How golf caddies became some of the highest-paid men in sports

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How golf caddies became some of the highest-paid men in sports

At the British Open golf championship last month, Collin Morikawa cantered to victory and became the first player in the event’s 161-year history to take home more than $2 million in prize money.

While that was a profitable week’s work for the young Californian, it also meant a bumper pay day for his caddie, Jonathan ‘JJ’ Jakovac, who himself made over $200,000 — just for carrying his golf bag. 

For a caddie like JJ Jakovac, Morikawa is a dream client. Aged just 24, he has already won five PGA Tour titles, including two major championships, and this week, the pair were teeing it up in the Olympic Games in Tokyo. Certainly, he seems set for a long and lucrative career, which stands to also make Jakovac very wealthy, as a result. 

Typically, caddies will negotiate a basic weekly wage with their player (usually around $1,500 per week) and then get a cut of any winnings, usually 5 percent. But if a player finishes in the top 10, the cut rises to 7 percent, and if the player wins the entire tournament, the caddie can rake in 10 percent of the golfer’s prize money. 

While that may sound like a good deal, caddies are also responsible for their own expenses, including all food, accommodation, car rental and travel (although the best players may also take their caddies with them on their private jets if need be). 

But the arrangement is an unusual one. Typically there’s no written contract between player and caddie, with the terms being made via verbal agreement. And it’s not always an easy life. Lawrence Donegan spent a year caddying for professional golfer Ross Drummond for his book “Four-Iron In The Soul” — an experience that not only opened his eyes to the harsh realities of life for caddies but also how easy it for the relationship between employer and bagman to break down. 

“Professional golfers spend as much or if not more time with their caddie than they do with their wife. That’s the reality of the job,” Drummond said. “Throw in the daily grind of tournament pressure and the inevitable petty frictions that are part of the relationship — ‘What do you mean you only packed one banana for a mid-round snack? I told you I wanted three!’ — and you have all the building blocks for divorce.” 

The success of Tiger Woods (with caddie Steve Williams) is what helped bagmen start earning the big bucks.
The success of Tiger Woods (with caddie Steve Williams) is what helped bagmen start earning the big bucks.
Getty Images

ESPN presenter Michael Collins, who turned his back on a career in stand-up comedy to become a pro caddie for players such as Rich Beem and Daniel Chopra, agrees. 

“When that relationship goes bad, it’s the worst thing in the world. It’s like having a girlfriend who you thought was ‘The One’ but then you slowly realize that it just isn’t going to work,” Collins said. “When you first get together there are all those little things that you find really cute but then a few months down the line they drive you friggin’ nuts to the point where you can’t even stand the way they breathe.” 

And for those caddies not working for the most successful players, it can be a financial struggle, said Billy Foster, who has caddied for Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia and the late Seve Ballesteros. 

“I probably caddied for six or seven years where I didn’t have a bean to my name,” said Foster, who now caddies for the Englishman Matt Fitzpatrick. “I used to sleep on trains, buses, anywhere. I even slept in a bush one night. And I stayed in some horrendous hotels — even rats came into the room and ran out again.” 

But if you get on the right bag, there is some serious money to be made. 

Justin Thomas’ caddie Jimmy Johnson (left) is said to have earned $500K+ in 2020.
Justin Thomas’ caddie Jimmy Johnson (left) is said to have earned $500K+ in 2020.
Getty Images

Look at Tiger Woods’ former caddie, Steve Williams. Though he had already enjoyed success as the caddie for household names like Greg Norman and Raymond Floyd, the New Zealander really made his name — and his fortune — when he teamed up with Tiger in 1999. The Kiwi worked for Woods until 2011, helping him to win 64 times on the PGA Tour, including 13 majors. During that successful streak, Woods won in excess of $90 million in prize money, meaning Williams took home an estimated $12 million for his efforts. 

Williams’ success was such that he was often described as New Zealand’s highest-earning sportsman. In 2006, for example, he earned an estimated $1.27 million which, had he been a player, would have put him comfortably in the world’s top 75. 

I used to sleep on trains, buses, anywhere. I even slept in a bush one night.

Caddie Billy Foster on the past ignominy of the job

It’s a better life for caddies now, especially since Woods emerged on the scene, pushing general interest in the sport — and potential prize money — sky high. Top caddies can easily make six-figure salaries with five making more than $350,000 in 2020. One of those was Justin Thomas’ caddie, Jimmy Johnson, who is said to have earned in excess of $500,000. (In 2019, after legal action from the Association of Professional Tour Caddies, the PGA Tour also began providing private healthcare provision for caddies and their families.) 

Billy Foster, who stood in for Steve Williams and carried Woods’ bag during the Presidents Cup in 2007, is in no doubt about the debt his profession owes to Tiger. “All caddies should have a picture of Tiger in their house with a mat to bow to him every morning,” he said. 

“Tiger raised the bar for the rest and they have followed. The exposure of golf went through the roof and the tournaments, in terms of quality and prize money, are ten times better than when I started caddying.” 

Former caddy Donegan agrees. 

“Life is a lot better these days than it once was,” he said. “Nobody who has a bag on the PGA or European Tours is sleeping under hedges and sharing a two-person RV with six other caddies any more. Think of their life as a reasonable middle-class American existence with the added bonus of lots of travel and proximity to some of the biggest names in golf. The problem is there is now huge competition for the job, even for bags that are seldom seen on TV.” 

