Back in the 1990’s when Andy Sanders was visiting Franklin, staying with his grandparents and playing golf, it would not have been a surprise to hear his grandmother, Dottie, telling him that someday he would be in the competition at The Masters and Ryder Cup. She was proud of her grandson and she would tell anyone willing to listen how good Andy was going to be. I know because I lived across the street from Dottie on Carriage Lane here in Franklin.
Those predictions did come true, but not in a way that Dottie imagined. Unfortunately she never lived to see Andy enjoy success in golf at the highest level. Sanders was one of the country’s best junior golfers and he attended the University of Houston on a golf scholarship. After college he played on the Nationwide Tour from 2002-04 aspiring to continue his playing career.
Then one day Sanders woke up and experienced a blind spot in his right eye. Initially he thought it was a problem attributed to his contact lenses. Sanders would soon discover that he had Multiple Sclerosis. He tried to fight through the condition and keep on playing. He was receiving muscle injections every other week and eventually he contracted vertigo which was the worst thing that could happen to a golfer.
“My playing career ended because of the medicine, not the MS. Those shots depressed me night and day. They gave me vertigo and losing my balance was the end of my playing career,” recalls Sanders. “There is no way you can’t look back and have some second thoughts. I made my choices at the time and now I am incredibly fortunate with my family and hopefully I have a great career ahead of me.”
The career that he speaks of is being a professional caddy for Jimmy Walker, a three-time winner on the PGA TOUR and member of the 2014 United States Ryder Cup team. With Sanders on the bag, Walker won $5.8 million this year and is currently ranked 19th in the Official World Golf Rankings. It was a breakout year for Walker whose relationship with Sanders goes back to their college playing days.
Walker played at Baylor while Sanders was at Houston. The two were not close in college, but their paths crossed occasionally. The two players were the same age and turned pro the same year. Both attended the Canadian Tour Qualifying School and spent many Mondays qualifying against each other for Nationwide Tour spots. Neither had status during this time and they wound up traveling some together. They were at similar stages in their careers and a mutual respect developed.
Walker continued on as a player while Sanders was coping with the MS issues. In 2007 a strange thing happened at a Nationwide Tour event in West Virginia that would eventually form the bond between the two men.
“I was at this tournament caddying for a player named Jason Schultz and Jimmy came to me and asked me to give him a putting lesson. It was kind of weird. Here I am caddying for another player and giving an opposing player a lesson,” laughs Sanders. “Jimmy wound up winning that tournament and during the Nationwide Tour Championship that fall, he asked me if I would caddy for him on the PGA Tour in 2008.”
Walker struggled that next year and only made nine cuts in 21 starts. He and Sanders made a paltry $282,249 together that first year. It was hardly enough to make expenses. Walker continued to improve over the next few years and he cracked the million dollar mark in earnings in 2011. Still, many considered him to be an under achiever. Enter Butch Harmon who gave Walker a reliable swing.
“Butch has made a huge impact on Jimmy’s golf swing. He is not searching anymore and he now knows where he is headed. Butch expects the best,” says Sanders. “The stats may not show the improvement in Jimmy’s game. I see it in his confidence with his decision making. He knows how to play the game.”
There is a partnership between the best players in the world and their caddies. Smart caddies know when to speak or be silent and Sanders has that figured out.
“My role on the course varies some days more than others. You have to know what your guy needs. Some days he is not all there. Other days he is and then you just shut up and give him the yardage and stay out of the way. Often times, less is more. I have his confidence to do whatever he needs. It’s better to be outspoken when you need to. It wasn’t like that in the beginning,” reveals Sanders.
When asked to give an example of when he felt the caddy made a difference Sanders replied, “At the Fry’s.com last year when Jimmy got his first win we were down by four to Brooks Koepka. On the 7th hole Jimmy said something like ‘we don’t have much of a chance- he’s got a four- shotter.’ I told him that Brooks had never won before. Let’s make a couple of birdies and see what happens. We birdied #8 and #9 all and of a sudden we were only one shot back and we went on to win.”
Sanders says his best experiences of 2014 were caddying in his first Masters and Ryder Cup. He had played Augusta in 2005 but last year was his first as a looper. The weather was perfect all week and Walker finished in the top ten. At Gleneagles, Walker was paired with Rickie Fowler on Friday and Saturday. That duo was a formidable American team. Walker then beat Lee Westwood on Sunday.
“The Ryder Cup is the Ryder Cup and it only happens every two years. The only thing that was bad was the outcome. I remember being with Phil (Mickelson), Keegan (Bradley), Rickie and Jimmy on that Wednesday afternoon in a practice round and usually you can’t wait to get the practice rounds over. But, as I walked down the 16th fairway I hated to see that day and the rest of them end,” said Sanders.
Sanders is enjoying three weeks off over the Holidays, which is his longest vacation of the year. He looks forward to just hanging out with his family. His wife Megan is expecting their third child on January 29 and he will miss the Phoenix and San Diego tour stops to be with his family. Jimmy Johnson, the regular caddy for Steve Stricker will substitute for Walker in Sanders’ absence.
“We have had a little bit of 2015 goal talk which I initiated, but Jimmy doesn’t respond much to that. My job will be to try and get him fired up. We will just work hard to keep getting better,” concluded Sanders. Walker has increased his PGA TOUR earnings every year since 2008 with Sanders on the bag and there is no reason to believe this won’t happen again next year.
Dottie would be very proud of her grandson- Andy Sanders, the caddy.