It’s a numbers game 

By GIDAL KAISER - Daily News

June 21, 2017

Colin Gassner, right, an Erin Hills caddie, helped French professional golfer Joel Stalter during the first two rounds of the 117th U.S. Open Championship at Erin Hills in the town of Erin. Stalter missed the cut, shooting a 5-over in two rounds.
Submitted photo

TOWN OF ERIN — Alex Smalley lined up his approach shot Friday on hole No. 17 at Erin Hills. As the soon-to-be Duke University junior gripped the nine-iron, Eric Fritz stood off to the side, with dozens of calculations running through his head.

Smalley struck the ball during the second round of the 117th U.S. Open Championship, and it hit the 17th green — then rolled off into the right-side collection area.

Smalley “couldn’t get up-and-down from there,” Fritz recalled Monday, and settled for a bogey and a plus-2 score. Smalley then missed a 25-foot birdie on No. 18’s green, and pushed the par putt just wide to register another bogey and finish 3-over.

Three shots, perhaps four, with two of them being putts. That’s how close Smalley came to making the cut — and how close Fritz, an Erin Hills caddie for more than eight years, came to carrying a bag during the final two rounds of the U.S. Open.

“We were so close to making the cut,” Fritz said. “I was really impressed with the young man.”

Fritz was one of five Erin Hills regulars on the bag for various participants during the first two rounds of a professional tournament on their home course. Several caddies who spoke with the Daily News prior to the championship expressed interest in playing some part as the event transpired, and many did.

Caddie master Justin Kordus noted many world-renowned golfers — Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson and Patrick Reed, among others — and others who graced the weekend leaderboard, including 2017 U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka, came to the site early and found time to pick a local caddie’s brain about a course most of the world’s best had yet to experience.

“Obviously it was kind of good for the first time around to have one just to — on a few holes, you need to know where to hit it,” Johnson said June 14 at a news conference. “And if you haven’t played here before it definitely helps if someone knows the course. It was definitely helpful in trying to figure out some lines off the tees.”

West Bend West graduate and Erin Hills caddie, Alex Nannetti, far right, carried the bag for TJ Howe, center, the second possible alternate in the field, during a practice round.
Submitted photo

Most of the local caddies involved noted lines off the tees, or on approaches, were the key items professionals wanted to know.

“Good players can feel their way around greens and read putts,” added Alex Nannetti, a fifth-year caddie who spent his U.S. Open week tending the bag of TJ Howe, the field’s second alternate. Like some counterparts, Nannetti’s whirlwind week began with a call from an agent — “Can you come caddie for my guy?” — Sunday night.

The pair met Monday for the first time, and spent the day at the driving range and putting green, with Nannetti watching Howe strike balls and getting a feel for his shot shape. They played the back nine June 13, went through a full 18 holes the next day and spent Thursday waiting for a call that never came. Phil Mickelson was the only golfer to withdraw in the opening round, leaving Howe and Nannetti one spot out.

“It ended up not happening, but overall the practice days were a great experience,” Nannetti said. “Obviously, knowing the course very well, I felt like I could help him. I’m happy I was able to help him out while he was there.”

Colin Gassner’s whirlwind was just as intense. The Mayville native usually caddies in Florida until late June, but a call from Joel Stalter’s agent June 7 brought Gassner up June 11. Stalter took two extra days to reach Erin because of his European Tour schedule, which left the pair maybe 48 hours to acquaint themselves with each other and the course.

“It was a little different, being as big of a tournament as it is,” Gassner said. “It was a matter of what he wanted to know, and most of that was off the tee, where to hit it.”

Like his brethren, Mike Swope was seemingly amazed at how close his pro, 27-year-old Chan Kim, came to hitting the lines he judged.

“Your regular handicap or amateur, they’re trying to hit your line, but the rest of us normal people don’t necessarily have the skill set,” Swope said. “We say ‘Hit it here,’ and if it’s within 50 yards of that, as a caddie, you’re somewhat happy.

“When (Kim) missed my target line, he’d miss it by no more than 10 yards and would apologize. He’d apologize for not getting close enough.”

Kim finished at 2-over through two rounds, rebounding from a 4-over first-round to come close to the cut line.

Being the “local guys” on a bag for a major tournament carried a lot of pride for them all. At their home course, however, none were able to make the cut.

“We were hoping for one of us to at least make the cut,” said Corey Galbally, who tended the bag for Aaron Rai and was 1-over after the first round. “It stings a little, but it’s not embarrassing.

“Again, though, it shows how much we know about this course that some of these players wanted to take a local guy out there. Five is pretty cool, a kinda big number I think.”

Galbally’s foray into the U.S. Open began with a tour.

“I was out with Jordan Spieth’s caddy, Mike (Michael Greller), before the practice week and we were going over some yardages out there,” he said. “He asked me on the first or second hole if I had a gig for the week. ’No, not yet.’ “By the 15th, he had about six jobs lined up for me. I said, ‘Oh, that’s pretty cool, Mike.’” As the trio walked off the 18th green, Galbally got a call from Rai himself.

“Aaron asked me right off the 18th green,” Galbally said. “How can you say no to that? A once in a lifetime experience? I said, ‘Absolutely, sir.’” Many of the local caddies caught up with one another at one point throughout the week or going into the weekend after work was done, or having come back Saturday and Sunday just to watch the championship play out.

Most admitted the experience was “surreal,” among other adjectives. Their course was open to the world, which allowed them to be part of a unique scene but seemingly feel quite comfortable at the same time.

“These are the best couple hundred players in the world,” Swope said. “It’s like bringing a Hollywood movie star into your own house.”