Golfer Bryson DeChambeau dumped his old caddie Tim Tucker (left) for his new caddie and longtime friend Brian Zeigler (right) this year.
Golfer Bryson DeChambeau dumped his old caddie Tim Tucker (left) for his new caddie and longtime friend Brian Zeigler (right) this year.
Instagram @brysondechambeau

On the one hand, the caddie acts as a manual laborer and club cleaner, on the other, as a confidante and counselor. It’s their job to be by their employer’s side through good times and bad, celebrating and commiserating in equal measure. 

“The player has to trust that the caddie always has his or her best interests in mind. Undying loyalty is key,” says ESPN’s Collins. 

Their role, in theory, is straightforward. Yes, carrying a 40-pound bag around for four or five hours requires strength and a degree of fitness, but there are other requirements, like keeping the golf clubs and equipment clean and in order, raking the bunkers, replacing any divots and providing accurate distances so the player knows how far they have to hit their shot. 

It’s also the caddie’s job to keep overzealous fans from getting too close to their player. In 2002, for example, Williams confronted a spectator who had been taking photographs of Woods during the Skins Game at Landmark Golf Club in Indio, Calif. Despite repeated requests to stop, the fan continued right up to the point where Williams snatched the $7,000 camera from him and threw it in a pond by the 18th green. 

Psychology and man management also play a major part in a caddie’s success, Collins added. 

All caddies should have a picture of Tiger in their house with a mat to bow to him every morning. The prize money [is] ten times better than when I started caddying.

one-time caddie Billy Foster to Tiger Woods, on how the superstar golfer raised the bar for bagmen

“What makes a really great caddie is knowing exactly what your player needs to hear at that exact moment,” he says. “I told one player I worked with that he sucked right in the middle of a hole. I suggested he took up pro darts instead and there was a bar a couple of miles away where he could practice. He smirked and F-bombed me but it did the trick. He had a hole in one straight after. But I knew him and knew how he would take it — he needed me to give him a verbal slap in the face. Any other player would have fired me on the spot.” 

But nobody sets out to be a caddie. Frustrated amateur players who have maybe fallen short of a career in the professional game, like JJ Jakovac, supportive siblings or even friends at a loose end can all end up carrying the bag for a golfer and, quite often, carrying the can when it all goes wrong. 

As it most inevitably will. 

In 2001, for example, the Welsh golfer Ian Woosnam was in contention to win the British Open when his caddie, Myles Byrne, realized there were 15 clubs in the golfer’s bag, one more than the rules allow. As a result, Woosnam was penalized two shots, and Byrne’s failure to carry out the most basic of checks cost the player his shot at the title and around $300,000 in prize money. Though Woosnam forgave Byrne for his error, he was less lenient just a couple weeks later when, at the Scandinavian Masters in Malmo, Sweden, Byrne slept in and failed to show up on the first tee for the final round. 

“I gave him a chance, I don’t ask for much,” Woosnam later said TO WHOME EXACTLY? at a press conference. “He had one warning, that was it.” 

Golfers are certainly less trigger happy when it comes to firing their caddies today. Where once they could be dismissed in the blink of a missed putt, now golfers seem to value stability, only changing their caddies when it’s absolutely imperative. 

“There is simply too much at stake to make decisions on a whim, or on the basis of one bad moment out on the course,” said Donegan. “That’s why players choose their caddie very carefully and once they find a bagman they like and trust they hang on to them. You can see this reflected in the number of player-caddie partnerships that endure for years out on the modern Tour.” 

Golfer Ian Woosnam sacked his caddie Myles Byrne (left) after he cost him his shot at the British Open in 2001.
Golfer Ian Woosnam sacked his caddie Myles Byrne (left) after he cost him his shot at the British Open in 2001.
R&A via Getty Images

A case in point is golfer Jim Furyk. He took on Tiger Woods’ former caddie Mike “Fluff” Cowan in 1999 and they’re still together, 22 years and 15 titles later. 

But caddies can just as easily get dropped like a mis-hit wedge into a water hazard. World number six Bryson DeChambeau recently sacked Tim Tucker — the caddie who had been on his bag for all eight of his PGA title wins, including his 2020 US Open victory — in place of longtime close friend Brian Zeigler. 

DeChambeau announced the news on Instagram as the pair dived into a swimming pool, complete with the player’s fully-loaded golf bag. 

According to DeChambeau’s agent, Brett Falkoff, the relationship between player and former bagman Tucker had simply “run its course.” 

Tucker, meanwhile, gave his version of events on Golf’s Subpar Podcast recently. 

“I wouldn’t say [it was my decision], it was a combination,” he said. “There is no animosity between Bryson and I at all, I owe him a lot and I’m very thankful I got to be around and watch that greatness.” 

Tucker’s loss is Zeigler’s gain: Last year, DeChambeau won nearly $5.5 million in prize money and he’s already eclipsed $6 million this season. Zeigler can confidently expect to enjoy a long, fruitful partnership and some very tidy paychecks in the months and years to come. 

So long as he remembers to count the clubs.

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