PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- There's an annual tradition at The Players Championship, one of the more entertaining traditions on the game's most elite level. During the final practice round for the tournament, competitors reach the ominous 17th hole, stare at the daunting tee shot over water and ... promptly turn over ball-striking duties to their caddies.
J.J. Henry never made it to 17 on Wednesday, deciding to only practice on the course’s front nine. Even if he had, though, he wasn't going to let his caddie take a swing.
“I told him he wasn’t hitting that shot,” Henry said. “I’d be blackballed from the caddie wagon if he hit that shot close.”
As for his caddie? “I’d be embarrassed if I did hit a good shot,” explained Mark Brooks.
Yes, that Mark Brooks – the same Mark Brooks who won the 1996 PGA Championship and has competed in this very tournament on 21 different occasions during his career.
For the first time, Brooks is looping for Henry this week, a turnabout that features a major champion throwing the bag over his shoulder and advising a one-time PGA Tour winner.
“It’s not easy,” Brooks said. “It would be easy to carry the bag. It’s hard to caddie – there’s a difference.”
It’s an idea that the longtime friends and fellow Fort Worth, Texas, residents discussed a few years ago, one which came to fruition when Brooks found a few weeks off from his Champions Tour schedule.
“It’s not something we’re going to do every week, but if he can help me maybe a couple of times a year and he likes doing it, I think it’s neat for him,” Henry said. “Obviously, he likes seeing all of his buddies and he’s maybe not out here as much anymore, but he still feels like he’s in the game and he’s helping someone he enjoys helping. And on my side, I enjoy having him help me.”
Henry can use the help. After finishing 103rd on the PGA Tour money list last year, the 37-year-old is off to a slow start this season. In 14 appearances so far, he’s made the cut just seven times, with only one result in the top-25.
“It’s no secret,” Brooks explained. “He’s struggled a little bit several times in the last three or four years; he’s had stretches where he’s struggled. All of a sudden, it became like making the cut was an accomplishment. If you get in that very long out here, you’re gone. So that’s what we’re working on. It’s not really goal-setting. It’s doing the little things right – focusing better, not going through the motions.”
“I’m just trying to learn from him,” Henry said. “If there are one or two little things that click – especially for me, for whatever reason I haven’t played a whole lot of great golf yet this year, so to have him see what my tendencies are and see why things are off, we can go back and talk about it. It’s not just about this week. It’s about trying to help me out.”
And so in an effort to help a friend, a major champion is lugging the bag this week – albeit with one major caveat. Rather than the usual hefty staff bag, Brooks is shouldering a lighter carry bag, though that may change later in the week.
“He told me if I tee off at noon or later on Saturday or Sunday, he’s going with the staff bag,” Henry said. “So the pressure is on.”
Getting into that position would mean a paycheck for Henry, which in turn would mean a paycheck for his caddie, though as he said with a laugh, “We’ll figure something out. We haven’t gotten that far yet.”
That may be the only thing on which Henry and Brooks aren’t on the same page. Looking way ahead, if he can help his man not only make the cut, not only contend, but actually win the tournament, well, the major champion wants his cut of the treasure, too.
“Oh, hell yeah,” Brooks claimed. “He’s got to pay somebody. He might as well pay me instead of Uncle Sam.”