LONDON, Ont.— Standing on the 18th green on Sunday at Sunningdale Golf and Country Club, golfer Ryan Williams walked towards me with a shocked look on his face.
“Did I win?” he asked quietly.
“You sure did,” I said, not trying to conceal my excitement.
“Man, you were a big part of this,” he said.
Williams, a 33-year-old golfer and former hockey player from Vancouver, had just won PGA Tour Canada’s Tour Championship presented by Freedom 55 Financial, becoming the tour’s top Canadian in the process. In doing so he took home $27,000 for the win, $10,000 for being top Canadian, another $1,500 for being Canadian of the week (both also presented by Freedom 55 Financial), and I’m sure more for various incentives through sponsors.
But that’s not why Williams was so stunned. He’s been chasing a dream of playing on the PGA Tour for seven years. And with the win, he was one massive step closer to pulling it off. Though the win didn’t automatically get him onto the tour, it does get him into final stage of Web.com Tour qualifying school. From there he’s one good season away from the world of courtesy cars and network television coverage.
I had the chance to witness it up close. As a journalist, I’ve spent most of my life observing, watching others and trying to put some context on their actions in a way that’s clear for my readers. But in the case of Williams, I became part of the story. I’ve known Williams for a couple of years, ever since meeting him at a tournament in Scarborough. We’ve kept in touch, and last year at the same tournament he stayed with my family in a spare bedroom. Playing tour golf in Canada isn’t cheap, and players will take any break they can. This year I asked if he wanted to stay again and if he needed a caddie. He accepted on both counts.
That meant on Wednesday morning I was out on the fairways for a practice round, with Williams’ bag over my shoulder, a damp, stinky and often muddy towel in my pocket, helping out with yardages and putts, keeping the clubs clean and suggesting which way the wind was blowing. There’s an old adage that a caddie at a professional tournament need only do three things: show up, keep up and shut up.
That’s not how Williams sees it. He asked my opinion, consulted me on reading the way putts would snap, and asked my perspective on which club he should hit. In time it felt like we were a team, though admittedly I didn’t have to smash a drive or the result would have been very different. But we became a team nonetheless.
Interestingly, Williams spent much of the summer traveling with another west coast golfer, Adam Cornelson, and the 26-year-old also stayed at my house. Cornelson had a mixed year that he turned around with solid play in the final weeks of the season.
Last week would turn out to be one the friends will surely never forget. Williams and Cornelson battled back and forth through the opening rounds (playing together on Friday with my neighbor caddying for Cornelson), and on the final round Sunday found themselves only a couple of shots out of the lead and playing in the two final groups.
I’ve caddied in pro tournaments before; for a golf writer I thought it was something that gave you insights into the soul of the game. My friend Lorne Rubenstein did it early in his career, and I guess there’s a romance about grabbing a bag and watching the action up close. I’ve watched PGA Tour star Gary Woodland smash balls into the distance while carrying his heavy tour bag and witnessed Jim Furyk dissect a course during a pro-am while helping an exec pick clubs. I’ve also watched the struggles. Last year at the Tour Championship I saw my player, Mike Mezei, give it one last try, recognizing his professional golf career was near the end.
That’s the thing. Spend a week carrying a pro’s bag and you become emotionally connected to the player. You falter when a putt slides by, and you are elated with a shot that rockets to the flag and falls gently like a bird with sore feet.
By the final nine on the final round, it looked like it was slipping away. Williams had played steadily, but hadn’t made any putts. The leader, a big-hitting bow hunter from Minnesota named Clayton Rask who traveled in his own RV, was pulling away.
To his credit, Williams never let it get to him. He was convinced he’d pull it off. He was never cocky—that’s not his style—but seemed sure good things would happen.
“RT, we’re going to go five deep on the back,” he said, suggesting in golf speak that he’d make five birdies. “That’ll get it done.”
It didn’t take long for me to think he wouldn’t reach his goal. On the 10th hole his drive plugged in muddy rough just off the fairway. I assured Ryan his drive was embedded, meaning he’d receive relief and move the ball. The rules official disagreed, and Williams never argued. That meant Williams had to smash at a ball submerged in mud, and the result lurched forward before diving into long grass. When his pitch into the green came up short I was convinced his time his chances were dashed, that he’d make bogey and the leader, Rask, would win the tournament.
If Williams was deflated he never showed it, instead willing a long putt into the hole. That righted the ship and he went on to play one of the best back nines of his career, dumping in a final birdie on 17 to tie with Rask and Cornelson, who was finishing a hole ahead.
The situation was so tension-filled that I’m surprised Williams could pull back his driver on the final hole, a 450-yard par four. A few hundred spectators milled around, watching the action. Williams hammered another drive down the right side of the fairway, match almost to the yard by Rask’s strike.
That’s when Rask made an unusual error, electing to fire at a pin on the left side of the green. His ball soared and dove to the left, ending up just long of the green. This was an opportunity.
“This is a perfect 7-iron,” Williams announced. “What do you think for a line? At the guy in the red shirt?”
There’s a point where the caddie is simply there to reinforce what the player already knows. Williams recognized it was the perfect club and the right line, and wanted to be reassured given the pressure.
“That’s it, R-dub,” I said confidently, using William’s nickname. “Hit it smooth.”
He did, and the ball flew to the middle of the green, leaving a simple uphill putt. As I walked to the green I looked at the scoreboard. Cornelson, Williams’ friend, had made bogey, dropping out of the lead (and ultimately finishing in a tie for second). When Rask stubbed his chip and then ran his par putt well by the hole, Williams needed two putts to win. As he’d done throughout the tournament, he consulted his caddie. We agreed on the line, and the putt rolled just by. He quietly made the comebacker and walked over to shake my hand.
In the hours that followed he’d talk about how “we” had won. How “we” hit a great chip on the par four 13th that found the bottom of the cup for birdie and how “we” decided to hit a nine iron into 17. Of course the “we” is overstating things. I didn’t do anything, even if Williams always insisted I had.
“This was the biggest week of my life,” he told me before he got in his car to head to the airport for his flight back to Vancouver.
“You were big part of it,” he told me again.
A big part is an overstatement. I was part of his win, but I never hit a shot or had to deal with a putt that lipped out. I felt pressure, but it wasn’t the pressure to perform.
Still, I contributed where I could and had the opportunity to feel the nervous tension that pounds down on you when all you need is one more great shot. It may never happen for me again—I think I’m a better journalist than caddie, frankly—but if that was my only opportunity, I’m glad I took it.
Victory, it turns out, is sweet, even for the caddie with the muddy towel.