Caddie diary: LECOM Health Challenge, Round 2
Web.com Tour producer Kevin Prise goes behind-the-scenes with Matt Atkins at LECOM Health Challenge
July 09, 2016
By Kevin Prise, PGATOUR.COM
- Matt Atkins has navigated the fairways of Peek'n Peak Resort this week with PGATOUR.COM's Kevin Prise as caddie. (Stan Badz/PGA TOUR)
Editor’s note: Web.com Tour senior producer Kevin Prise is slightly diverting from his traditional job duties at this week's LECOM Health Challenge, in an effort to better understand life on Tour by serving as caddie to Matt Atkins.
Atkins, 25, currently stands No. 17 on the Web.com Tour money list but has struggled in recent weeks, missing three cuts in his last four starts. Will a new face on the bag provide a spark at Peek'n Peak Resort's Upper Course?
Prise’s caddying journey continued with Friday's second round of competition. He’s chronicling the week here on PGATOUR.COM.
CLYMER, N.Y. – An up-and-down second round had reached a watershed moment. We had reached the par-5 eighth hole, and Matt Atkins was facing a 25-foot par putt from the fringe.
Both his tee shot and second shot had found bunkers, his third shot fell short of the green, and his chip shot failed to reach the putting surface.
Atkins stood 3-under total, one stroke outside the cut line. A bogey meant he would need to make eagle on the approximately 400-yard par-4 ninth hole, basically a lottery winning-like proposition.
To have any chance at advancing to the weekend, he needed to make the putt for par.
And he made it.
After trying my best throughout the day – and week – to limit my emotions in the name of professionalism, I couldn’t resist. I unleashed a string of fist pumps. My hopes of carrying the bag on Saturday and Sunday remained intact.
Now it was time to try and make birdie on No. 9.
(Stan Badz/PGA TOUR)
The second round began with a two-hour weather delay, meaning that our original 1:43 p.m. tee time had been pushed back to 3:43. I learned this as I was making the 90-mile drive from my parents’ house outside Buffalo, though, so it wasn’t as if I had any extra time to sleep.
I arrived at the course around 11 a.m., enjoyed a light lunch with professional Jared Wolfe, then headed toward the back nine – after checking with Atkins that it was OK to walk the course before the round (it was, as long as I stayed outside the ropes.)
As I walked down the 10th fairway, I was recognized by Wesley Bryan, with whom we had played a practice round on Tuesday. He wondered what I was doing.
“Did you get fired already?”
I told him I was scouting the course, and he and his caddie appeared impressed that I would think of such a veteran move. It would be a stretch to say I garnered much pertinent knowledge from the walk, though. I knew that if Atkins relied on me for too much advice, we would be in trouble.
After walking the back nine, I made my way down to the range to meet Atkins. We had set 2:45 as arrival time, adjusted after the weather delay, and I arrived at 2:46.
Zero-for-4 in on-time arrivals.
Atkins made his way through the warm-up routine, and to my surprise he frequently asked for my advice in checking his alignment. I offered my perspective but felt slightly uncomfortable doing so. I didn’t want to say something that could throw him off, even the slightest. As I’ve said throughout the week, this is an important tournament with serious implications. Any off-kilter advice would hinder my goal of staying out of the way.
But I did my best, and Atkins was appreciative. Already, I was feeling relevant as a caddie. This had the potential to be a really good day.
On the range, Atkins felt uncomfortable with his swing – “I’m just trying to find something to get me through today” – but was confident that he could play his way inside the cut line. The morning’s wet weather had softened the course considerably, and it appeared the cut line would settle at 3 or 4 under, even though it was just 1 under after the first round.
Atkins had shot 1 under on Thursday, meaning he would need another solid one to advance to the weekend.
He launched his first tee shot down the middle of the 10th fairway, and he offered a hearty fist pump. He was up to the challenge.
Somewhere on the shuttle ride from the range to the course, something must have clicked, as Atkins found a zone unlike any I had witnessed in my first three days on the bag. Drives were center-cut. Irons were precise. Putts were rolling in.
He played his first eight holes in 5 under – with birdie putts inside 15 feet on all eight holes – and suddenly we had moved from the cut line to the verge of the top 10.
As we walked up the 17th fairway, Atkins reflected on the unique nature of golf, the fine line between getting in contention and missing the cut. We discussed the contrasting vibes that are felt when playing one’s way into contention on Sunday as opposed to fighting the cut line on Friday.
We also reflected on one of professional golf’s fundamental truths: although so much is on the line, it’s still the same game you play with your buddies back home, the same game you played when you were first learning how to swing a club.
Then he hit a short iron to 6 feet and made the birdie putt. Things were going well.
Caddying-wise, things were going well too. I hadn’t made any loud movements at inappropriate times. I hadn’t lost or dropped anything. And through three and a half rounds, I hadn’t needed to rake a bunker yet.
I only hoped that would remain the case.
As we walked toward the 18th tee, I thought back to our conversation on the 18th fairway Thursday, where we had debated at length whether to lay up or go for the green.
