I’ve caddied lots of times (for fun) for women pros on the LPGA and the Symetra Tour. It’s one of the things I enjoy the most in the game of golf. I love being “on the bag” in pro events and helping friends on the tour in competition in big tournaments. Just being next to those great golfers out on the course is a thrill for this 63 year old who scrapes it around as a 12 handicapper when I’m playing the game.
My latest caddying assignment (this week at a U.S. Women’s Open sectional qualifier in Virginia) is one I’ll never forget. It was the most exciting, and definitely the most grueling, caddying job I have ever had.
A Marathon Day “On the Bag”
Rebecca Lee-Bentham, a third-year player on the LPGA who hails from Toronto, Canada, asked me if I could fill in for her regular caddie this month at the LPGA Kingsmill Championship in Williamsburg, Virginia and then at her Open qualifier the following Monday at Hermitage Country Club outside Richmond. I’ve known Rebecca for three years since I first met her at the final stage of LPGA Q School in Daytona Beach, Florida back in December of 2011. She earned her LPGA card at the age of 19 that week. Coincidentally, I caddied at Q School that week for another friend, 19-year-old Hannah Yun from Bradenton, Florida, who also earned her LPGA card. That remains one of my fondest caddying memories. This month I was glad to help out Rebecca, and I rarely turn down a chance to “loop” for one of my friends on the women’s pro tours.
Rebecca has been struggling with some swing issues this season on the LPGA tour and she had a very tough week at Kingsmill, missing the two-day cut by several shots. So, I was not very optimistic when we headed over to Hermitage Country Club this Monday to compete in the 36-hole qualifier for the Open. There were 30 other LPGA players in the overall field of 90 players. It was a very strong field. The USGA was awarding 6 spots in the Open from this qualifier, one of close to 30 being held around the country and overseas during the month of May. This year the Women’s Open is being played in mid-June at Pinehurst #2 right after the Men’s Open. It is a USGA experiment in back-to-back Men’s and Women’s Opens on the same course. The decision has the golf world buzzing.
Two weeks ago, Rebecca and I played a couple of practice rounds on the two courses at Hermitage (Manakin and Sabot) to get familiar with the layouts and the greens. They do not have yardage books for the courses, so I made my own, detailing all the bunkers, hazards, and other trouble spots and the yardages to and from various points on the courses. The USGA decided to set up both courses at more than 6,600 yards… very long… even longer than the LPGA usually sets up courses for its events.
Usually the qualifiers are played on one course… 18 holes in the morning, a quick lunch, and 18 holes in the afternoon. They are tests of consistency and endurance for the players and their caddies. At Hermitage we had the added wrinkle of playing two different courses, making it even more of a test of skill for the players. At the Kingsmill LPGA event, I carried Rebecca’s big 35 pound staff bag. We agreed that we would use my much lighter carry bag for the qualifier. I honestly didn’t think I would make it lugging around her regular bag. As it turned out, even the young bucks who caddie for a living for LPGA players decided to use lightweight bags for the qualifier. They knew that even they would have a hard time making it with the big bags for 36 holes on the two hilly courses. We were all lucky that the weather was near perfect that day… with sunny skies and a high temp in the mid-70’s.
Rebecca teed off at 7:55 on the first hole of the Manakin course. She was paired with retired LPGA player Kris Tschetter from Virginia and a very good teenage amateur from India, Khushboo Thiagaraj. It was a great group, but the day started out shakily for Rebecca. Her approach shots on her first two holes were not hit well and left her short of the greens, one in a deep bunker. She has an excellent short game and is a fantastic putter, however, and she managed to get up and down to save par.
She settled down nicely after the second hole and we got into a good rhythm. She started to hit all of her shots solidly and made 3 birdies with just 1 bogey on the long course, shooting a 2 under par 70 on her first 18. This put her in very good shape after the morning scores were posted. Only a few of the 90 players had shot scores in the 60’s. We were both feeling pretty good as we had a quick sandwich and relaxed for a few minutes. I was appreciative for a chance to sit down for a while, realizing we were just halfway done… or so I thought at the time.
Our afternoon round was on the Sabot course which the locals consider a 2 or 3 shot tougher course than Manakin. It proved to be for us. Rebecca remained solid off the tee (she only missed one fairway the entire day) but a careless three putt and a couple other errors resulted in a 3 over par 75. That gave her a 36-hole total of 1 over par for the event.
We figured that anything around par would have a good chance of being in the all-important top 6 to earn one of the tickets to the Open. We were right. When we looked at the scoreboard outside the clubhouse it showed Rebecca was tied for 2nd place with two other players with just a few groups left to finish. The player in the lead was at even par. But as the last four or five groups finished and reported their scores, three players finished the day under par and one more player tied Rebecca and the two others at 1 over par. That meant that Rebecca and those three other players would have to have a sudden-death playoff. It would be four players for the two remaining spots.
