Call of Duty ‘legend’ Bianca Pagdanganan one of four rookies to qualify for CME Group Tour Championship

Beth Ann Nichols
·5 min read

NAPLES, Fla. ­– The first time Brandon Jackson caddied at the Inverness, he fainted after nine holes. He was 13 years old and trying out for a job at the historic club.

“My interviewer actually thought I was dead,” said 25-year-old Jackson, who forgot to eat before the round.

A dozen years later, that dramatic introduction to the caddie world has morphed into a full-time job with one of the hottest young players on tour – LPGA bomber Bianca Pagdanganan.

They met by happenstance. Jackson, who was the assistant caddie manager at Inverness, also worked part-time at Stone Oak Country Club in Toledo, where his girlfriend’s dad, Milton Carswell Jr., is the head pro. Pagdanganan, 23, was out practicing at Stone Oak in the lead-up to the LPGA Drive On event, and Carswell suggested he introduce himself.

“I met them out on No. 5,” said Jackson, who later that day offered her hole-by-hole notes for Inverness. The Marathon Classic was the following week in Toledo, and Jackson, a member at Highland Meadows, gave Pagdanganan his yardage book from when he looped the event in 2018.

By the time Pagdanganan’s next start rolled around in Arkansas, the enterprising Jackson was on her bag. It’s been that way since for the rookie duo.

This week she’s one of four rookies at the 72-player no-cut CME Group Tour Championship, joined by Andrea Lee, Leona Maguire and Yealimi Noh.

For the most part, Pagdanganan likes to keep things simple on the golf course. She doesn’t want to be overloaded with information. She’s not technical or mechanical.

“He gets more into detail with everything that’s going on,” said Pagdanganan. “After I made that putt at KPMG he was like ‘Oh you just played your way into the U.S. Open.’ What?

“I think there’s a good balance between us.”

Jackson, who caddies at Augusta National during the winter, played one year at Rogers Senior High School before the school cut the program. Another area high school, Ottawa Hills, let him practice with the team. He was awarded the prestigious Evans Scholarship and got a degree in professional golf management.

Jackson was set to chair a committee for the upcoming Solheim Cup at Inverness but with his new job on tour, will take on a less demanding role. He’s grateful now that his grandmother encouraged him to get a passport. He’ll likely be stamp-collecting next year.

“The more calm I can be,” he said, “even if I’m nervous or sweating… if she hits a bad shot, she knows that I’m not fazed. My uncle always told me, ‘Don’t get too high on the highs or low on the lows.’ ”

Bianca Pagdanganan and her caddie Brandon Jackson participate in the opening round of the CME Group Tour Championship, Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020, at the Tiberon Golf Club in North Naples, Florida.

Pagdanganan has her whole crew in Naples this week. Her longtime coach, Carito Villaroman, flew in from the Philippines with Pagdanganan’s mother ahead of last month’s Pelican Women’s Championship. They have a kitchen in their hotel so that Carmina can cook Bianca’s favorite Filipino dishes.

Villaroman was first struck by Pagdanganan’s commitment to the game at an early age, outlasting everyone else at the course. She was a lanky kid, and with school lasting from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. each day, there wasn’t much time for the gym. He knew that when she went off to college – first Gonzaga and then Arizona – a strength program combined with those fast hips would translate to added distance. Every year that she came home from college, she’d be 10 to 15 yards longer.

Villaroman set a Junior World record at Torrey Pines of 15 under par that still stands today. He won the tournament by 11 shots, with Phil Mickelson finishing second. Villaroman actually won three Junior World titles and became the first Filipino to play college golf. He graduated from Weber State at age 20 and played two decades on the Asian Tour.

In addition to Pagdanganan, Villaroman also coached Yuka Saso for seven years before she started playing on the JLPGA.

When Villaroman caddied for Pagdanganan at the last two stages of Q-School last year, he noticed that no one hit it farther. So far, the stats show the same on the LPGA. She leads the tour with a 283.94 average.

When asked how much a $1.1 million payday would change her life, Pagdanganan immediately shifted away from the money. A victory at the CME would give her a guaranteed two more years of doing what she loves. In a year when LPGA status has been frozen, winning is the only way Pagdanganan can improve her position of 167th on the priority list. (She’s currently 59th on the money list with $198,586.)

That being said, the CME first-place money would be nice. Her older sister is an investment banker and her older brother is a lawyer, a handy combination for a rookie who simply wants to focus on hitting golf shots.

“At one point (my sister) was going to send me a Power Point,” said Bianca, “and dumb all these terms down just for me to understand. ‘You know, B, you’ve got to have a budget.’ ”

Pagdanganan first downloaded Call of Duty mobile, a shooter video game, when she was competing in Q-School. She’s obsessed with it and will reluctantly admit that her boyfriend is as equally skilled at the virtual combat franchise.

Pagdanganan has achieved “legendary” status in both the Battle Royale and Multiplayer games.

“It’s embarrassing for me to admit that,” she said, smiling.

Basketball remains the first love of Pagdanganan’s island nation, but she’s quickly gaining in popularity in the Philippines. It’s possible that she might one day become legendary in the real world, too.

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