Don't Forget to Keep Score, and Other Lessons I Learned Caddying for a Pro Golfer

Photographs: Getty Images; Collage: Gabe Conte

Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays on the PGA Tour—practice days, warmup days—are cute. But on Thursday mornings, the scores start to count. The decibels shrink. Caddy conversations are short. No one lingers on the range. It’s cordial, sure, but the movement is purposeful. Point A to Point B. On this particular morning, at Renaissance Club in July, my pro seemed to be battling a case of the tugs with his driving iron, but he clearly wasn’t too bothered.

Perennial major contender Cam Smith had just left the hitting bay next to us. “That guy’s going to LIV,” Joel Dahmen said between swings, once Smith was out of earshot. “After the playoffs, though.”

Viktor Hovland walked by in the other direction. “He might be, too.” We were due on the tee soon, an 8:15 am start alongside Sepp Straka, a burly 29-year-old Austrian who grew up in Georgia (the state), and Mikko Korhonen, a 41-year-old Finnish father of four. Straka had won The Honda Classic earlier this year. He was ascending. But Korhonen hadn’t won a tournament since 2019. The only PGA Tour events he competed in were three major championships (two missed cuts, one T63). He was the definition of what the sport calls journeymen. Journeymen spend decades writhing in this stupid, stupid game, following the winding path in and out of relevancy. They’re really, really good—but never great. They don’t have closets full of untouched golf shoes. They fly coach and almost never pass up an opportunity to play because they know the essence of pro golf is repeatedly knocking on the door. You never know when it’s going to swing open and your best golf is going to show up. That was why Joel was playing this week.

As for me? I was doing research. I had moved to St. Andrews—about 90 minutes north on Scotland’s eastern coast—for the summer of 2022, reporting on the game of golf from a place that calls itself the Home of Golf. What I found when I arrived was a sport turned on its side, the riches of LIV Golf creating a hurricane of headlines about greed, money, and what pro golfers mean to a sport played by tens of millions.

I ventured down the coast to the Scottish Open to report on unrest in the sport, but found myself pulling double duty—Joel needed a fill-in caddie. Luckily, he happens to be the most affable player in the game. As he famously said on Netflix’s Full Swing, “Someone’s got to be the 70th-best golfer in the world. It might as well be me.” That’s Joel. Raw, unfiltered, and mostly just a realist. The perfect disposition for a nervous, inexperienced, one-week looper.

In the minutes before 8:15, my pro flipped a plastic tee on the ground in between us. The sharp end pointed between my legs. “Ah, you lose,” Joel said, handing me Korhonen’s scorecard. I’d be responsible for tallying Korhonen’s strokes, golf’s ancient method of its competitors keeping score. I stuffed it away in the caddie pouch alongside a banana, a rules sheet, and my incredibly dumb, new, untouched yardage book. Joel didn’t seem to notice.

The author (far left, in deep contemplation) on the teebox.
The author (far left, in deep contemplation) on the teebox.
Courtesy of Sean Zak

Earlier that week we had agreed on using 2-iron off the 1st. It was a new club to Joel’s bag, but he liked it for the firm turf. But Joel wound up and delivered a big block out to the right. Suddenly, yours truly was hard at work, finding the ball in the trees, running over to a marker, stepping off the lateral yardage—A-squared plus B-squared equals C-squared—imagining the landing zone and trying to keep the heart rate reasonably low. Joel punched out, pitched on, and two-putted for 5. Bogey, real quick.

The caddies you watch on television are often doing the easiest part of the job. Their player is probably playing well, so they’re standing in the fairway, stepping off a yardage and having a simple conversation. But what you don’t see is those caddies almost always arrive at the ball before their player does. They’re lugging around a staff bag filled with balls, pencils, snacks, water bottles, training aids, and clubs. In Scotland, toss in an umbrella and rain gear. You’re carrying and you’re calming. Speaking when spoken to. Speaking up when you feel you must. Raking bunkers, crunching numbers, fixing divots and washing the green sheen off a ball that recently punctured the earth. It’s a job of being patient, being on time, and being armed with whatever information a player wants to hear. And recognizing when to keep your damn mouth shut.

