AUGUSTA, Ga. — It’s been more than 30 years since we roamed the same high school hallways, consumed the same square pizza in the cafeteria, walked under the same rippled roof and spent similarly long after-school hours in the gyms and on the fields. Kenny Harms was more likely found in a tiny hot box of a gym preferred by the wrestlers while I went outside with the soccer or track teams, but in the two years we overlapped as Spartans of Paramus High School, we were similarly sports obsessed.
Maybe that explains how two old high school buddies have ended up together again, this time at the Masters. Harms is working his ninth career Masters as a caddie, the seventh for his current employer, Kevin Na. I am covering my 11th career Masters as a sportswriter, the second for my current employer, the Boston Globe. Not bad for two kids from a relatively small North Jersey town known more for its malls (“Saturday Night Live” once used it as a punchline for a bad first-date destination) and its Sunday blue laws (the traffic from all those malls necessitate quiet Sundays for residents), than for its residents.
I caught up with Harms after Na’s third round Saturday at Augusta, when the 35-year-old American golfer posted a 73, leaving a disappointed caddie lamenting lost opportunity on a day leaders were dropping birdies all over the course. But as part of the job is not getting too high or too low, we managed to share a few laughs about how the same kid I recall being so cool and confident in high school (he was two years ahead of me and was a standout wrestler and captain of one of our school’s most consistently outstanding teams) occasionally makes the Internet rounds when that same confidence comes out on the golf course. Harms has no problem letting his boss know what he’s thinking.
“I am who I am,” he said, sitting on a low brick wall behind the scoring cabin and wiping sweat from his brow.
“Things like [going viral] faze me, but only because it affects the results of my player. When I go head to head like that, it’s because it’s my job to do it, to not let him make mistakes.”
The caddie-golfer relationship is one of the most fascinating in sports, an employer-employee dynamic at its core, but built out in layers of friendship, trust and, at times, the bickering of a dating couple. Harms may embody that as well as anyone who does his job, understanding from the outset that being a “yes man” serves neither the boss nor the employee. His willingness to speak up when warranted endeared him not only to Na for the last decade-plus, but to previous golfers such as Hale Irwin, Lee Trevino, Gary Player, Raymond Floyd, Aaron Baddeley, and Michelle Wie, the collection of pros he’s helped earn 29 career victories.
He is one of the few caddies who has won on all three major US Tours — the PGA, PGA Tour Champions, and LPGA.
His last tour through the viral world came last May at a tournament in Fort Worth, when cameras caught a heated back-and-forth between Na and Harms over club selection, Na intent on trying a risky shot out of the rough, Harms arguing for a more conservative approach considering Na was at 7 under in the first round at that point.
“It’s gonna get on the green,” Na says as he changes out one club for another.
“Yeah, but over the green is dead,” Harms answers.
“It’s not gonna go over the green, Kenny,” the golfer promises. “As long as you’re OK with this club.”
Harms: “I’m not. I’m not OK with either one of them.”
Na: “I’m going with it.”
Harms: “OK.” (Though he really didn’t sound OK.)
Na eventually chipped in for birdie, so all was indeed OK, but, as Harms pointed out, not before Na had to take a drop. “He said, ‘I told you so,’ but that wasn’t quite true,” Harms said.
At 52, the man who considers himself an accidental caddie has made quite a living carrying a golf bag — Na has earned more than $20 million across their 11 years together. Harms understands the job is about so much more than carrying a golf bag.
“I think the greatest caddies are the greatest psychologists in the world,” he said. “You need to be in your player’s head, know what to say and what not to say. That’s the key to this job. Of course reading greens matters, but it’s so much more than that.”
In that way we are similar. As my Globe bio will tell you, I’ve never viewed sports through a numbers-only lens, preferring instead to quote advice I received from the late, great sportswriter Dave Anderson: We don’t cover the sport, we cover the people. And as people go, Harms is a pretty good one. Determined.
Though he started out wrestling in college, the school he transferred to (West Chester) dropped its program. So he took up an invite from a friend to try golf. He’d never really played before, but made the team as a walk-on. He got pretty good, even tried to make a living at it, but life in a $75-a-month shared one-bedroom apartment with fellow caddie John “Rocky” Venn soon lost its luster, and Harms followed Venn’s suggestion to try caddying. Harms connected with Marlene Floyd on the LPGA Tour, where a career was born.
Now, he travels the world with Na, his home base in Florida, but his heart a little further north. Both of us found ourselves glued to the television for last month’s NCAA wrestling championship, where Nick Suriano of Rutgers won an individual title. Suriano is a fellow Spartan.
“That was amazing,” Harms said. “I love Paramus.”