. Still, I loved it. I was single and didn’t need much.
Not helping matters was rooming with other caddies each week. Everyone else was drinking, too. Again, I enjoyed myself, but it’s not like we were getting bombed all the time; on most nights I would have just two drinks to unwind.
Still, there were other times when we drank a lot more. I don’t care how practised you are at putting ’em back, heavy drinking catches up to you the next day. That our jobs require being outside, often in the heat, didn’t make those days easy. Still, when you’re in your late 20s, even early 30s, you can handle those days – or at least hide them.
Then I got pretty bad at hiding them. I know because my player’s manager told me he was worried because I was constantly showing up to the course hungover. By that point I was near 40. Two of the guys I had routinely roomed with were no longer on tour, and two others had started shacking up with another group. I still couldn’t afford solo accommodation, but I never made an effort to get to know the new caddies I was with on a weekly basis. Often I would drink by myself, sometimes 10 beers a night, before falling asleep. The manager was right; I was a mess. I wish I could tell you I came to my senses, but I didn’t. Two weeks later I got wrecked before a round, and on the range my player gave me a What did you do last night? stare.
How was it messing with my work? I wasn’t giving my player bad reads or yardages. It’s not like I would pass out in a bunker or vomit on the course (although sometimes both seemed like good options). Frankly, my player didn’t need much from me. The biggest thing he wanted was a loose mood. Usually that meant talking baseball or making him laugh. I’m not going to lie, we had one of the best rapports on tour. But looking back, when I was hungover, I tended to be silent, or my energy level wasn’t where it needed to be.
There was a dispiriting off-the-course moment, however. Not very long after the manager’s warning I received a blow from my player. His parents were in town, and before a round his father told me afterwards to join the group for dinner. A few hours later, as we’re shutting it down for the day, my player tells me, “I don’t think you should come tonight because I need your best tomorrow.” He said it gently but sternly. The implication was clear: if I came out, I would drink, and I would drink to excess.
Here’s the worst part: in two of the next 10 rounds we had, I showed up hungover. He knew it, too. I was sick another round, but given my track record, he probably thought I was in the bag on that day, too. Those were the last rounds we had together because after the season he fired me and told me if I wanted to stay on tour, I needed to get serious about my job.
Those first months I waited by the phone. I had been on tour for more than a decade; someone would need me. As I waited, I drank, but the phone never rang. By the time the US Open came, I still didn’t have a job. At that point I knew word was out about why I got canned, and the phone wouldn’t be ringing anytime soon. I stopped binge drinking around then: no programs, no divine intervention, didn’t go cold turkey. Instead, I weened myself off for a good two months. I wanted to be back on tour, and the first step back would be putting the bottle down for good.
I had to return to the then-Nationwide Tour to find a bag, and although I never stuck with anyone longer than a few tournaments, I found a semi-regular job back in the big leagues. My old player had given me a recommendation. We have never totally reconciled – player-caddie breakups tend to be that way – but I am forever grateful that he did me that favour.
It has been 10 years since I’ve been back, and I’m actually winding down. It hasn’t been easy. The temptation is still there to drink. There’s still a lot of downtime, and though the money is so much better now than it was when I started, my budget is still tight. Drinking is a cheap, easy-to-get thrill, and when I hang out with other caddies, at least a few of them are enjoying their spirits. I am mostly stepping aside from a full-time bag because I’m newly married and want to be home more with my family. If I’m being honest, drinking played a big role in the decision, too, because quitting wasn’t easy, and this caddie life only makes it harder. – with Joel Beall