Can A European Tour Caddie Save You Shots?

The life of a European Tour caddie is a curious one. On the road for the majority of the year, not knowing if you’ll earn a small fortune or barely enough to cover your travel expenses, all while living a lifestyle that’s a far cry from the glitz and glamour of their employers. Pros are often quick to assert the faith they have in their caddie and the value placed upon them, and yet the recent high profile sackings of Jim ‘Bones’ Mackay (Phil Mickelson), JP Fitzgerald (McIlroy), Johnathan Smart (Danny Willett) and Colin Swatton (Jason Day) show the fragility of the player/caddie relationship, in spite of developing hugely successful partnerships.

The player knows they are so much more than just the man who carries the bag. They are quick and competent with numbers, hard-working, golf smart and arguably most importantly, a friend. They are the person who picks the player up when they are down by saying the right thing and the right time. That is where a good caddie becomes invaluable.

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So what if you had a top bagman to caddie for you during a round at your home club – would it make a difference to your scores or merely ease the stress from your shoulders? That’s what we wanted to find out, so we approached Bushnell, the leading laser rangefinder brand on both the PGA and European Tours, to see if they could arrange the services of one for a day.

They came back to us with one of the very best. Nick Mumford has been a caddie on the European Tour for 22 years, including a prolific 14-year on and off spell (remember the fragile relationship bit) with Anders Hansen. He now caddies for Portuguese player Ricardo Gouveia and has done since December 2015. We met Nick at his home club of West Wilts Golf Club in Wiltshire, a quirky hilltop course his new temporary player was unfamiliar with, to see if his advice and experience could reduce the shots taken to navigate our ball around 18 holes.

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Chatting with Nick upon arrival, it’s clear he is an all-round top bloke and even better caddie. He flashes his yardage books from the previous week out on tour and the level of detail is incredible – to the point where he has charts that show adjusted distances for tiny variations in temperature and elevation as well as green maps that show the percentages of slope. He is also incredibly loyal to Ricardo, and is passionate about sticking with Ricardo and helping him through the unfavourable run of form they’ve experienced recently. This is music to our ears, as he’s going to need to be incredibly patient for the next four hours!

I must admit, I was skeptical to say the least as to how a caddie was actually going to improve my scores – ultimately I am the one that hits the shots and if I hit good ones, I will score well regardless of if I have a caddie or not. But I suppose that is the point. Even the best players in the world hit bad shots but they have created a plan or strategy that gives them the most margin for error on those rare errant hits and allows them to still make a par or even a birdie.

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It goes without saying that these errant shots come far more naturally to me so Nick had his work cut out. A classic example of his invaluable input came on my very first tee shot. The first hole is a 280-yard uphill par four with a bunker guarding the entire front section of the green. My immediate thought was to hit driver – it has the biggest clubface to combat my first tee nerves and if produce a relatively solid strike, I’d back myself to get up and down from that bunker for an opening birdie.

“I think you should hit a hybrid,” Nick offered up his first pearl of wisdom. I didn’t completely agree, but certainly didn’t want to get off on the wrong foot before the round had even begun. So I obliged and pulled the hybrid, worried about the two fairway traps that looked a hybrid-distance away down the right side. I struck it well and while it drifted right, it ended perfectly between the bunkers to leave me a 75-yard pitch to the flag. Sure enough, I hit my approach shot to 12 feet and knocked in the putt for a birdie. Nick had instantly gained my respect, and I would do whatever he told me from now on.

Nick had previously requested that the GM staffer he caddied for was ‘not terrible’ so having satisfied his criteria with an opening birdie, I was confident my usual mental ineptitude would be negated by Nick’s expert advice and experience. I felt like a tour pro, and continued by good golf with a disappointing par on the reachable par-five second and a birdie on the third. Two-under par after three holes. In my head were thoughts of course records and the conversation where I ask him to caddie for me during his off weeks. Thankfully, his was thinking up a plan for the next tee shot. He had informed me the key to scoring around West Wilts was to play the par threes well – they’re a tricky bunch and I immediately came unstuck on the fourth, pushing a five iron well to the right leaving myself a devilishly impossible chip.

The pin was in a narrowed section at the back no wider than six yards and it was raised and sloped away from me. Position Z. Without Nick there, being two under par I would have been on cloud nine and felt invincible, taking on the near-impossible flop shot required to get close to the pin. Nick, however, encouraged a more cautious approach, and a safer pitch with my lob wedge left me with a 20-foot putt for par. A bogey ensued but perhaps more importantly, it was only one shot dropped rather than two or three.

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That is where Nick came into his own, creating a strategy that made pars and birdies more likely, bogeys less so and worse scores even rarer. He was picking very specific lines for me off tees that favoured the safe side of the hole, focusing on specific branches on trees rather than ‘the fairway’, and even taking the pin positions he had scouted earlier into consideration. He also often diverted my attention away from flags on many holes, instead zoning in on the fat part of the green and ensuring if I missed the green, it was on the side that made an up-and-down easier to manage.

It all made perfect sense and while more dropped shots inevitably followed, without Nick there they would have been far more frequent. After nine holes I was three over par but a gutsy birdie at the tenth steadied the ship. I was all set to hit my tee shot on the par-three 13th before a rogue wind gust hit us and Nick called me off the shot. We reassessed and agreed the club was good before starting the routine again – another great tip. If you’re uncomfortable over a shot, the chances are you won’t hit a good one, so don’t be afraid to start again, providing you don’t hold up play.

Coming home, some wayward drive cost me more shots but playing the last four holes in one-under par rescued the round. I ended with a four-over 73, a more than commendable effort given recent form. It was a fascinating experience to have Nick on the bag and walking off the 18th green, I know Nick saved me at least four shots, allowing me to beat my handicap for the first time in a while.

The course record remains in tact for now and I was left to rue what might have been, both if Nick hadn’t been there and if I was as good over three holes as I was over 18. I tried to persuade Nick that we could make a lot of money together, but sadly he couldn’t be swayed. Don’t worry Ricardo, your on-course companion isn’t going anywhere. And what a fine one he is.

Nick’s top five strategy tips

  • Know how far you hit each club. Get on a reputable launch monitor and find out your carry distance for every club, from lob wedge to driver. Using a laser rangefinder, like the Bushnell Pro X2 I use, gives you precise distances to the flag.
  • Use your shots to your advantage and keep the big numbers off your card. IF you get a shot on a hole, know that a bogey is not a bad score. The key is to avoid doubles and triple bogeys.
  • Do your research. Know the best side to miss the fairway or green and hit away from the trouble.
  • Play within yourself. Go with your natural shot shape on the day and take risk out of the shot by playing the low tariff option, the shot you know you are capable of pulling off rather than the one you can execute 1 out of a 100 times.
  • Providing you don’t hold up play, try to read a putt from all sides to give yourself a clearer picture of the slope. Bear in mind, though, that your first impression of the read is usually correct and that pace is more important than line on mid and long putts.