Another lesson arrived on the 3rd hole. Walking off the tee, Joel resigned himself to the idea that his perfectly struck 3-wood had kicked straight into the one pot bunker we were hoping to avoid—the only place you can’t make birdie from. Miss it and you have a great look at making a 4 on the short par-5. Find the bunker and it’s pitch-out time. My eyes weren’t special, but I knew that ball wasn’t in the trap. One of a caddie’s best traits is understanding when to speak up, I told myself. I didn’t need my man walking 200 yards with misinformation stewing in his brain, bringing down the vibes even more. “I’m positive it stopped short,” I said. “And that’s kinda a fantastic angle from over there.”

No lies were told, your honor! The ball was not in the bunker, veering short of it at the last instant, just one yard off the fairway and very playable. It had settled on a slight downslope that leads into the sand. Joel would have to lean forward in his stance and swing with a descending blow. He’d done it thousands of times. But the thwack-thud that followed was an unfortunate result. The 2-iron didn’t have enough loft and Joel’s ball clipped the mound of turf atop the bunker, bounding forward just 100 yards.

“I didn’t see that happening, Sean,” Joel said immediately after impact. There was some aggravation in his voice. He wasn’t happy with the result, but he also wasn’t happy with the sequence of events that got us there.

“Don’t tell me what the lie is gonna be from 250 yards away,” he said. “It’s a weird thing, but I’d rather be surprised by a good lie than find one that was worse than we expected.”

This was an old caddie trick. I had never once thought about it. Years ago, Webb Simpson’s caddie, Paul Tesori, had taught Joel’s longtime looper Geno Bonnalie to either say nothing at all or dream up the worst lie possible. Sorry, Joel. Not only is it plugged, it’s also in the face of the bunker. I don’t know how that happened, but you’re going to have to hit backward just to keep playing in this tournament. Lesson learned! Joel made a good par from the fairway, but it was a birdie opportunity wasted. You don’t get many.

My third lesson came on the back nine. After looping the front in two-over 37, Joel made birdie on 10 and roasted a cut-stinger drive up the 11th fairway. With the wind at our back and just 176 yards to the hole, it was an obvious 8-iron. The entire hole sloped from left to right, so the lie was a touch below his feet. Joel didn’t want to end up short right of the green, so he overcompensated.

“Oh, fuck you,” he shouted.

The club choice was spot on. His ball started left and stayed left, flying 176 yards, the perfect distance…right into the hairy, nasty, grabby grass the Tour likes to call “native area.” Or rather, the area they don’t trim, allowing nature to decide your fate. We didn’t see it bounce, which is always concerning. The self-berating continued. “Instead of leaving it out to the right where you’d be fucked,” Joel said, “you hit it to the one place you’d be double-fucked.”

What should have been an easy 4, maybe a 3, became an automatic 5 in an instant. Things unraveled from there. Joel left his approach on 12 out to the right and then hit it 20 yards past the flag on 13. On 14, his approach fell one yard short of what it needed to carry and landed in a trap. This was an exhibition of the golf you don’t see on TV. It was Goldilocks golf—one left, one right, one long, one short—none of it just right. Add it all up and in just 45 minutes we carded one nervy par and three silly bogeys. I had gone mostly mute, the worst possible way to be when your player’s scorecard is bleeding.

Joel Dahmen and his temporary caddy.
Joel Dahmen and his temporary caddy.
Courtesy of Sean Zak

But what do you say? Did Joel want jokes after bogeys? A pep talk? Or maybe nothing at all from me, an 8-handicap. I had brought up hoops on the front nine, and Joel told me all about his high school career as a pass-first point guard. That felt good. But should I roll out another conversation about Gonzaga basketball? I didn’t have the right words, so I went with no words at all, and that was when I knew I had underestimated Joel’s normal caddie, Geno.