My legs were tired and had stiffened up as we stood around waiting for the final scores to come in. But when I realized we would have to go out immediately for the playoff, the fatigue and soreness were quickly forgotten. I think the adrenaline kicked in at that point.
So, Rebecca and fellow LPGA players, M.J. Hur, Dori Carter, and Sarah Jane Smith went to the first tee of the Manakin course to play off for the two last spots. The first hole is 400 yards uphill. All of the players hit good tee shots. Rebecca’s approach was ten yards short of the green, but she chipped it up to two feet and made her par. M.J. Hur, whose approach found a bunker, failed to get up and down and she was the first player eliminated after the other three parred the hole.
On the second hole, a par 5, Dori Carter made a nice 10-foot birdie putt while Rebecca and Sarah Jane parred the hole. That gave Dori the 5th qualifying spot and her day was happily over. Her trip to Pinehurst was secured. That meant Rebecca and Sarah Jane would face off head-to-head for the final remaining ticket to the Open. None of us realized at that point that the real drama was just beginning.
Rebecca and Sarah Jane (who, by the way, had just finished tied for 2nd place in the LPGA’s Kingsmill event the previous day and won $90,000) each parred the third playoff hole, a par 4. That brought them to the 173-yard par 3 fourth hole. As the sun was beginning to go down on this long day of golf at Hermitage Country Club both players hit the green and two putted for par. The USGA official running the event then told the players they would go back to the tee and continue playing this hole until a winner was determined. To speed up play because daylight was running out they shuttled us back to the tee in golf carts.
Well, Rebecca and Sarah Jane played that hole five more times, each time both halving the hole with pars. Both players hit the green every time with their tee shots and both just missed birdie putts by fraction of inches a few times. The good-sized gallery of fans who had followed the drama roared when one of Rebecca’s tee shots almost went in for a hole in one on fifth time they played the hole. But her shot rolled a few feet past and she missed the putt. We couldn’t see it because it had gotten so dark it was hard to see the pin from the tee box.
By the time we reached the green for the sixth time it was very dark. It was impossible to read the breaks. I had to tend the pin for Rebecca even though she was only 12 feet away. Both players parred the hole again, and the official announced that play had to be suspended because of darkness.
That meant Rebecca had played, and I had caddied, for 45 holes that day and our jobs were still not over. The official said play would resume at 7:30 the next morning and they would continue to play the 4th hole until somebody won it. Talk about a “cliff hanger.”
Tuesday morning Rebecca and I met at the car at six o’clock at our hotel. We grabbed a quick breakfast on the way to the course and got there about 6:30 in order to warm up on the range and putting green. Sarah Jane and her husband/caddie DuWayne pulled into the parking lot at the course about three minutes after us. We wished each other luck and got down to business. At 7:30 the officials called us over to the clubhouse from the driving range. We all caravanned out to the fourth hole in several golf carts and prepared to find out exactly how many times we would have to play the hole before one of the players could win it.
Sarah Jane had had the honors on all of the head-to-head playoff holes with Rebecca. She teed off into the morning sun this time and she pulled her shot a little, missing the green for the first time in seven tries. Rebecca and I decided to use the same club she had used from the tee the evening before, but that morning the wind had shifted and was now behind her. She hit a great shot to the back pin, but it bounced hard and rolled through the green into a bunker just behind the pin, leaving her short sided.
Sarah Jane hit a good chip but it rolled 15 feet past the pin, leaving her a downhill right-to-left breaking putt. Rebecca hit an excellent bunker shot, but she also rolled past the pin stopping three feet short of Sarah Jane’s ball marker. Sarah putted first and left her putt about a foot short. She tapped in for a bogey. Rebecca knew the line of her putt after having a similar one the day before. She put a perfect stroke on the ball, playing for a four-inch break to the left. The ball tracked perfectly and dropped into the middle of the cup for her par.
A huge smile came over her face. I gave her such a big hug I was I afraid I might have bruised her ribs. She had earned her way into the Open. Her winning putt on her 46th hole dropped into the cup almost exactly 24 hours after she had hit her first tee shot the day before in this marathon of a golf event. It will always be one of the most vivid memories I will ever have from a golf course.
Well done, Rebecca!! Go get ‘em at the U S Women’s Open. You certainly deserve your spot in the field.
About the Author: Dave Andrews is a Harvard-educated former television news reporter. Dave is an avid golfer who has become a fan of the LPGA and the Symetra Tour. He is the author of Pops and Sunshine, a novel and screenplay about life on the women’s tour. The screenplay has been optioned by a production company in Hollywood.