Caddie’s Local Knowledge Buoys Spieth
By Ron Driscoll, USGA
This story originally appeared in the official program of the 2015 U.S. Open. To view additional content in the digital version of the program, click here.
UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. - The player-caddie partnership of 2015 Masters champion Jordan Spieth and Michael Greller got off to a wildly inauspicious start. The year was 2011. Spieth, 17, the top junior golfer in the country, was looking to win his second U.S. Junior Amateur, having captured the championship in 2009.
“The first hole I caddied for Jordan, I gave him a bad number,” Greller said. “I was so nervous. We started on No. 10, but I gave him a yardage for No. 1.”
Already displaying a maturity beyond his years, Spieth overcame the unforced error by his new caddie in stroke-play qualifying to steamroll the field. He won six matches at Gold Mountain Golf Club in Bremerton, Wash., to join Tiger Woods as the only multiple winners in the championship’s 67 years (Woods won it three times, from 1991-93).
Greller, 38, survived that early gaffe and went on to caddie for Spieth in the 2012 U.S. Open at The Olympic Club, where Spieth earned low-amateur honors. As they stride the fairways of Chambers Bay this week, they are completing a vow that Greller made to himself eight years ago, when he was a sixth-grade teacher and happenstance had yet to connect him with one of the game’s rising stars.
It was early 2008, and Greller was in a meeting for potential caddies at Chambers Bay when he heard that the 2015 U.S. Open had been awarded to the new course.
“I told myself, somehow I’m going to caddie in that U.S. Open,” he recalled. “But I certainly never thought this would be the route that got me there.”
Greller had played the game growing up in Michigan and in Orange City, Iowa, where his family moved when his father became an administrator at Northwestern College, an NAIA school. Greller was the No. 2 player on the Northwestern team, though he admits that nowadays, “Jordan likes to make fun of my golf game.”
Five years before he would caddie for Spieth at Gold Mountain, Greller was attending the 2006 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship there when he noticed that competitor Matt Savage was carrying his own bag. After the round, Greller offered to caddie for Savage.
“I still don’t know what made me walk up to him, but I figured I had nothing to lose,” said Greller. “I gave him my really weak resume, and he gave me a chance. We had a good day, qualified for match play, then got to the quarterfinals. That’s where I fell in love with caddieing.”
When the 2010 U.S. Amateur was played at Chambers Bay, Greller landed Justin Thomas’s bag, having been recommended to Thomas by Savage, a fellow Louisville native. Greller caddied for Thomas in three consecutive Amateurs, capped by a run to the semifinals in 2012 at Cherry Hills Country Club.
Flash back to that 2011 U.S. Junior at Gold Mountain, 30 miles from Chambers Bay, where Greller almost missed out on the opportunity with Spieth.
“Caddieing was still a summertime hobby of mine at that point,” said Greller, who nonetheless had transferred to the Narrows View Intermediate School in University Place, so he could be near Chambers Bay. “But I wanted to be around the best players – in this case the best junior players – in the world.”
Greller first offered his services to Jim Liu, the defending champion.
“Jim wanted another local guy, and thankfully he passed on me,” said Greller with a chuckle. “So Justin set me up with Gavin Hall, but Gavin tweaked his wrist two weeks before the championship. That led me to Jordan, who is a close friend of Justin’s.”
In 2013, when Spieth decided to leave the University of Texas midway through his sophomore year to turn professional, Greller got a call – would he consider joining Jordan on Tour? Greller hedged his bets, taking a one-year leave of absence from teaching, since Spieth began his career with no status on either the PGA Tour or the Web.com Tour. But Spieth followed up a missed cut in his debut with a tie for 22nd and a pair of top-10 finishes, and they were on their way.
“I really wanted to find somebody who would be willing to travel with me the whole time even if I wasn’t playing well,” Spieth said later. “Since I had no idea where my schedule was going to take me week to week, we decided it was best to have a [caddie] who knew my game … and was a good friend off the course.”
Spieth and Greller have proven a good match, with Spieth, 21, becoming the third-youngest player to win multiple times on Tour (after Woods and Sergio Garcia).
“The hardest thing is that, as a caddie, you don’t want to get caught up in being a spectator,” said Greller. “These guys are amazing to watch – the best in the world – but you’re part of a team and you play a really important role.”
That role has become a bit easier with repetition.
“The first few times we were in the mix, everything was going 100 miles an hour,” said Greller shortly after Spieth’s playoff victory at the Valspar Championship in March. “Having been in it enough, it’s easier to slow things down and process the moment that you’re in, factor the adrenaline into the shots. My biggest role is to provide assertive, confident feedback and help him keep that self-belief.”
The skill set that Greller acquired in 10 years as a teacher has proven valuable.
“As crazy as it sounds, it really did prepare me for caddieing on Tour,” said Greller. “Being an encourager to your students, that certainly applies. You have to be able to adapt to situations every day in teaching, as well as relating to people from all walks of life, just like on Tour. You also have to have a thick skin – if you make a mistake, if you get the wind wrong or misread a putt, you have to be able to get in there and be just as confident the next time that you’re going to get it right.”
The spotlight first intensified in July 2013, when Spieth overcame a six-stroke deficit in the final round to win the John Deere Classic in a playoff. The victory brought instant entry into the following week’s British Open. And there was the little matter of Greller’s wedding, a fortnight away.
“My head was already spinning, and then Jordan goes and wins the Deere,” said Greller. “We jumped on the charter to the [British] Open, then came back for the wedding. Jordan came to the wedding, which was pretty special, and he also got to play the course, which was a pretty smart move, since there have been several changes.”
Greller and his fiancée, Ellie, were married Aug. 3 on the grounds at Chambers Bay, where Thomas joined Greller and Spieth in the pre-wedding golf outing. Ellie quit her job as a kindergarten teacher last summer to join Greller full-time on Tour, where she provides Spieth’s chief ally with his own support system.
“Being a caddie is a much more public job than I initially thought,” Greller admitted. “Everybody knows when you’ve had a great day and when you’ve had a bad day, and people have opinions. I’ve had to figure out how to handle that.”
Greller handled many of the responsibilities of this homecoming week ahead of time, so he could concentrate on the second major of the season.
“My whole immediate family will be here and my wife’s family,” said Greller. “But outside of family, I’m telling people they’re on their own. Other than Augusta, it’s the toughest ticket to get.”
Despite the familiarity with the area and the course, there are no shortcuts to be taken.
“It’s certainly going to be a celebration for my family and friends, but I’m going to be at the course from sunrise to sunset, working just as hard as ever,” Greller said.
Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.