My proudest, snidest, most confident self had wondered just how important the bond between player and caddie really could be. Why couldn’t I do the same job for Joel that Geno did? Because Geno has known Joel for decades. He knows his wife and his family and his secrets and the dumb things to say when dumb things need to be said. He knows the right ways to distract his man when he needs to be distracted. They can speak without speaking. Just the lift of an eyebrow or a simple “hmm” says it all sometimes. Joel once called Geno “a monkey” during a tense moment in Korn Ferry Tour Finals, where struggling PGA Tour players go to re-earn their Tour membership.

Geno grabbed him by the shirt, pointed in Joel’s face, and called him a motherfucker. Joel apologized, they tied for sixth, qualified for another season on Tour, bawled in each other’s arms that night, and never looked back. They’re brothers. Joel and I were just buddies.

On our final hole of the day, Joel played a knuckling low-ball into the wind and then a ropey 2-iron that hung out short and to the right. I had been so locked in on our own trials that I was clueless on where our playing partners stood. Straka started solid but was limping his way in. Probably two over, but at least he was being talkative. Korhonen barely said a thing, mostly grunting whenever I offered to pull the pin for him.

“I feel like he could be anywhere from one under to five over,” I said to Joel.

“That’s interesting,” he replied. “He’s at two under, maybe three.”

Suddenly, it dawned on both of us. “You’ve been filling out his scorecard, right?” Joel asked ominously.

Uh, no. I had not. That scorecard he handed me on the 1st tee had 21 empty squares on it. Oh, boy. He snatched the card from my hands and pressed rewind.

Short on 2 for bogey.

Birdies on 3 and 4.

Hooped that 20-footer on 5.

But then he gave it back on 6.

On 7, par; 8, par; 9, par. Three putts on 10, par.

Joel rattled off every score Korhonen made in about 30 seconds, maybe the most impressive thing I saw him do on the course that day. Korhonen was indeed three under—nowhere near what I thought. Joel didn’t bother handing the card back, stuffing it away in his pocket and walking away with his 60-degree wedge. He bumped a hasty chip through the green and then shorted the chip coming back. He had left 12 feet for bogey in the kind of sequence of events where a good caddie steps in and verbally presses pause. Slow down. Go through your process. Let’s make this one.

When Joel tapped in for double, I couldn’t help but feel guilty. Facing a dicey up-and-down for 74 is not the time to go mentally wandering back to the 10th to figure out if Mikko had two- or three-putted from 60 feet. It was a 76 for us, six over.

The good news was Thursday afternoon became what locals call a “proper links day.” On the TV, it was perfectly sunny, with temps in the mid to upper 60s, but in person there was a constant wind of 15 mph and gusts pushing 25 mph. In America, it would keep people from submitting scores to their handicap. In the U.K., they call it “fun.”

Tournament officials had set up the 16th and 18th to play as long as possible. No. 16 was 575 yards on the scorecard but now played dead into the fan. No. 18 was a 483-yard par-4, also straight into the wind.

Players stormed in off the course. Patrick Cantlay was livid, coming up short on 18 after hitting driver, 3-wood. Tommy Fleetwood’s caddie, Ian Finnis, was flabbergasted. “Ridiculass. Ridiculass,” he said. The 6'6", towering looper from Liverpool speaks so fast with that

Scouse accent he seems to skip some consonants. Maybe that’s why he repeats himself. “Tohmee could’n reach. Tohmee could’n reach. Justin Thoma could’n reach. If Justin Thoma can’t reach the fairway, is-somethin’ wrong.”

I wasn’t about to argue with him. That leaderboard was coming back to us much quicker than I imagined. When we finished, it looked like Joel would need a 65 on Friday just to make the weekend. Now, a smooth 67 would do the trick. Joel was plenty capable of that. We could even make a couple mistakes and survive.

Some days, a caddy is only as good as his handwriting.
Some days, a caddy is only as good as his handwriting.
Courtesy of Sean Zak

The beauty of an early-late tee time draw is also its curse. Play bad enough on Thursday and Friday’s round is nothing but a cruel formality. Proof of existence. You’re not injured; you’re just missing putts. But if you’ve got a chance at making the cut, it’s beneficial to tee off late on Friday. You’ll know roughly what you need to do to make the weekend. We needed that 67. Three under. Overnight I received many critiques on my caddying from my friends back in America, but dampened them by promising, “We’re starting on 10. If we make birdie there, we’re in business.”

