It’s not about legacy, it’s about making a living

Mark McGowan

Joel Dahmen reacts with his caddie Geno Bonnalie after putting in to win on the 18th green during the final round of the Corales Puntacana (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

With the riches and wealth that permeate the upper echelons of the PGA Tour, it is easy to forget that there is a much larger subset of card holders for whom job security and some sort of financial stability top the annual target list.

Major titles are great (I’m told) and the prize money and playing rights that accompany go a long way to relieving the stress of a family’s bread-winner, but they only come around four times a year and left-field winners are few and far between.

For recreational players like you and I, the pleasure of playing takes precedence over the requirement to play well – mercifully – but by its very nature, professionalism makes it a profession. Now, some jobs are better than others, but they are still jobs at the end of the day. Enjoyment takes a back seat when you’ve got hungry mouths relying on you to hit straight drives and hole putts.

Not that you’d know from most interviews. Understandably reluctant to be seen as mercenaries and the like, very few players pay lip service to the financial incentive of a good week. Not Joel Dahmen though. One of the most straight-talking guys in professional golf, in an interview with No Laying Up last year, Dahmen admitted that it was the money, not the love of the game that kept him on the PGA Tour.

Don’t mistake that for an admission that he doesn’t love the game – there are few things he enjoys more than hitting the fairways with a few buddies and a cooler of beer – but he just happens to be way, way better at it than most. But when queried as to which he’d rather win, a major championship or the Fed-Ex Cup, Dahmen had no hesitations in choosing the latter, acknowledging that his family being financially stable for generations was much more important than personal achievements.

Such perspective is rare in the upper echelons of the game, but PGA Tour cancer survivors are rarer still. Diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2011 – just a few years after pancreatic cancer had taken his mother – Dahmen was fortunate enough to defeat the disease, and his now-trademark bucket-hat bears logos of support for cancer sufferers everywhere. Winning tournaments? Not that important.

Of course, there are those who’d see this as a lack of ambition, as a kick in the teeth to the traditions and protocols handed down by the likes of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus for whom honour and legacy trumped all, but I’d suggest that these aren’t the kind of people whose wife saw something in a post-chemo golfer, struggling for motivation, provided the necessary support structure and worked two jobs to support a mini-tour career where a good week might procure a small profit and a bad week saw the funds haemorrhaging.

Just last week, Dahmen’s caddie Geno Bonnalie – an interesting character in his own right – took to Twitter to answer the question caddies face most often: “How much money do you make?” The invasive nature of the question aside, Bonnalie regaled us with the tale of how he left a 50k a year, secure office position to accompany his good friend on the road on the (as it was then) tour with little more than a verbal contract and the dream of making it to the big leagues.

In a first year that saw them visit all four corners of the United States along with trips to Canada (twice) and Mexico, Bonnalie’s total income from caddying – he posted a spreadsheet on his Twitter thread – was a shade north of $20,000, and that’s before expenses like flight tickets and hotels. He suspects his expenditure outweighed his income that first year, which is why he found himself mowing lawns for pocket money on off-weeks.

Regrets? None! Dahmen is now an established PGA Tour professional with in-excess of $6 million in on-course earnings and Bonnalie’s belief and loyalty have been healthily rewarded. In winning the Corales Puntacana Championship last weekend – held opposite the WGC Match-play – Dahmen secured his playing rights for a further two seasons, moved within touching distance of the top-50 in the OWGR, and cut a cheque for Geno that exceeded his total annual income in that secure desk job he so willingly vacated.

And there aren’t many player-caddie combos who deserve it more.

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