News & Opinion

Thrown for a loop by emotional baggage

It certainly wasn’t a confrontation, because only one guy did the talking. His words weren’t spoken in an angry tone, but they were delivered with a clear sense of admonishment. And though the whole episode lasted no longer than 10 seconds, it launched a flurry of activity on social media and a significant reaction from the golf public overall.

More than anything, it was something that we very rarely see: a player scolding his caddie on national TV. Not just any player, but Jordan Spieth. Not just any tournament, but the U.S. Open. Not just any course, but Pebble Beach. And not just any hole, but the eighth, one of the finest and most beautiful par 4s in the world.

986b2122-a5d1-4ee2-9e16-6f625670d061_600x400.jpg
Caddie Michael Greller (left) endures a public dressing down from Jordan Spieth during the U.S Open.

© GOLFFILE/FRAN CAFFREY
Caddie Michael Greller (left) endures a public dressing down from Jordan Spieth during the U.S Open.

Oh, and not just any caddie, either. Michael Greller is widely regarded as one of the best in the business, a guy known to arrive several hours before an afternoon tee time to scout course conditions and competitive nuances. His preparation is meticulous, as one might expect from a former sixth-grade math teacher, another job that requires a certain amount of poise when a kid fires a fastball under your chin.

“Two perfect shots,” Spieth announced from the edge of that eighth fairway. “Two perfect shots, Michael. You got me in the water on one and over the green on the other.”

Almost two weeks have passed since the incident, which Spieth addressed in a post-round media briefing. Wise beyond his nearly 26 years, a three-time major champion by the age of 24, the fair-haired Texan is also a paradox: an old soul with demonstrative tendencies who talks to his golf ball for much of the time it spends in the air. Some would call it ultra-competitive. Others might find it to be a bit juvenile, but Spieth is who he is, and though he hasn’t won a tournament in almost two years, it’s hard to argue with the overall body of work.

“It’s kind of the most intriguing part about him,” Paul Azinger said. “He wants it so bad. He gets his dander up, and it’s up right from the get-go. Then he gets caught [upbraiding Greller], and all of a sudden it’s a federal offense.”

Or is it even a misdemeanor? Almost every PGA Tour caddie will tell you that a dose of heat from the boss is part of the job description. “If a guy is always blaming you for his mistakes, that gets old,” veteran looper Kip Henley said. “But if you’re making $500,000 a year working for the guy, it comes with the territory. You’re going to hear it more from those players than the ones [missing] every cut. Sad, but true.”

Fair enough, but there was an element to Spieth’s behavior that bothered a significant number of Greller’s colleagues. Fox had a cameraman walking with the group, and in all likelihood he was accompanied by someone carrying a boom microphone. There’s no way Spieth couldn’t have noticed them, nor could he have thought his post-shot reaction wasn’t being shown on live TV. That’s why the networks buy that expensive equipment. And not for nothing, Spieth has won far too many tournaments not to know how the process works.

To a skeptical eye, the kid was showing up his caddie. Did Spieth cross the line? How much is too much? At what point does the man on the bag have a right to feel disrespected?

I called Henley because I knew of his brief history with Vijay Singh in early 2017. “Was so broke, I couldn’t pay my utility bill,” Henley said. “I made 48 grand in five weeks with him and still had to walk away. I knew what I was getting into, but he made it [criticism] personal, and that was it. Quit after the last round of the Players Championship. Made $17,000 that day.”

That will buy you a lot of electricity. Singh has been notoriously hard on his caddies over the years, losing the late Dave Renwick at least twice and the highly respected Paul Tesori, each because of what some spin doctor would refer to as “communication issues.” Bubba Watson has gone off on Ted Scott, a longtime friend, but through thick and thin, the two remain together.

So will Spieth and Greller. The dress-down at Pebble Beach included some unsavory characteristics, but the two men are very close. Nobody has any reason to believe they will part ways. The fact that Spieth has remained winless for such a lengthy stretch might make it a little harder to caddie for him, but Greller used to teach sixth-graders. Enough said.

“If it goes over the cliff with that [tee shot], it’s on both of them,” Azinger said. “The one where he air-mailed the green? That’s on Jordan. What I saw was one of those moments he gets to once in a while. Some guys grumble like that; a lot of guys don’t say anything. I never blamed my caddie for anything, ever, and you can go ask them. In the end, it’s up to me, and I was probably given just a couple of bad yardages in my entire career.”

It’s highly unlikely that they both occurred on the same hole.

John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: johnhawkinsgolf@gmail.com