The Return of a Looper

By: Tim Bibaud

The adventure began back in December while I was comfortably sipping on a tall Skyy Vodka Seabreeze cocktail with family and friends. You might be wondering why I was drinking a summertime cocktail in the dead of winter. As I’ve aged and, hopefully, matured, I have drifted away from the excessive consumption of Bud Lights in favor of a nice vodka concoction, regardless of the season. At the tender age of 46, I’ve yet to acquire a taste for fine wines, so I stick to my big blue bottle of Skyy regardless of the temperature outside.

As we discussed the upcoming Christmas holiday and predicted snowfall for the following day, the conversation turned to one of our guests, Fran Quinn, regarding his plans. Quinn is a 40-year-old professional golfer who had just completed a season on the Nationwide Tour. Following his 2004 campaign, he began another quest to earn his playing privileges on the regular PGA Tour. This agonizing three-step journey requires a strong game and even stronger constitution. Quinn made it the third and final stage, only to fall a couple of strokes shy in his bid to get back to the big show, which is the PGA Tour.

The reward for reaching the “Big Tour” is an opportunity to compete for approximately $5 million dollars each week in prize money, as compared to the $450,000 to $600,000 purses on the Nationwide Tour. For the sake of perspective, a 15th place finish in a PGA event fetches more money than a victory in a Nationwide event.

The money differences are startling. A player can enjoy lifetime financial security if he’s able to have three or four productive years on the PGA Tour. The pressures involved in reaching that goal are substantial, and the competition is fierce as pros like Fran Quinn are compelled to compete against younger college-aged phenoms and an ever-growing number of foreign players.

Fran Quinn has had some success playing this difficult game for a living. He’s competed in both the U.S. Open and British Open. He has won twice on the Nationwide Tour as well as in South Africa and Asia.

Fran has juggled these successes – and disappointments – while starting a wonderful family with three young children, ages 3 to 7. He’s also fortunate to have married a remarkable woman, Lori, who can handle the hectic schedules and demands of a touring pro’s wife.

Opportunity Knocks

While looking toward the 2005 season, Fran suggested I should take some time off and caddie for him at a Nationwide event. I put the thought in the back of mind, never really expecting that anything would come of this Merlot-influenced suggestion by Mr. Quinn. While not getting many opportunities to play the game myself anymore, I remain actively involved with the game. I’ve been the golf coach at a local NCAA Division 2 institution, Assumption College, for the past 10 years.

So, as the spring thaw began in the Northeast, I actually prepared for my first caddying assignment in 20 years.

Like many before me, I learned the game of golf as a caddie. I was fortunate enough to reside near a true Donald Ross gem, Worcester Country Club in Massachusetts. The club is a very private Yankee bastion of old Worcester money. This fantastic layout is the only course to have hosted a U.S. Open for both men and women. It was also the site of the initial Ryder Cup in 1927. The venue’s history was not ingrained into me during my early caddying years. I was simply trying to lug my double “loop” around the course for the princely payment of $11. I did, however, learn to play and respect the game and all of its nuances and traditions as a result of these early experiences.

My caddying career later took me to Pleasant Valley CC in Sutton, Mass., which had served as a PGA Tour stop for almost 30 years. My job at this event was to work for the head pro, Bob Molt. I relished the task and looked forward to it every September. While we never made the cut, Bob and I enjoyed our time together during tournament week.

My last performance as a pro tour caddy was with Bob in 1985. Yet here I was rethinking my ability to do the job again. I needed to be realistic. I was 20 years older. I was at least 20 pounds heavier and would be working a golf course I’d never seen. My caddying days at Worcester CC and Pleasant Valley required no yardage books as I knew every fairway bounce and the grain on all the greens. I was seriously wondering if caddying would be out of my comfort zone, traveling to a foreign venue after being out of action for so long. But I figured the game had not changed, and my caddying skills would rush back as soon as the bag was hoisted onto my shoulder.

Fran did not play in the pro-am on the Tuesday prior to the start of the Northeast Pennsylvania Classic. He used one of his allotted excused absences from participating in the event to take care of business back home in Massachusetts. The proximity of the event near Scranton, Pa., allowed us to make a leisurely four-hour drive on Tuesday afternoon. My 15-year-old son and blossoming caddie/golfer, Patrick, joined us for the journey. I didn’t tell Patrick that I hoped he wouldn’t be forced to relieve the “starting caddie.”

I was able to sneak a peak at the golf course – Glenmaura National Country Club – on Tuesday afternoon. It was a very hilly, almost mountainous track with great elevation changes and long distances between tees. We had a nice dinner and arrangements were made to meet at 6:00 a.m. the following morning for the short trip from the hotel to the course for our practice round.