So when Joel’s 15-footer on 10 settled at the bottom of the jar, I could feel the texts streaming in. Dahmen might do it today. His approach on 11 landed short of the hole and rolled 15 feet by. That’s a great shot in this country. Easy par. He played his shot on 13 out to the right of the flag, using the slope to nestle at 23 feet. Another easy par. We were into the wind on 14 and Joel clubbed down, sending the ball on a lower arc and using the slope again to urge his ball closer to the hole. This was Scottish golf, folks. All it took was 18 dumb holes and we were finally doing it. His tee ball on 15 made me giddy. I had passed him the driver and waited up the fairway as he walked back to the tee on his own. By the time he handed it back to me, he was wearing a big smile. “I got that one good,” he said. It ran and ran and ended up 365 yards down the fairway, the second-longest ball of his entire season. This was the side of the golf course that Joel said “actually has some character,” and it made sense. There were shot shapes forming in his eyes. When he pitched to kick-in range for a birdie on 16, I recounted the last two hours in my head. He had hit five drivers, one of them off the deck, one 3-wood off the tee, and a driving iron out of the rough. He was sniping greens and just barely missing his putts. The clean-ups were comfy.

This must be what Scottie Scheffler had meant during his Wednesday press conference when he said golf in this part of the world is just more fun. He and Sam Burns had just ripped through Ballybunion and Lahinch—two Irish favorites—on a quick little boondoggle and Scottie couldn’t stop using that word: fun. Golf over here forces you into creativity, Scheffler said. The ball doesn’t sit where it lands. It moves. It’s way more chess than checkers. Players who lack imagination can win just about anywhere in America, but you need a golfer’s mind to win in Scotland. Scheffler has a golfer’s mind. Joel has a golfer’s mind. And yet somehow, they were both in danger of missing the cut.

Our good vibes skidded to a halt with one bad swing on 17. Joel had been a bit aggressive, going right at the hole, drawing it too long and through the green, which dropped off into a cove of uneven, matted down rough. This was where spectators had been lubricating.

“I’ll buy you a beer, Joel!” a courageous one said while we assessed his chances. These lines always make me laugh as a writer, but I can see how they only serve to annoy the player and caddie holding onto a thread of hope that they’ll actually make some money this weekend. Ultimately, the chip shot was too difficult. The ball was sitting down and had to be clipped perfectly. When we made bogey, it felt like we gave three shots away instead of just one. Momentum exists in your mind.

Our final nine holes needed to be played in one under at the worst, maybe two under. And since the typical golf broadcast does not celebrate what is often a tournament’s most impassioned play—the kind that comes on Friday afternoons within a shot or two of the cut line—the world will never know how good Joel’s par on 1 was. (Up and down from 143 yards.) Or how delicate his short-sided chip was on 2. Or how convinced we were that his approach on 4 was going to rattle the flagstick. (It bounded through the green.) Or how the apex of his drive on 5 never eclipsed 20 feet, peeling off the perfect amount and cruising up the fairway. (The ball flight made me shiver.)

Like the pancake blocks on plays that end in pass interference or the back-door passes that result in missed layups, these are the beautiful things in sport that constantly go unappreciated. They exist purely for the hardos—and, now, they exist hopefully in Joel’s memory as much as they do in mine.

But when we made a sloppy bogey on the cute, 114-yard 6th, it was now or never.

“I will not give up until it’s absolutely over,” Joel said as we walked to 7th tee. I told him we needed three straight birdies.

“Alrighty then,” he said, shoving his tee in the ground. “That gives us nine shots from here to the house.”


“That’s one, Sean! We’ve got eight left.”

It’s good to give writers deadlines. Joel’s tee ball tumbled and tumbled until it came to rest 404 yards from where he hit it. That is not a misprint. It was the longest tee shot of his career. It was ages before we caught up with it.

