By Brian Wacker, PGATOUR.COM
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- J.J. Henry and Mark Brooks were dissecting the par-3 third hole at TPC Sawgrass on a sweltering Wednesday afternoon when Brooks barked, “Let’s hit it to the top shelf, not at the pin. They’re not going to put the pin in the middle of the green.”
Just as Henry hit a baby draw on the 177-yard hole, a gust came up and kept the ball from reaching the putting surface.
Henry quipped something about wanting to hit a low draw to penetrate the wind, to which Brooks again bit back by telling him to move the ball back in his stance and just hit it straight before adding, “Prove me wrong.”
Henry hooked the ball and missed the green again, much seemingly to the delight of Brooks.
Thankfully for Henry, it was only a practice round.
For the past 30 years, Brooks was on the other side of the bag seeking information on pin placements, wind direction and club selection. Now the one-time major winner is giving it as Henry’s caddie for this week’s PLAYERS Championship.
“I’ve always looked up to his work ethic and how he’s approached course management,” Henry said. “This course isn’t about how far to it, it’s about where to hit it. There’s probably nobody in the last 20 years who’s been so creative and articulate around these holes than him. For as good a career as he had, he never overpowered golf courses. He always worked his way around them, so to see that perspective is only going to help me.”
Brooks and Henry both live in Fort Worth, Texas, and for the past two years have talked about Brooks “helping a buddy out", as Henry put it. Scheduling often got in the way, but with the Champions Tour on a break for the next two weeks, the soon-to-be 51-year-old Brooks became available, replacing Henry’s regular caddie Pete Jordan.
Henry could certainly use the help. He’s missed seven cuts in 14 starts this season and in 10 trips to TPC Sawgrass has never finished better than 42nd and has only made it to the weekend three times.
“I just felt like he needed a change; no offense to any of his other caddies,” Brooks said. “It’s a little fresh perspective. The hope is he learns a few things that last. It’s not just picking a club, that’s not my objective.”
What Henry, whose lone victory came six years ago, has lacked in success he gains in experience with Brooks, who has seven career PGA TOUR wins, including the 1996 PGA Championship at Valhalla.
Brooks also played in 21 PLAYERS Championships with three career top 10s, including a career-best tie for seventh in 1997.
But it was Brooks’ approach as much anything that attracted Henry to him.
“He doesn’t sugarcoat in anything,” Henry said. “He’s got the jockey whip and is laying it on these couple of days. I’ve got my leather underwear on.”
Said Brooks: “I’m not going to say everything is perfect if it’s not because that’s not going to help him. That’s not going to help anyone. So many of these guys’ psyches are so fragile that if they don’t keep the confidence up, it’ll be a disaster. And a lot of the confidence is artificial anyway.”
It should be a learning experience for Brooks, too. The last time he caddied was in 1982 when he was on Willie Wood’s bag for a 36-hole U.S. Open qualifier.
“Best caddie he ever had he told me,” Brooks said.
Wood went on to qualify for the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach that year.
“I’ve watched teachers come and go, players come and go and caddies come and go,” said Brooks, who added this likely won’t be the last time he’s on Henry’s bag. “I learned from the older players. When I came out as a kid in ‘93, it was the David Grahams and Hubert Greens and Fuzzy Zoellers and Chi Chis and Seves. You went and sought out guys that did certain things well and they helped you out. No one had a traveling entourage like they have these days.”
Henry is doing the same with Brooks.
“Regardless of how I play this week, just some of stuff he’s showed me in a tournament atmosphere can go a long way and get me back on the right path,” Henry said. “I’m looking forward to letting his knowledge of the place help make me decisive to hit shots as opposed to having to figure it out and then hit the shot.”
“He doesn’t care what people think. He’s taking it seriously.”
That was evident on the third hole Wednesday when Brooks asked this reporter to step back as Henry worked on a chip shot just off the green. They had work to do, and a lot of it.