Taking a Gander at the Challenge

Wednesday morning was beautiful. I very much looked toward the task at hand. Memories came rushing back as we entered the empty parking lot. For almost 15 years I worked at golf facilities, and there’s still nothing quite as peaceful and serene as a course in the early morning hours just as the sun comes through the trees.

The atmosphere surrounding Glenmaura National brought me back to my Pleasant Valley days, where I opened the shop and got that day’s play underway. I almost yearned for a return to those days where I had no cares, lived on tip income, and the only worry was scraping enough cash together for the next Calcutta or big money match.

As Fran went through his warm-up routine, I was amazed at his syrupy tempo and complete disregard for trying to hit the ball hard. He said he would not force certain yardages and hit the ball too hard, while stressing the importance of sticking to this game plan. He added that this was a course which required patience, but that there were birdies to be had. I was anxious to get started and witness just how Fran’s strategy would pan out. He enjoyed a top-10 finish at Glenmaura National in 2004, so there was some good karma flowing around this 10-year-old, Michael Hurdzan-designed course that was built on top of a mountain.

The opening hole is a solid par-5 with an expansive fairway that turns into rubbish 285 yards out. Before his first shot on the practice round, Fran said he liked to hit 3-wood here because as the course dries out and becomes quicker, the driver could run right through the fairway and cause problems. He also emphasized that he wanted me to notate certain “run-out” yardages on some holes so we could chart and determine the precise distance the ball carried on these holes, and exactly how much distance the ball ran past its pitch mark.

This was foreign territory; I had never figured “run-out” yardages. Instead of admitting this, I did what every other seasoned attorney (my real world job) would do in that situation: I pretended I knew exactly what he was talking about. I watched Fran as he paced off distances where his practice shots had landed, followed by the distance that the ball had gone before stopping. We soon established maximum distances that he wanted the ball to carry, depending upon pin location. I dutifully recorded this data in my official PGA yardage book and hoped I’d be able to transcribe the scribbling and come up with useful yardages when the time came.

As the practice round transpired I was amazed how soon my caddying skills came back. I quickly became comfortable charting Glenmaura’s rather large greens. Fran indicated where the pins would most likely be set, and explained that the PGA Tour was increasingly using very difficult pin positions in their course set-ups. He added we should expect at least three or four very tight positions during the round. He also said we could be greedy, depending upon the flag locations. The practice round was an eye-opening experience; I was amazed at just how precise Fran’s shot-making skills had become. Accurate yardages are expected and heavily relied upon, and I found myself re-calculating the math in a quest to be absolutely certain my input was correct.

Much has changed from the days when Gorgeous George Lucas followed the PGA Tour and created his yardage books for each event. Those creations were loaded with George’s own “stepped-off” yardages along with some helpful commentary and descriptive language, should your player hit the ball in a not-so-friendly locale. Lucas was a popular and successful entrepreneur during his years on the PGA Tour in the 1980s, and his innovation spawned the yardage and mapping technology that is now commonplace on all the major professional golf tours.

With equipment becoming so technologically advanced and the golf ball being so precise, the players demand accurate yardages. Lasers are now used when courses are charted and the yardage books are created. Fran noted that a new device was becoming more popular when players faced elevation changes. The inclinometer is a device that takes into account elevation changes and calculates numbers into a usable yardage for golfers. The player thus has an accurate reading as to just how far a shot will play with elevations factored into equation. This device eliminates the guesswork of how much the elevation change affects a shot.

I spent the whole practice round trying to get a feel for the speed and tendencies of the greens and realized my skills for reading greens were very good on courses with which I was familiar. I struggled reading these greens. But these concerns were allayed when Fran said he preferred to read his own putts and would seek my assistance on maybe two or three putts a round. The rest of the practice time was uneventful. The golf course was in impeccable condition. Fran worked on hitting different types of shots from various locations, and we finished our work in a brisk three hours.

After lunch, he spent another three hours hitting balls, chips and putts in preparation for our 8:50 a.m. tee time on Thursday morning. I was impressed by the camaraderie of the players. Fran spent considerable bantering with Greg Kraft (the eventual winner) about the Red Sox and Yankees rivalry. Kraft is a Tampa native and was friends with the Yankee’s boss, George Steinbrenner. Greg actually received one of the team’s World Series rings in 1998. Kraft is in tremendous physical condition and works out regularly with Yankee players in the Tampa area during the off-season. As the tournament week went on and Kraft blistered the Glenmaura layout, I found myself rooting for him as he was such a nice guy – despite his baseball allegiances.

