The Port Arthur News
PORT ARTHUR —
With the glowing reputation Port Neches-Groves sophomore Braden Bailey is assembling, the odds would seem to be slim and none that he’ll need anybody to speak up for him with college golf coaches in the spring of 2015. Should a selling job be necessary, however, expect Dick Mast and Craig Johnson to be at the front of the line.
Mast is the Champions Tour professional Bailey was paired with in last week’s Nature Valley First Tee Open. Johnson is the long-time Pebble Beach caddie who admits he got so much more than he expected after being assigned to tote Braden’s clubs.
The Mast-Bailey duo finished T8 in the Pro/Junior portion of the 81-player field with best-ball scores of 68-65-68. That figures out to 13-under par for two trips around Pebble Beach and one over Del Monte Golf Club. Bailey practically carried the team on the final day as Mast, struggling with a bad back, shot 76. Braden carded 74 on his own ball and helped out eight shots.
“I’m almost at a loss for words,” said the 49-year-old Johnson, who as a professional caddie has spent the past nine years working at Pebble Beach. “Braden is an unbelievable young man. He has so much charisma, is so very polite and is a remarkable player for somebody 15-years-old. He’s definitely something special. The golf world needs to keep an eye on him.
“Dick Mast was so amazed with Braden, with his poise and with how he managed himself on the course. He couldn’t get over the kid shooting 74 on the final day, playing in the company of three professionals on a great golf course with some pretty tough pin placements.”
Bailey, who is headed to Dallas today to participate in the First Tee’s Advanced Junior Academy, sounded like he was still trying to come down to earth when he discussed his week on California’s Monterey Peninsula.
“It was just an incredible experience,” he said. “Getting to play Pebble Beach twice with Mr. Mast was so much fun. He’s a really great guy, he treated me so well and gave me some good tips. Mr. Johnson made so much difference for me, especially when it came to reading the greens. I just trusted his reads. It’s a good thing. A lot of times I saw the opposite of what he saw.”
Bailey admitted to being nervous at the start of each day but said he was able to settle in and get comfortable as the round went along. He came home with a scrapbook full of highlights, starting with a chip-in birdie on the par 5, 6th Sunday at Pebble Beach that wound up on the Golf Channel’s tournament highlights.
There was also a near-miss hole-in-one the first day on Pebble Beach’s famed 17th. That’s the hole where Tom Watson chipped in to beat Jack Nicklaus in the 1982 U.S. Open. It’s also where Nicklaus banged a one-iron into a 30 mph wind off the flagstick for the clinching birdie in the 1972 U.S. Open.
“It was close. It looked good all-the way,” Bailey said of his 7-iron. “It stopped maybe an inch short of going in. It would have been such a thrill for my first hole in one to have come on that hole.”
Bailey, who shot 79 on his own ball the first day at Pebble Beach, 71 at the par 70 Del Monte on day two, then closed with the 74 at Pebble, says there’s no doubt he’ll be a better player going forward because of the experience.
“I learned so much about course management watching Mr. Mast and the other professionals we played with,” he said. “And Mr. Johnson gave me a tip on my practice putting stroke that’s going to be a big help. He told me I needed to shorten my practice stroke. I did and it made a difference with the speed. Having him for a caddie was a blessing for me.”
Johnson said it didn’t take him long to realize he’d fallen into something really good by being assigned to Bailey.
“I met him for the first time on Friday, after he’d taken a photo with Arnold Palmer. I knew he had to be a pretty good player or he wouldn’t have been here. After watching him on the range, I could tell he pretty much knows what he wants to hit. I figured the thing I could really help him with was the greens and getting him to focus on the line and the speed.
“He took full advantage of my knowledge and really putted well. When we were talking down the 18th on Sunday, one of the other pros in our group, Russ Cochran, came over to me and said Braden played the better ball of any of us. He told Braden to stay with what he knew, that he had a really bright future and that it had been a pleasure to share the day with him.”
Johnson said he became so enamored with Bailey during their first day together he asked that the original plan for his work schedule be changed. As he understood it, he was supposed to caddie for Braden the first day at Pebble, then loop for Drake Mosely at Pebble on Saturday when Bailey was playing at Del Monte.
“I just thought we made a good team and I wanted to stay with him all the way through,” Johnson said. “It’s going to be very interesting for me to follow his career and see what he accomplishes. I’ve been around thousands of amateurs and a lot of pros, and he’s got a tempo I’ve never seen before. His game is solid. The future should be exciting.”
Sounds like Chris Stroud needs to keep adding to his PGA Tour resume. At the rate Bailey is going, the title of best golfer ever to wear the PN-G purple might be getting a serious challenge in a few years.