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Player-caddie relationships require give-and-take approach

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PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Both Jon Rahm and caddie Adam Hayes left the 11th hole shaking their heads during the final round of The Players Championship.

Hayes went first, doing little to hide his disagreement as his player vetoed his nominated layup attempt of a wedge down the fairway and instead tried a bold hook with a 6-iron from a mediocre lie in a fairway bunker. Rahm followed a few moments later, as the risky shot splashed in a lake and led to a bogey that cost him a share of the lead. He would go on to tie for 12th.

The audio of the Rahm-Hayes exchange was captured live during the television broadcast, and it offered fans a rare glimpse into the sort of discussions that can sometimes crop up between player and caddie with the tournament hanging in the balance.

“I thought it was fascinating,” said Paul Casey, who listened to the drama unfold on the radio as he drove to the airport on Sunday. “I thought Adam was brilliant in what he said and how he laid it out there, and the reasoning and the rationale.”

Rahm spoke candidly about the interaction Sunday at TPC Sawgrass, insisting that if given 10 attempts at the shot from the sand he would have found land with the other nine. Wednesday at the Valspar Championship, he reiterated that the exchange was nothing more than a testament to the strong bond he shares with Hayes, and the belief they have in each other.

“Adam was just doing his job and voicing his opinion, and then, as usual, the player has the last say. It’s as simple as that,” Rahm said. “We always work very openly like that. Honestly, it’s one of the first things we both agreed on when we started working, was honesty. We always say what’s in our mind, whether we like it or not, and that’s why it works so well.”

In speaking to players about Rahm’s situation, the concept of honesty came up with frequency. It’s never easy for a caddie to challenge a player’s decision-making on Thursday, let alone Sunday when the tournament (and a seven-figure check) is still on the line. But it speaks to a level of unspoken trust that’s often required for the relationship to thrive under the most strenuous pressures that can be thrown their way.

“If you’re able to say what you really feel, it frees you up to be the best caddie or even player you can be,” said Webb Simpson. “If he knows I’m choosing a club that’s not good, he’s got to be able to say that. And I’ve got to be able to respond in a way where it’s not going to take confidence away if I still use it.”

Playing in the group ahead of Rahm on the Stadium Course, Jason Day was unaware of what transpired on the 11th hole until after the tournament ended. But for the Aussie it immediately evoked memories of the 2017 PGA Championship, when he found himself trapped among the trees on the last hole of the third round at Quail Hollow.

Day’s caddie at the time, Col Swatton, wanted his man to play sideways back out into the fairway. Day wanted to try the more risky option, a 7-iron off the pinestraw that he hoped to hook around a stand of trees and back into play.

Like with the situation between Rahm and Hayes, Day won the argument. But he probably wished he hadn’t, as he went on to make a quadruple bogey that essentially ended his chances for a second PGA title.

“I was so convincing that I ended up changing his mind. Ultimately the player has the authority to hit the shot, but you’ve got to live with that risk or reward if it happens,” Day said. “It’s nice to be able to see a caddie and a player have the conversation, and then ultimately if he pulls it off or doesn’t, then that’s the player’s fault.”

Rahm hasn’t been on social media since leaving TPC Sawgrass, and he pled ignorance to the online discussion that has surrounded his back-and-forth with Hayes. But he’s not afraid to encounter a similar situation this week at Innisbrook. He’s confident that Hayes would still offer an unvarnished opinion in an attempt to help his player make the best possible decision.

“We’re really good friends, and we’re really close. Because of that he was going to voice his concerns, and I’ll say mine,” Rahm said. “It’s nothing special. I mean, I made a decision, I didn’t’ pull it off, we move on. Period.”

Rahm’s aggressive style of play was well known prior to last week, and his decision to take on the low-percentage option in crunch time wasn’t entirely surprising. But it’s also a course of action that may have led to an irreparable fracture in weaker player-caddie bonds, a nuanced dynamic that sometimes incorporates aspects of friend, coach and sports psychologist.

But the relationship between Rahm and Hayes works well because both know and expect the other to offer an unfettered opinion, even when the result doesn’t pan out. Because next time around, the same fascinating and frank discussion might be just what the two men need to turn an opportunity into a trophy.

“I think after the fact it’s easy to say, ‘Oh, he should have laid up.’ But if he hits a great shot and hits it on the green, then everybody would’ve been, ‘Oh, what a great decision,’” said Sergio Garcia. “So at the end of the day I think Adam gave him what he thought was the most high-percentage play, and Jon felt like he could pull the shot off. Sometimes you don’t execute.”