Stewart's former caddie finally reflects on '99 win

By Jason SobelJune 3, 2014, 6:45 pm

When Mike Hicks caddied in last month’s Byron Nelson Championship, he stayed with a friend of his former boss.

Lamar Haynes was a college teammate of Payne Stewart at SMU, so this was a reunion of sorts with Hicks, who’d spent a dozen years toting Stewart’s bag.

On Tuesday night of that week, they were channel surfing, with Haynes flipping between NBA and NHL playoff games. At one point, both were in commercial, so he clicked over to Golf Channel. As coincidence – or maybe luck – would have it, a rebroadcast of the 1999 U.S. Open final round, during which Hicks caddied Stewart to victory, had just started.

“Lamar goes, ‘Jeez, can you believe this?’” Hicks recalls. “And I said I’d never seen it.”

That’s right. The man who spent so many years walking the fairways with Stewart, the man who witnessed so much heartache and heroism, who leapt into his arms when the final putt dropped that day and spoke at his memorial service a few months later following the plane accident, had never seen the entire final round.

“I’ve got the tape, but I had just never sat down and watched it,” he admits. “If Payne hadn’t passed away in October, at some point that winter I would have watched the tape. But I don’t know – it’s just been strange for me.”

So there they were, two of the men who knew Stewart best, 15 years after his win and 15 years after his death, sitting together and watching the historic final round.

Photos: 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2

And what did they see?

“What really astounded me was the focus that he had, the look of determination on his face,” Hicks says. “When you’re in the heat of the moment, you don’t really notice that stuff.”

Excuse him if he’s a little emotional next week as the U.S. Open returns to Pinehurst No. 2, that statue of Stewart in victorious pose loitering near the final green. The memories of that week will come flooding back.

He remembers they barely spoke during that final round.

“There was no small talk between Payne and I. He didn’t say five words to me that day, other than, ‘What do we got? What’s it playing? How’s the wind?’”

He remembers leaving the course with Stewart around 10 p.m., then driving 65 miles to his own house in Mebane, N.C., where Stewart spent time with all of the caddie’s friends and neighbors who had gathered there.

“To win in your home state, then to have the major champion stay in your house – it just doesn’t happen. But I was blessed enough and fortunate enough to have that happen.”

He remembers the next day, when Stewart shook off a 4 a.m. bedtime and honored his commitment – along with Paul Azinger, Fred Couples and Hal Sutton – to attend an event at Hicks’ home club, Mill Creek.

“He made a putt on the first hole and says, ‘Well, that’s four one-putts in a row.’ On the next hole, he closed his eyes and made another. ‘That’s five one-putts in a row.’ Then another on the next hole. ‘That’s six in a row.’ He was really giving those guys the business.”

Hicks still thinks about Stewart pretty frequently – every time he walks past his refrigerator, in fact. There is a photo of him attached to the door, not playing golf, but from a photo shoot for his clothing line.

It wouldn’t be presumptuous to believe that Hicks prefers to remember his friend as a person, not just a golfer.

While the flags from the final green at each of Stewart’s first two major championships have long since been framed and hung, the flag from the 1999 U.S. Open remains neither, instead sitting unceremoniously on a shelf in Hicks’ bedroom closet.

In the years since Stewart’s death, he caddied for a who’s who on the PGA Tour – from Lee Janzen to Justin Leonard to Steve Stricker to Charles Howell III, but none could replace the player with whom he’s still most closely associated.

“I got along with all of them, but it just wasn’t the same,” he says. “Never will be the same; never going to find another job like I had.”

After 34 years of caddying, Hicks maintains that he’s finally done. Retired for good. He is diabetic, has a herniated disc and a hip that needs replacing. “My body is kind of worn down,” he admits. “I’m burned out.”

Hicks looped for the last time a few weeks ago for Spencer Levin at the Crowne Plaza Invitational, then returned home to Mebane, where he works as an instructor, taking the most pleasure in coaching junior golfers and helping them to, as he puts it, “caddie for themselves.”

He used to get asked about caddying for Stewart and winning the ’99 U.S. Open every day, but those questions have subsided over time. They’ll return in waves next week, as the focus is once again on that magical journey among the pines – and so will Hicks’ memory, those images rushing back to him.

“It really feels like yesterday that I was caddying for Payne,” he says. “It’s all gone by so fast.”

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Berger more than ready to rebound at Travelers

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:54 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Daniel Berger hopes that this year he gets to be on the other end of a viral moment at the Travelers Championship.

Berger was a hard-luck runner-up last year at TPC River Highlands, a spectator as Jordan Spieth holed a bunker shot to defeat him in a playoff. It was the second straight year that the 25-year-old came up just short outside Hartford, as he carried a three-shot lead into the 2016 event before fading to a tie for fifth.

While he wasn’t lacking any motivation after last year’s close call, Berger got another dose last week at the U.S. Open when he joined Tony Finau as a surprise participant in the final group Sunday, only to shoot a 73 and drift to a T-6 finish.

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“It was one of the best experiences of my professional golf career so far. I feel like I’m going to be in such a better place next time I’m in that position, having felt those emotions and kind of gone through it,” Berger said. “There was a lot of reflection after that because I felt like I played good enough to get it done Sunday. I didn’t make as many putts as I wanted to, but I hit a lot of really good putts. And that’s really all you can do.”

Berger missed the cut earlier this month to end his quest for three straight titles in Memphis, but his otherwise consistent season has now included six top-20 finishes since January. After working his way into contention last week and still with a score to settle at TPC River Highlands, he’s eager to get back to work against another star-studded field.