We didn’t need to make that decision this time, as Atkins drove into the rough, laid up and made a routine par.
Holes 1, 2 and 3 brought routine pars as well. Then Atkins’ drive on the par-5 fourth hole found a spot near a cart path on a semi-hardpan lie.
Atkins got the yardage and investigated the situation. He wouldn’t be able to drop anywhere that would provide an improved lie (slopes were all around), and a set of weeds sat about 15 yards in front of the ball.
He would have to hit 3-iron or 3-wood to reach the front of the green, or he could lay up. He ultimately made the decision to lay up, and I agreed. The lay-up shot worked perfectly.
“Great caddying right there,” Atkins said as we walked up the fairway.
"Just along for the ride," I thought.
We made another par to stay 6 under for the tournament. As we approached the par-3 fifth tee and Atkins handed me a Clif Bar, the thought crossed my mind:
“Hey, this isn’t too hard, after all.”
Be careful what you think.
(Stan Badz/PGA TOUR)
The first curveball came on No. 5 green. Atkins was first to putt, and being a lengthy distance away, he asked me to tend the flag. I had tended a flag in casual rounds with friends and family, but never in competition. The topic hadn’t even been discussed in the first few days, and now here we were. Game time.
The ball rolled toward the cup, and I tried to pull the flag. On first attempt, it didn’t budge. Panic mode set in.
Luckily, I pulled the flag cleanly on my second try – no harm, no foul.
Atkins unfortunately went on to three-putt for bogey, but I received a compliment on the flag-pulling from fellow competitor Zack Sucher’s caddie, Richard Schriefer. With my feet getting more and more sore by the hole – finally starting to succumb to the hilly terrain at Peek’n Peak – it provided me with the necessary energy to navigate the last four holes.
Then on the sixth tee, I faced the moment that I had been hoping to avoid. Atkins’ drive drifted ever-so-slightly to the right – then took a hard kick into the fairway bunker. It was time to bring out the rake.
Trying my best to compose myself after Atkins hit his approach, I took the rake and proceeded to push-rather-than-pull, as I had been taught by Zack Fischer’s caddie earlier in the week. Atkins commended my effort, and it was on to the green.
Atkins three-putted for bogey on No. 6, then made bogey on No. 7, and suddenly we were one outside the cut line with two holes to play. A great start had turned into the exact finish we had been talking about on No. 17 fairway – fighting to make the cut.
Atkins’ tee shot on No. 8 found a fairway bunker (two bunkers in three holes, after none in the week’s first 68 holes.) It took me a while to rake it fully, but I completed the job. Then he hit into another bunker with his second shot – and Schriefer generously offered to rake. I thankfully accepted.
As we walked up the fairway, we again chatted about the pressures of playing to a cut number. Atkins referenced the ‘accordion effect’ – where scores will bunch up around the cut line on Friday, then gradually spread out over the weekend.
He even thought back to the extreme pressure of Final Stage of last year’s Q-School, where he knew that any major damage in the final few holes could have cost him a job for this season.
Regardless of what happened on the final two holes at Peek’n Peak, Atkins knew he had seven more chances in the Regular Season to secure his PGA TOUR card, then four more chances in the Web.com Tour Finals. Worst case, his Web.com Tour status for 2017 is secure and he won’t have to return to Q-School.
Suddenly, the pressure didn’t seem that bad.
(Stan Badz/PGA TOUR)
After making the gutsy 25-footer for par on No. 8, Atkins unleashed a mammoth drive down No. 9 fairway that left just a short iron into the green.
We walked up the fairway, and I had a realization: This is the moment. Birdie to make the cut, par or worse to go home. A stressful situation, to be sure, but pretty cool at the same time.
“This is unlike anything,” Atkins said as he prepared to hit the pivotal shot. “Totally different than being in contention. This is it.”
Perhaps there was a little too much adrenaline on the approach – his thought – as the ball sailed over the back of the green and didn’t spin enough. It left a 30-foot birdie chip, which he left just short. He tapped in for par, and he missed the cut by one.
As we walked to the scoring trailer and then back to the shuttle, where we said our goodbyes, several thoughts raced through my head.
• Were my rake jobs less-than-perfect?
• Was my flag-tending on No. 5 slightly off?
• Did it take me too long to clean a ball?
• Was the towel not wet enough at a critical juncture?
I worried that even the slightest mishap could have cost Atkins some focus for the slightest amount of time – which could have led to a lost shot that cost him a chance at a paycheck in western New York.
Atkins assured me that I did a good job, and he even graded me under par for the week. I wasn’t convinced. I’m not sure I’ll ever be.
Regardless, I stayed upright for two practice days and two competitive rounds, and we enjoyed each other’s company immensely. In the grand scheme of things, that’s all I could ask for.
Am I eager to do it again? Definitely.
Would I want to next week? Nope. My feet need some time to recover.
As I headed for my car, one last thought entered my mind: If the wedge had been cleaner on No. 9 fairway, maybe the ball would have spun back a little more, giving him a better chance of birdie – which he could have made.
The what-ifs in golf. They’ll never cease.