When the PGA Tour suspended activities because of the coronavirus, it halted what is affectionately known as golf’s traveling circus. Approximately 12 near-semi-sized trucks operated by equipment manufacturers drive from tournament to tournament throughout the season — building, adjusting and maintaining the equipment for the tour players.
That caravan is operated by technicians who haul the 42-foot, 76,000-pound trucks nearly 40,000 miles across the country every year.
The group of vagabonds spends 40-plus weeks on the road, 180 to 200 nights in hotels and eats nearly 700 meals away from home in any given year. While they are all competitors working for different brands, including Titleist, Cobra, Callaway, GolfPride and others, they’re a part of a small family that works behind the scenes to make sure tour pros are playing with the absolute best equipment for their specifications.
That also means they have some fireside stories of working with the world’s elite golfers and their travels over the years.
The tour truck drivers need to be available at the drop of a hat if a player needs his equipment fixed, tweaked or adjusted.
With more than 150 tour players in one place each week, there is the possibility for any situation to arise, something Ben Schomin, director of tour operations for Cobra, is all too familiar with.
Schomin was involved in one of those situations in 2015 at the Players Championship. Cobra’s truck driver, James Posey, was getting married in California on Saturday of the Players. Schomin and his wife were driving to attend the wedding, listening to the tournament on the car radio.
Rickie Fowler hit a shot that was mentioned on the broadcast. Minutes later, he called Schomin from the course. Schomin soon learned that Fowler, a Cobra-signed golfer, had bent his 7-iron after hitting the shot and would need it fixed or replaced for Sunday’s round.
The problem for Schomin was that everyone associated with Cobra who could get into the truck to fix it was at the wedding, himself included.
Schomin first called a friend who worked at the fitting center on site at TPC Sawgrass, but no one in the area had the shaft Fowler needed to fix the club. Even if Schomin could get to the Carlsbad, California, office, no one would be able to ship something overnight on a Saturday.
The only option was to leave his wife at the wedding, take a red-eye flight from Los Angeles to Jacksonville, Florida, and get Fowler’s club fixed himself.
“The only people my wife knew at the wedding were the bride and groom and one other couple, so I’m trying to introduce her to people and then I was like, ‘OK, I gotta go,'” Schomin said. “I got to Jacksonville around 8 or 9 in the morning, went in the repair shop, fixed his busted 7-iron and got it ready to go.”
While no one is sure how many times Fowler actually used the 7-iron in the Sunday round, no one thinks it was more than once.
Fowler and his camp were appreciative of the attention. Schomin would do it again, because it’s all part of the job.
Peter Bezuk, the lead driver for Titleist, has a similar story about Jordan Spieth cracking his driver head at the Masters. Bezuk was back home in Jacksonville with food poisoning, but the only way to get the club fixed was to drive up to Augusta in the middle of the night with his father and get Spieth a new driver head.
The drivers and technicians typically get the trucks to a tournament Sunday before the practice rounds, stick around to help the players with clubs Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and leave for the next venue Wednesday afternoon.
“A typical day, a Monday morning, a lot of times we’re already in conversation about working with a player, whether it’s Rickie [Fowler], [Jason] Dufner or Bryson DeChambeau,” Schomin said. “If they need to tweak their 3-wood, or get a new lob wedge in play, we’re trying to figure out their schedule, when they’ll be there, when they’ll register for the tournament, see their physio guy. It’s all very fluid, guys are respectful, but it’s very much a boy scout job, trying to prepare for anything.”
Bezuk sticks to that schedule, but for the Masters he usually drives the four hours home to Jacksonville. Bezuk was at home when he got a call that the generator for the truck died. He drove back to Augusta to get the truck back home Thursday in order to get the generator fixed and ready for the following week.
While he was sick from food poisoning, Bezuk returned home around 5 p.m. and got a call later that evening that Spieth had cracked his driver.
He spent nearly an hour to get a spare generator set up, another 45 minutes to get the truck set up so he could work and find the club head Spieth needed.
