LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Starting the PGA Tour each year with two weeks on the beautiful Hawaiian islands sounds like paradise for the players fortunate enough to be there but for their caddies it is hard work.
While the Sony Open at Waialae Country Club is played on a flat, par-70 layout, the season-opening Tournament of Champions at the Kapalua Resort on Maui takes place in hilly terrain on the 7,411-yard, par-73 Plantation Course.
Spectacular though the ocean views can be at Kapalua, the caddies have to lug 35-pound golf bags up and down the side of a mountain with elevation changes of 160 feet, roughly the equivalent of a 16-storey building.
American Jimmy Johnson, one of the most experienced ‘loopers’ on the PGA Tour, rates Kapalua’s Plantation Course as the most daunting he has tackled since he began working as a caddie in 1995.
“It’s brutal, and it’s long,” Johnson told Reuters. “It’s the first tournament of the year and everybody has been home for the holidays. I’m surprised some of the caddies even make it.
“I have a hard time out there and there are plenty of guys a lot older than me. It’s really, really tough. The first couple of days it really gets you and you wake up in the morning with aches and pains.”
The challenge becomes even tougher for caddies at Kapalua in rainy weather.
“When you put rain suits in the golf bag, it gets really heavy,” said Johnson, who caddies for American world number six Steve Stricker. “And rain suits are the heaviest items of all that we have to carry.
“It can also be tough if it’s cool in the morning and then warms up in the afternoon. You have all the warm gear (for cool weather) and then you have to put all that in your bag.”
Though the caddying experience can be brutal at Kapalua, there is always the Sony Open on the island of Oahu the following week to provide welcome compensation.
“Waialae is as flat as a pancake,” Johnson said with a smile. “After Kapalua, you feel like you’re walking around with ice skates on in a skating rink. You don’t have to use much effort.”
Asked which tournament had been the toughest in his caddying career for overall stamina, Johnson, who helped Stricker to finish in joint ninth place at Waialae on Sunday, came up with two examples.
“We went 36 holes at Royal Melbourne for the 1998 Presidents Cup in 40-degree (Celsius) weather and that was pretty tough,” he said.
“That night I remember going to eat. I was sitting at the bar and I had like two beers and some dinner and I was almost frozen to the chair. I couldn’t get off of it I was so stiff.
“And then the other time was when we played 36 holes at Castle Pines on Sunday in Denver and then flew all night to the (2005) PGA (Championship) at Baltusrol. Those two tournaments really stick out.”
Johnson, a sunburned Texan who is highly respected by his peers, competed on the Southern African professional circuit as a player for 16 years before taking up caddying in 1995.
He has since helped four players to triumph on the PGA Tour — former world number one Nick Price of Zimbabwe, Paraguayan Carlos Franco and Americans Charles Howell III and Stricker.
“I have been very fortunate,” Johnson said. “I even enjoyed the brief time when I caddied for Michelle (Wie) when she was still an amateur.
“I just love being out there caddying and having a chance to win, with all the excitement of it too. The money is great but it all comes from doing things well.
“You don’t go out there to try to make money. You go out there to try to do as well as you can and finish as high as you can and then the rewards come.”
The most pressure Johnson has experienced as a caddie has always come over the closing holes of a tournament when he and his player are in contention.
“No doubt, but you don’t feel the pressure coming down the stretch as much as a caddie as you do as a player for some reason,” he said.
“As a caddie, you seem to think more clearly. You think about the positives of how you hit a golf shot or this is what we should do instead of what can happen (negatively).
“Things slow down for you as a caddie and they seem to speed up for the player. I think that’s where Tiger (Woods) is so good because things slow down for him too.”
Caddies have a multi-faceted role to play out on the course where they not only act as a bagman but also provide yardages, help with club selection and frequently wear the hat of a sports psychologist.
Often the art of good caddying hinges on knowing when to speak to the player and when to stay silent.
“As a caddie you’ve got to keep your player grounded,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to wear a lot of hats and every player needs different things so you just have to adapt to your player and do the best you can.
“Whatever they need, you do it. It’s a fine line. You’ve just got to keep them balanced. That’s the key. It’s almost like flat-lining. If you can stay flat-lined out there, you’re going to be a lot better off.”
Editing by Clare Fallon