I am so lucky to have a friend and business partner who plays professionally. For that reason, I will leave the details of how Mark Baldwin advanced through the first stage of PGA Tour Q school last weekfor the man himself to write. However, I wanted to give my perspective from my view on his bag. I hadn't caddied at Q school in years and had only done it one other time. I had forgotten about the ever-present pressure that hangs over the entire week. I gathered some random thoughts on my week and other things I noticed.
Walden on Lake Conroe was, in a word, quirky. The course had tiny greens with old Bermuda rough all the way to the edge of each green. It was tight and short, precisely opposite of the type of course that fits Mark's game. It was also in pretty rough condition. For the most part, the greens were in good shape, although very slow. The fairways, rough and tees, however, could have been better. There were so many bare spots that a rules official told a playing partner of ours, who was looking for relief near the 10th green. “If I give you relief for that, then I'd have to give relief for that, that, that, that, and that,” the official said, pointing to the sparse conditions.
That all worked in Mark’s favor, because having the right mentality is so important in these events. Few players in the field picked this site as their top choice. (Players rank the 13 first-stage sites but get placed based on when they turned in their application.) Mark had Walden as his sixth choice. But the harsh conditions and the old Bermuda rough all the way up to the green frustrated a lot of players. Take, for example, the player I saw chipping on another hole during one final practice round. He chunked one (easy to do in the thick Bermuda rough), and he swatted at the ground. He was frustrated before even teeing it up.
We thought Mark had hit a good tee shot on the final hole of the second round, but we arrived at the ball to find it resting against the trunk of a tree. At that very moment, the skies opened up. The first two days had been a grind; we were 1 over par through 35 holes and a couple of shots outside the projected number needed to advance. Now we were standing in a torrential downpour and in a predicament. These are the moments I really need to step up as his caddie.
I have been open about the fact I'm not a professional caddie. When asked, I help at times with clubs and reading putts, but mostly I am there to support Mark. Keep him calm in moments like this. As we waited out the downpour under the umbrella, I told him we needed to take our time with the drop. After the rain passed, I again reminded him to take his time, and we talked through all the options. It is easy for a player, with his career on the line, to get frustrated at that moment and compound a bad break with a poor decision. My job is to make sure he doesn't do that.
We decided on a drop that left him the best chance to get near the green, and he executed the shot. As we walked to the green, I left him alone. Players need time when they are pissed, and he was understandably pissed. When we got to the chip, I said, "All right, let's get this up and down and get out of here." Which he did. As we walked to the clubhouse, I joked about the multiple bad breaks we had gotten during the round. And maybe that par save gave him momentum heading into the final 36 holes, when Mark made a dozen birdies and only two bogeys.
In the final round, I needed to talk to myself often about remaining calm. On the 1st tee, I could hardly swallow. Mark was sitting on the number; his season was on the line. When he birdied 2 and 3, I felt like fist-pumping and giving him a huge high-five. We both knew how important it was to get off to a good start, but after the birdie on 3, I gave him a quick fist bump and moved on. (He birdied the 4th, too!) Don't get too high or too low was the name of the game for the week, but especially for the final day. Not until he tapped in for a 67 did I let out my emotions. "Let's fucking go!" I said as I gave him a spirited high-five and hug.
Because it had been so long since I caddied at Q school, I had forgotten how tense the week is. Even on practice-round days, the range is quieter than usual. At Korn Ferry, PGA Tour and mini-tour events, you always see players talking and laughing with one another on the range. They know another event is on the horizon, but Q school is different. At Walden, there would only be a "next event" if you finished among the top 19 players. The others face another year of uncertainty. As a fan/caddie, you can sense the difference right away. Small talk is kept to a minimum. Players keep to themselves for the most part.
At every professional event, players head to the range after a round searching for answers; those sessions just don’t have the desperation of Q school. When Mark went to the range after the second round, 10 players were on the range. You could hear a pin drop.
The supporting cast
It struck me as Mark and I walked to our rental car knowing he had comfortably advanced. We laughed and smiled, savoring the satisfaction of knowing we were moving on. The wife and mother of another player passed us. They were stoic and not talking. I knew what that meant. Not only does the player face another year of uncertainty, but so do the spouses, parents and friends. It stings for everyone.
Just a few minutes earlier, I encountered a caddie I know. He looked at me, shook his head slowly and then put his head down. It told me his player was headed home.
So you want to chase the dream of being a tour professional? We stayed in a trailer park. Now, I want to be fair to Jhared Hack, with whom we stayed and made the reservation. Our accommodations were not in a trailer. They were, however, in the middle of a trailer park. The listing advertised five beds, which was perfect for the four people who were staying there, except one of the “beds” was an air mattress and one was a sofa sleeper. I got the couch, and I'm not sure my back will recover before second stage. (Joking, Jhared.) The house was fine and the price was appealing ($700 for the week), so it worked out. Oh, and Jhared shot 16 under and was co-medalist, meaning the house was a combined 25 under.
Mark’s shot of the week
This is easy: The third shot on the nearly impossible par-5 11th in the third round was perfection. The 11th is the weirdest and hardest par-5 I've ever seen. In fact, in the second round, it produced zero birdies among the 80 players in the field. Zero. Stats legend Justin Ray said the hardest a par-5 had played in a PGA Tour event in the last 20 years was the 14th at Pebble Beach during the 2010 U.S. Open. That week it played to a 5.44-stroke average. At first stage last week, the 11th hole played to a 5.7 average.
The hole is on the point of Lake Conroe, and the wind whips; it was around 20 mph into us on three of the four days. The tee shot requires a 250-yard layup to the first corner of a double dogleg. The landing area is small, and the fairway bunkers right are a guaranteed bogey or worse. There is no way to go for the green if the wind is blowing, so the next shot is a layup with the lake all along the right. You need to hit it around 200 yards to a narrow fairway. That leaves a 150- to 200-yard shot into a green whose pin is cut far right against the lake or far left, where an inlet looms. The green is so sloped in the middle that the only two places to set a pin are the two edges.
With storms blowing in on Day 3, the wind was whipping at more than 20 mph, and Mark's tee shot found the right trees. From there, he hit a knockdown 2-iron, leaving him a 212-yard shot into the stiff wind. As his 4-iron reached its apex, Mark said, "That might be the best shot I hit all year." It was. The ball landed 30 feet right of the flag (exactly where we were aiming), and he two-putted for par. Considering the circumstances and knowing the danger of the hole having watched his playing partner drown his chances of advancing, the shot won't soon be forgotten.
Mark's second-stage site is Kinderlou Forest in Valdosta, Ga., from Nov. 28-Dec. 1. His prep may include a money match with a certain six-time major champion he has played before. I'll be on the bag, and I can't wait to get there.