“I got home at 11:30 that night and Jordan was getting on the range at 9 a.m. the next morning in Augusta,” Bezuk said. “It takes about 4½ hours to get there, so my dad picked me up at 3 a.m. because I was still sick, we head up to Augusta, get there at 8:30, give Jordan’s caddie the club and drive back home.”
That attention to detail doesn’t just apply to the level of service, but also the quality and perfection of the equipment provided to the players. Some of the tour players are more detail-oriented than others and some require a certain level of attention and precision with their clubs.
Burton Christie has been with GolfPride grips for 13 years and has had every request made by tour players when it comes to installing grips. Down to the slightest imperfection, the golfers can tell exactly when it meets their wants and needs.
“We make different-size grips, but these guys are so precise, they’ll choose a size but then we’re going to manipulate that through tape buildup,” Christie said. “Two-way tape that we use to install the grip on the shaft, you put a solution on top of the tape then slide the grip over the tape. I’ve had players say they want one piece of two-way tape, then at the bottom, the first 3 inches they want three wraps of tape, 2 inches from that they want two pieces of tape, then put another full two-way piece of tape over all that.”
Grips might seem like a simple piece of the golf club, but manipulating for feel and touch is important to a lot of golfers. Getting that just right is up to a lot of the tour truck drivers and operators. If it’s off even the slightest bit, it needs to be fixed.
Despite having machines in the trucks to help the operators, touch and feel is a tough thing to replicate. So when a player gets a club exactly how he wants it, and it’s based on how it feels, the tour truck techs need to find a way to duplicate that.
No one has more pressure when it comes to replicating that than Aaron Dill, who works with Vokey wedges. Tour players rely heavily on that touch with their wedges, and Dill has to make sure the clubs are perfectly in tune with the lie angle and loft that it won’t throw the players’ specs off.
“Ian Poulter is someone who can tell you, ‘Hey, the lie is off half a degree.’ Something’s not right, or maybe it feels a little heavy,” Dill said. “And nine times out 10, they’re right and I check it and we make the adjustments. They’re so good at what they do and are so good at playing this game, they challenge us as club builders and engineers to do a better job.”
Dill and the other techs often take on the role of half club builder, half psychologist to figure out the perfect blend of what the tour players need and how to get it put together.
Kevin Napier has seen that as well, working with Callaway. Phil Mickelson is one of the players on the Callaway roster and one of the more creative players on tour.
Napier remembers his first year on the job when Mickelson came to him with four 8-irons, all built the same way. Mickelson said he hit one of the clubs 2 yards further than the other three, so the Callaway techs checked the weight, length, loft and lie. Sure enough, the loft was a quarter of a degree stronger on the one club.
“If we build something for Phil it’s usually a different club, like a really short 5-wood that he needs for the U.S. Open to get out of the rough,” Napier said. “Something he has thought about for a week or so and says it’s something he wants to try. If he wants a driver that’s an inch and a half longer just to see; he’s probably the most tinkering guy.”
Some players will come to the truck less than others, but some are in every week checking loft and lies.
JJ Van Wezenbeeck, the director of player promotions for Titleist, travels to each tournament every week with Buzek. Van Wezenbeeck has seen everything from the tour players and understands it’s all part of trying to be the best and play at their maximum performance levels. Justin Thomas, a Titleist golfer, usually takes advantage of the opportunity by getting his lofts and lies checked almost every week.
“I equate it to, why wouldn’t you start the week at even par with your clubs?” Van Wezenbeeck said. “So his caddie, Jimmy Johnson, brings the clubs on the van Monday morning, and we check them to make sure everything is perfect. So all Justin has to do is prepare for the event.”
Every player is different and requires his own personal touch when it comes to his equipment, and that’s where the traveling circus comes in. Each driver and technician is there to adjust clubs, grips and shafts, even if it’s to the half-degree.
The thousands of miles driven, the hundreds of meals together, the hotel stays — while the workers are competitors, they’re all part of a group that works behind the scenes for some of the most talented golfers in the world.
“That’s one great thing I do love about what I do — trying to understand these guys and why they do what they do,” Christie said. “You think about when you play golf, what you like about a driver or grip, you can’t explain it because it’s all personalized. Every guy is different, and we’re here to figure all that out with them.”