“I think all these experiences you just learn from,” Berger said. “I think last week, having learned from that, I think that’s even going to make me a little better this week. So I’m excited to get going.”

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Rory tired of the near-misses, determined to close

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:46 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Rory McIlroy has returned to the Travelers Championship with an eye on bumping up his winning percentage.

McIlroy stormed from the back of the pack to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, but that remains his lone worldwide win since the 2016 Tour Championship. It speaks to McIlroy’s considerable ability and lofty expectations that, even with a number of other high finishes this season, he is left unsatisfied.

“I feel like I’ve had five realistic chances to win this year, and I’ve been able to close out one of them. That’s a bit disappointing, I guess,” McIlroy said. “But at least I’ve given myself five chances to win golf tournaments, which is much more than I did last year.”

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The most memorable of McIlroy’s near-misses is likely the Masters, when he played alongside Patrick Reed in Sunday’s final group but struggled en route to a T-5 finish. But more frustrating in the Ulsterman’s eyes were his runner-up at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, when he led by two shots with eight holes to go, and a second-place showing behind Francesco Molinari at the BMW PGA Championship in May.

“There’s been some good golf in there,” he said. “I feel like I let Dubai and Wentworth get away a little bit.”

He’ll have a chance to rectify that trend this week at TPC River Highlands, where he finished T-17 last year in his tournament debut and liked the course and the tournament enough to keep it on his schedule. It comes on the heels of a missed cut at the U.S. Open, when he was 10 over through 11 holes and never got on track. McIlroy views that result as more of an aberration during a season in which he has had plenty of chances to contend on the weekend.

“I didn’t necessarily play that badly last week. I feel like if I play similarly this week, I might have a good chance to win,” McIlroy said. “I think when you play in conditions like that, it magnifies parts of your game that maybe don’t stack up quite as good as the rest of your game, and it magnified a couple of things for me that I worked on over the weekend.”

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Sunday run at Shinnecock gave Reed even more confidence

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:08 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – While many big names are just coming around to the notion that the Travelers Championship is worth adding to the schedule, Patrick Reed has been making TPC River Highlands one of his favorite haunts for years.

Reed will make his seventh straight appearance outside Hartford, where he tied for fifth last year and was T-11 the year before that. He is eager to get back to the grind after a stressful week at the U.S. Open, both because of his past success here and because it will offer him a chance to build on a near-miss at Shinnecock Hills.

Reed started the final round three shots off the lead, but he quickly stormed toward the top of the leaderboard and became one of Brooks Koepka’s chief threats after birdies on five of his first seven holes. Reed couldn’t maintain the momentum in the middle of the round, carding three subsequent bogeys, and ultimately tied for fourth.

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It was a bittersweet result, but Reed is focusing on the positives after taking a couple days to reflect.

“If you would have told me that I had a chance to win coming down Sunday, I would have been pleased,” Reed said. “I felt like I just made too many careless mistakes towards the end, and because of that, you’re not going to win at any major making careless mistakes, especially on Sunday.”

Reed broke through for his first major title at the Masters, and he has now finished fourth or better in three straight majors dating back to a runner-up at the PGA last summer. With another chance to add to that record next month in Scotland, he hopes to carry the energy from last week’s close call into this week’s event on a course where he feels right at home.

“It just gives me confidence, more than anything,” Reed said. “Of course I would have loved to have closed it out and win, but it was a great week all in all, and there’s a lot of stuff I can take from it moving forward. That’s how I’m looking at it.”

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Koepka back to work, looking to add to trophy collection

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 8:53 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Days after ensuring the U.S. Open trophy remained in his possession for another year, Brooks Koepka went back to work.

Koepka flew home to Florida after successfully defending his title at Shinnecock Hills, celebrating the victory Monday night with Dustin Johnson, Paulina Gretzky, swing coach Claude Harmon III and a handful of close friends. But he didn’t fully unwind because of a decision to honor his commitment to the Travelers Championship, becoming the first player to tee it up the week after a U.S. Open win since Justin Rose in 2013.

Koepka withdrew from the Travelers pro-am, but he flew north to Connecticut on Wednesday and arrived to TPC River Highlands around 3 p.m., quickly heading to the driving range to get in a light practice session.

“It still hasn’t sunk in, to be honest with you,” Koepka said. “I’m still focused on this week. It was just like, ‘All right, if I can get through this week, then I’m going to be hanging with my buddies next week.’ I know then maybe it’ll sink in, and I’ll get to reflect on it a little bit more.”

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Koepka’s plans next week with friends in Boston meant this week’s event outside Hartford made logistical sense. But he was also motivated to play this week because, plainly, he hasn’t had that many playing opportunities this year after missing nearly four months with a wrist injury.

“I’ve had so many months at home being on the couch. I don’t need to spend any more time on the couch,” Koepka said. “As far as skipping, it never crossed my mind.”

Koepka’s legacy was undoubtedly bolstered by his win at Shinnecock, as he became the first player in nearly 30 years to successfully defend a U.S. Open title. But he has only one other PGA Tour win to his credit, that being the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open, and his goal for the rest of the season is to make 2018 his first year with multiple trophies on the mantle.

“If you’re out here for more than probably 15 events, it gives you a little better chance to win a couple times. Being on the sidelines isn’t fun,” Koepka said. “Keep doing what we’re doing and just try to win multiple times every year. I feel like I have the talent. I just never did it for whatever reason. Always felt like we ran into a buzzsaw. So just keep plugging away.”