In the revolving-door world of caddie-player relationships on the LPGA Tour, the disagreement in February could have been a breaking point. Instead, it illustrated the strength of a lasting pairing that runs counter to the norm on the women’s premier golf circuit.
Sarah Jane Smith is a 34-year-old Australian in her 15th year of professional golf. She’s had one caddie since Day 1. Unusual, considering that some players change caddies almost as frequently as they replace golf shoes. But what’s unique, at least in the field for the Hugel-Air Premia L.A. Open at Wilshire Country Club this week, is that Smith’s caddie is also her husband.
Duane Smith and his wife are inseparable. They have figured how to balance their personal and professional lives regardless of what happens on the course. She is expecting their first child, a boy, in July and will shut down the schedule after this event.
Rightly or wrongly, caddies often bear the brunt of their players’ slumps, miscues and even whims. But this couple never plays the blame game.
In February, in the first round of the Australian Open, Smith eyed an improbable recovery shot after a misplaced tee shot on a par three.
“I tried to play a shot that was one in a hundred,” Sarah Jane said, laughing at the memory. “I think everybody that was watching knew I couldn’t pull it off, and he knew it too. It was a very bad decision on my part.”
“I love it when she feels really confident about something, and if she really believes in it, it’s time for me to shut up,” he said, as with his wife, laughing at the memory. The two of them laugh a lot.
“But that particular shot, there was a tree in the way and the green was a weird shape. Though it was something she was comfortable with, looking back, it probably falls on me for not doing a better job of explaining more clearly it was impossible. … She was so desperate not to make a bogey.”
She made a double bogey instead and eventually missed the cut. Caddies have been cut adrift for less.
Consider: Former No. 1 Lydia Ko, a 15-time tournament winner, went through seven caddies in the first year after she turned pro as a 17-year-old in 2013. No one has lasted two years on her bag despite her victory total.
The reasons for dismissing caddies often are simply that a player “needed a change.” And because so many players join the tour as teenagers, their parents often make the decisions, and impatience with a daughter’s progress often causes caddie casualties.
Also, purses on the LPGA Tour are significantly less than on the PGA Tour. A caddie who is working for 6% or 8% of a player’s check, or up to 10% for a win, can struggle to make ends meet when a player is slumping. Caddies sometimes do leave for better opportunities.
For Sarah Jane and Duane Smith, the pressures of the golf course have the potential to be magnified. After a bad round or tournament, they’re together sharing dinner rather than going their own way.
“We have to be careful that once we’re done, we’re done,” Sarah Jane said.
“I’m probably a little better at shutting it off, just happier to leave it at the golf course. Duane is a thinker and likes to talk about it afterward more than I do. It’s probably better if I talk with him a little about it, then shut it down. He’ll keep going over it in his mind, though.”
And then bring it up at a better time later?
She laughs, again. “Yeah, usually, and it’s still not a good time.”
The Smiths are one of several family player/caddie combinations at Wilshire this week, including Aditi Asok/father, Jaye Marie Green/brother, Austin Ernst/brother, Brittany Lang/brother.
And Brooke Henderson — who last week in Hawaii won for the eighth time on tour, is playing with older sister Brittany on her bag, as has since Brooke joined the tour at 17 in 2015. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship. Both have been coached by their father, Dave, share the same philosophy of the game, and Brooke caddied for Brittany while her older sister still entertained thoughts of a playing career several years ago.
“She knows exactly what to say to help or get me back to where I need to be, which is great,” Brooke said. “I wouldn’t want to do this journey with anyone else.”
She mentioned seeing a social media video of the two of them on the 18th hole at a recent event.
“I was talking about going way right to avoid the water, and she just turned to me and said, ‘And why would you do that?’ I feel like not everybody could have said that to me at that point. I took her advice and hit a great shot.”
Said Brittany: “We almost have this rule that the player makes the final decision. The player has to be completely committed to the shot, and if they’re not, it can lead to disagreement and unhappiness. So that rule helps us because then she can’t get too mad at her caddie ever.”
There have been moments of doubts during Sarah Jane Smith’s career. She hasn’t won.
“We talked while I was going through rough patches in the fourth or fifth season about changing things up, but I’m really proud of the fact we’ve stuck through it and made it work,” she said. “He knows me and my game so well. I don’t have to explain every nuance to him; he knows already.”
Said Duane: “A lot of people say, ‘You must really want some alone time.’ But we’re just not that way. I enjoy Sarah’s company over anyone else.
“We spend 10 to 12 weeks a year at our home, but because we’re always leaving together, we don’t ever have that goodbye thing. We’re really lucky.”
That’s something they have always agreed on.