The Days of Reckoning

Thursday’s round started beautifully, with Fran getting a birdie four on the first hole. But the rest of the round seemed like we were stuck in mud as Fran was never able to get any momentum going. Solid iron shots stopped 12 to 15 feet from the pin, and he was never able to convert. A couple of loose tee shots resulted in bogeys and he finished with an uneventful 2-over-par 73. But I was assured there many birdies to be had on the course and that Friday would be a better day.

Following the requisite practice session following the first round, we retired to the hotel where Fran awaited the arrival of this family. Plans were made to attend a Triple A baseball game that evening and I was left to rest my weary legs, which were holding up surprisingly well.

The game featured the Scranton-Wilkes Barre Red Barons vs. the Yankees’ affiliate, Columbus. The Red Barons won a squeaker with a great comeback and the Coors Lights replenished this caddie’s reserves. I was ready for Friday’s battle.

With our afternoon tee time, I determined that even-par would make the cut and assure us a spot on the weekend. Starting on No. 10, Fran decided to get to the cut line in a hurry, as the par-5 hole was playing straight down wind. He hit a 7-iron onto the green, and then rolled in a 50-footer for an eagle. Just like that, we were at even par and back in the hunt.

The next hole is a nifty 135-yard par-3. The pin was tucked in the back corner of the small green. Fran almost holed a 9-iron and tapped in for birdie. A bogey followed by two birdies found Fran at 4-under par for the day – and 2-under for the tournament – as he prepared to hit his tee shot on No. 17, our eighth hole of the day.

Glenmaura’s 17th is a short dogleg-right with a stream running before the green. Bunkers guard the left-hand portion of the fairway. During our practice round, Fran hit a solid 3-wood with a slight cut, which left him a mere 100 yards out. On this day, however, the slight cut shot turned into a slight draw and we found our ball in 3-foot-deep hay. One slash advanced the ball to the edge of the rough. Then Fran’s third attempt to get the ball into the fairway hit a small branch and ricocheted into the bunker. A fat bunker shot into the stream was followed by a wedge shot and two putts.

The 4-under par start quickly deteriorated with a disastrous quadruple-bogey eight. The dreaded “snowman” had found its way onto Fran Quinn’s scorecard and put him in the position of having to force the issue during his final nine holes. Some loose wedges prevented good looks at birdies, and Fran’s second-round even-par 71 missed the cut by two strokes.

No Regrets

The life of a PGA Nationwide player is not about guaranteed contracts and rooms at the Ritz Carlton. To be successful, you must earn your stripes every week. Fran Quinn is the consummate professional. He apologized for not playing better and making the cut. I laughed. He was apologizing to me? I was thrilled with the opportunity to caddie, and hoped I would not embarrass myself. Fran said I more than competent, and promised we’d do it again. I walked away with a deep respect for just how talented these players are and how difficult it is to succeed at this high level.

I drove back home to Worcester with my starry-eyed son (who escorted a 20-year-old Swedish gal, the girlfriend of Erick Compton – a player in Fran’s group, around the course for two days). During the return trip I went over the various shots and decisions we’d made over the previous three days. What could have been done differently? Could I have done a better job? Golf is certainly a game of second-guessing, but I wouldn’t go that far on this day.

Greg Kraft won the Northeast Pennsylvania Classic. Fran Quinn would later fly to Treetops in northern Michigan for a two-day pro-am and then venture on to the next Nationwide Tour stop. There is no time to feel bad about previous disappointments, as a full summer schedule had to be tackled.

Thanks to Fran, this looper feels very fortunate to have been allowed to turn back the clock and experience the thrill of a crisply struck 5-iron and a well-holed putt inside the ropes of a PGA Tour event.

Tim Bibaud is a well-known name in the Central New England golf world. A former standout golfer at Holy Cross, Tim is now the head coach of Assumption College’s golf team. While at Holy Cross, he captained the Crusaders in his junior and senior years (1980-81), leading the team to the NCAA national tournament in ‘81. In high school he was a four-year standout at St. John's in Shrewsbury, Mass., and won the prestigious Pioneer Award for golf. After graduating from Holy Cross, Tim attended the New England School of Law and has been a prosecutor with the Worcester County District Attorney's office ever since. In addition to his golf-coaching duties at Assumption, Bibaud has served as the head boy's basketball coach at Worcester North and St. Peter-Marian high schools. Tim and his wife, Elizabeth, live in Worcester with their three children – Alli, Patrick and Timothy.

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