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Jun. 23—As a full-time caddie on the PGA Tour, former Bowling Green State University golfer Jace Walker is equal parts friend, coach, and psychologist.
Walker, who played at BGSU from 2004-08, is the caddie for pro golfer Mackenzie Hughes. Not only are both golfers Canadian, but a Mid-American Conference connection also brought the duo together.
"He was a Kent Stater, and I went to BG. I was a fifth-year senior when he was a freshman. We didn't compete much against each other in the MAC. But we competed back in summer golf in Canada," Walker said. "He was always playing up with the older guys."
Walker and Hughes have now worked together for almost two years.
"Sometimes we joke that you are a friend, a caddie, a coach, a psychologist," Walker said. "You can be all of the above as a caddie. Every day is different. You just have to read how the round is going and how they are feeling. There are a lot of variables. But it's been a fun time working for him. He's a champion. He has won so many tournaments. He will eventually get his Major. I know it."
In fact, Hughes was in prime position to win the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, Calif. last weekend.
Hughes entered the final round of the major tournament tied atop the leader board. In the third round, Hughes shot a 3-under-par 68 and ended the day tied for first with Louis Oosthuizen and Russell Henley at 5-under.
Hughes' effort on Saturday was highlighted by a 63-foot eagle putt on the par-5 13th hole.
However, Hughes then shot a 6-over 77 in the final round, finishing 1-over and seven strokes behind tournament champion Jon Rahm (67) of Spain. Hughes ended up finishing in a four-way tie for 15th.
The rough round was torpedoed by a strange turn of events when Hughes' ball got stuck in a tree after his tee shot on the 11th hole.
After the tournament, Hughes called it a "one-in-a-million break."
"I've played golf my entire life, I've never had a ball stuck in a tree," Hughes said. "For it to happen on the back nine of a U.S. Open felt unfortunate because if that ball is over there in the grass, I've got a chance to get up and down for par, and that's a different outlook than trying to get up and down for bogey, and I ultimately made a double there."
Hughes lamented his fate after his final round.
"I think a lot of things have to go your way on a Sunday of a major in order to win, and I wasn't making the putts when I need to," Hughes said.
But overall, Hughes was optimistic after his tough finish.
"Just, yeah, not my day, but I'll learn a lot from it and hopefully be back soon," he said. "Overall I'll know what I felt like in this final group today and be able to apply that next time I'm there, hopefully soon."
Walker, who was practicing on Tuesday with Hughes at the PGA's next stop in Connecticut, said he wasn't nervous heading into the final round on national TV on Sunday.
"I was excited because Kenzie was playing so well, and he loves Torrey Pines," Walker said. "I got lots of texts and calls from friends and family. We had a lot of people following us back at home. It was pretty exciting."
Hughes was in a great position at the end of the third round thanks to his putter.
"If he is not the best putter in the world, he is one of the best," Walker said.
Hughes bogeyed three of his first six holes on Sunday. But he recovered quickly as he birdied Nos. 7 and 9 to sit two back with nine to play.
"At the turn, we were only one back, and he was running downhill at that point," Walker said. "He fought off that tough start and hung in there. We were almost tied for the lead after 10."
Then the unthinkable occurred.
"He had a horrible break there at 11 with the ball staying in the tree. That was a gut punch," Walker said. "One other time I saw a ball that got stuck in a palm tree. But I've never seen a ball bounce and get stuck in a tree. It was pretty wild. And the drop was on a bad angle. It was a tough break. But he kept fighting after that. He played his heart out."
Walker said he was impressed with how Hughes reacted to the situation.
"He handled it pretty professionally, and some guys out here would not taken it the way he did. He's such a pro. He made the comment on the next tee, 'We just have to make a birdie now,'" Walker said. "He was still trying to win the U.S. Open."
In just his ninth PGA Tour event in 2017, Hughes won the RSM Classic and earned a three-year tour exemption and invitations to the Masters, the PGA Championship, and the Players Championship.
Hughes, who is currently 71st in the FedEx Cup rankings, has earned $7.2 million in his career —including $1.2 million this year.
Hughes, 30, finished 40th at The Masters in April.
"Going to Augusta was amazing," Walker said. "I loved every minute of it. It was cool to caddie a course you've watched on TV for so long."
Caddying is Walker's full-time job, and he works about 30 weeks per year. PGA Tour caddies help read the greens and judge shot distances.
"We've both played golf for so long, we both have good golf IQ with what kind of golf shots we need to play. We go over the putting greens. We do his normal work on the range," Walker said. "I work on the course with him on the strategy. We talk about every shot. We give each other opinions. If we are on different clubs or see the shot differently, we talk it out. We talk quite a bit more than some of the players and caddies do. We come to a consensus before every shot."
PGA Tour caddies typically earn between $1,000 and $1,500 per week, but they also make a percentage of what the player wins in the tournaments. If their golfer makes the cut, the standard fee is 10 percent of the purse for a win, 7 percent for a top 10 finish, and 5 percent for any placement outside the top 10.
After graduating from BGSU, Walker played on the Canadian and Latin tours for five years.
"I gave it my best shot but didn't make it. But caddying was an easy switch, and it keeps me in the competitive part of the game," he said. "I've worked for a couple of other guys before. But this has been a good little duo. I've enjoyed it."
Walker, a native of St. Thomas, Ont., said he has a great connection with Hughes. A Dundas, Ont., native, Hughes played at Kent State and led the Golden Flashes to a fifth-place finish in the NCAA Championship in 2012.
Walker, who lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., said he comes back to BG for some events. He was former teammates with current BG coach John Powers.
"I still come back a couple of times of year and play golf with the guys. I try to help some of the guys on the team if they have any questions," Walker said.
Walker said the duo has moved right on to the next event, the Travelers Championship in Cromwell, Conn.
"It's on to the next week, and he finished third here last year," Walker said. "This course is one of our favorites. He handles things pretty well out here. You learn more from a day like [Sunday], playing in the final group. He came out and made great golf swings. It wasn't nerves. It just wasn't our day on the golf course. He played much better than his score. We both learned from it.
"The next time we are in that position, he will be able to pull it out. He's going to win a Major eventually."