Caddies Reversing Roles as Mid-Amateur Competitors
October 6, 2017 | Atlanta, Ga.
By Stuart Hall
Geno Bonnalie saw the good fortune of longtime friend Joel Dahmen as an opportunity.
Dahmen had just won the 2014 PGA Tour Canada-Mackenzie Tour money title to become fully exempt for the next season’s Web.com Tour.
“I had a decent job, made OK money, but I was still obsessed with golf,” said Bonnalie, 33, who has known Dahmen since their days as junior golfers growing up in Idaho. “I said, ‘Please take me with you. I want to be your caddie.’”
To which Dahmen replied: “You’re an idiot, but OK, let’s do this.”
The two have been in a caddie-player relationship ever since, bouncing the past three years between the Web.com and PGA tours.
“I’ve been golfing since I was 8 years old and am absolutely obsessed with the game,” said Bonnalie, of Lewiston, Idaho, who is married and has a son. “I love [being a caddie] and have never been happier.”
That obsession spills over to playing, as well. Bonnalie said he did not “get good” at golf until after he finished the Professional Golf Management program at the University of Idaho and joined the 9-to-5 work force.
While admittedly not as good as Dahmen, Bonnalie still has enough game to qualify for elite competitions such as this week’s U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship being conducted at the Capital City Club’s Crabapple Course and stroke-play co-host Atlanta National Golf Club.
The McCall, Idaho, qualifier at Jug Mountain Ranch on Sept. 10 fell perfectly in line with Bonnalie’s travel schedule to the Web.com’s Albertsons Boise Open the next day. Bonnalie, with Dahmen as his caddie, birdied the opening three holes en route to earning the lone qualifying spot with a 71.
“I might play once a week and never practice, but I feel like my course management is way better because of my having been a caddie,” said Bonnalie, one of a handful of full-time caddies in the 264-player field. “I used to go for every single pin … but now I feel like I’m a bit more conservative. It’s OK to make a par and that a bogey here and there doesn’t always kill you. I do wish I had the time to practice my own game more, though. But it’s not the case and I’m OK with that.”
To best illustrate Bonnalie’s passion for the game, consider his record feat in 2011. Over the span of seven days, he played 111 rounds – yes that’s one hundred and eleven – plus an additional two holes to set the Guinness World Record by playing 2,000 holes in one week. He also set the record for most birdies (427) and, perhaps more importantly, raised nearly $15,000 for the Cystinosis Research Foundation.
“I saw the record published in the book and it was 1,800 holes. I was like, ‘Oh, I can play 1,800 holes in a week,’” said Bonnalie, who began his record quest each day at 4:30 a.m. and played until he could no longer see his shots at dusk. “Day two of seven days in I was feeling miserable.”
After six years of holding the record, Bonnalie would not hesitate attempting another record run should his current total ever be eclipsed.
Revered British writer and commentator Henry Longhurst once wrote of caddies: “A good caddie is more than a mere assistant. He is guide, philosopher and friend.”
A few also know how to strike the ball.
Consider Corby Segal, 46, of Santa Clarita, Calif., who is competing in his third USGA championship of 2017.
“I don’t get to practice a lot,” said Segal.
In May, Segal missed match play via a playoff with partner Tim Hogarth at the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club, then failed to qualify for match play at the U.S. Amateur at Riviera Country Club andBel Air Country Club in August.
Similar to Bonnalie, Segal’s hopes of playing this week hinged on his employer’s schedule.
“The job comes first,” said Segal, who has been a full-time tour caddie since 1998 and currently works for Brandon Hagy. He began with fellow Cal State Northridge alum Bob Burns and through the years has carried for Woody Austin, Brandt Jobe, Tom Hoge and Briny Baird.
In late August, Hagy qualified for the first of four PGA Tour FedEx Cup Playoff events, the Northern Trust in Old Westbury, N.Y. When Hagy missed the cut and failed to advance to the second week of the playoffs, Segal was able to catch a flight back to the West Coast and qualify for the U.S. Mid-Amateur at Red Hill Country Club in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., on Aug. 28.
“Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am very competitive and never give up, that I always want to be the best I can possibly be,” said Segal.
But Segal realized his limitations as a player after nearly two years on the mini tours.
“I knew I was going to struggle,” he said, “because I am a Corey Pavin-type player – short and straight, can hit in both directions, good short game and putter. I lack length.”
Sam Weber, however, still has professional dreams. A caddie at both Erin Hills, site of this year’s U.S. Open, and TPC Sawgrass, Weber, 25, of Hartland, Wis., would like to one day reverse his position in the caddie-player relationship.
“I am not ready to stop playing golf,” said Weber, who played at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. “I am working with a new swing coach and I think I am still getting better. I told myself I would give this until I was 30 to have some measureable success. I have two degrees, so the real jobs will still be there.”
A common refrain from caddies is that carrying someone else’s bag provides them a new perspective on their own game.
“It makes me see the golf course differently, helps me with course management,” Weber said. “Instead of looking directly at the fairway or the pin, I am also looking at where is my miss, where is it easier to get up and down from, where is the fatter part of the green and best angle to attack. I am there to help the player.”
This week, the players they are trying to help the most are themselves.
Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA websites.