After Joel hit a wedge to the back edge of the green, 18 feet from the hole, he changed tune again.

“What do you see?” he asked. He hadn’t asked me for a single read all week. Maybe that’s what golf is like in the now-or-never state. Alright, media caddie, prove your worth. I walked to the other side of the flag, bent down, and signaled a line about one cup outside the left edge. When his putt dropped into the hole, I finally felt it. Satisfaction. I may have been mostly carrying the clubs and tracking the balls and raking bunkers and doing simple math—no mistakes there, I might add—but this was the first instance of shared responsibility for a result.

“Heyyy nowww,” Joel said as he walked to the hole to claim his prize. Step 1 was complete.

The author and his cargo.
The author and his cargo.
Courtesy of Sean Zak

It would be natural for me to dive into detail of Step 2 and then hopefully Step 3, but ultimately this chase resulted in my final caddying lesson of the week.

It was our 17th hole of the day, our 35th of the tournament, and the 8th hole on the property. Like Nos. 16 and 18, it played straight into the wind, uphill to a crowned green. Undoubtedly among the toughest holes on the course. So when Joel nuked another punch driver, once again we were in business. But as we reached the fairway area where we expected to find the ball, there was nothing waiting for us. Whatever angst amateur golfers feel in our gut when we can’t find a perfect tee ball, multiply it tenfold when you’re searching for a pro’s tee shot during a sprint at the cut line. The truth was his bullet ball had run through the fairway into a section of fescue surrounding cross-bunkers. The lie was…fine, but it was also avoidable. Joel turned around and squinted back at where we had come from. Then he uttered seven words that I’ll never forget: “Sean…did we move up a tee?”

Despite the ruckus surrounding the 16th and 18th holes Thursday afternoon, it never occurred to me tournament officials might change the setup on 8 as well. They had moved the tee markers up one teeing ground, which amounted to a 34-yard boost exactly when you didn’t need it. No wonder Sepp Straka hit a smooth 5-wood.

My tail was tucked firmly between my legs now, bailed out only by the fact that the lie wasn’t too bad. “Geno has never screwed that up,” Joel would playfully tell me later. I had unknowingly given Joel a bad yardage to the end of the fairway—the cousin of giving a bad yardage into the green.

Caddying at the Tour level is filled with those little moments, where the sharpest competitors and keenest caddies answer the questions right 18 times outta 18. Seventeen right answers might be 94 percent, but that isn’t a passing grade. Joel played what looked like the perfect shot up to the green, but it got caught in the wind and rejected by the false front. He would be chipping up a turtle’s back for his third. It was never gonna happen.

If I had properly made note of the tee box change, maybe Joel plays that 3-wood instead and maybe he gets a lie in the fairway and as a result maybe he catches it extra clean instead of just pretty clean. Maybe then his shot cruises through the wind and one hops to a stop 12 feet away and we make another magical dual-read. On to the 9th hole we’d go—Step 3—and now the TV cameras would be watching us. Maybe, maybe, maybe. Instead, our hopes ended on a double bogey, and for the second straight day we found ourselves talking about Mikko Korhonen. He was sizing up a 3-foot, 7-inch putt from every possible angle.

“This is the throw-up zone,” Joel whispered to me. I was confused. “It’s so close, you should make it. But you’re so nervous you might throw up. The throw-up zone.”

I wanted to throw up now that Joel had mentioned it. Korhonen needed to not throw up, then make that par putt, and then make a par 3 on 9 to play on the weekend. I felt an odd sense of pride when he did exactly that. At least one person from this group was playing tomorrow. Straka finished with a rather listless 76 and Mr. Dahmen with 71. (He also kept track of the scorecard all day.)

“I’m sorry we didn’t get you that made cut,” Joel told me outside the scoring tent. “We’ll have to try again some other time.”

Adapted from Searching in St. Andrews: Finding the Meaning of Golf During the Game's Most Turbulent Summer by Sean Zak. Reprinted with the permission of Triumph Books.

Originally Appeared on GQ