Greg Helmkamp, the 35-year-old assistant teaching professional at Warren Golf Course, was wolfing down a quick lunch last Friday when his boss called him into his office.
“Hey, I got a new job for you next week,” said John Foster, general manager at the Notre Dame-owned course since 2002. “You’re going to be caddying for Tom Watson.”
A Fort Wayne native hired to his current position nine years ago, Helmkamp stared back at Foster in momentary disbelief. No, he quickly discerned, this was not a prank.
Watson, the 69-year-old Hall of Famer with eight major titles on the PGA Tour and 61 worldwide victories, had called Foster seeking a replacement for usual caddy Neil Oxman. Business responsibilities would keep Oxman, a Philadelphia-area lawyer, from making his usual rounds with Watson at the 40th U.S. Senior Open.
Helmkamp, who got his start as a teenager looping at Fort Wayne’s Sycamore Hills Golf Club for $25 a round, thanked Foster for the opportunity and tried to get back to his pre-tournament preparations. He soon found it too hard to concentrate, so he called his father with the news.
“He was excited, and of course I got excited with him,” Joe Helmkamp said Wednesday after reporting for duty as a tournament volunteer. “That’s pretty good to be with somebody like Tom Watson. He’s a legend. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime type thing, so it’s very cool.”
Joe Helmkamp, sales manager at the same Chevrolet dealership where he’s worked for 37 years, jumped on the internet and did some quick research on Watson. He was reminded of Watson’s brilliant career, which included five British Open titles, two Masters, one U.S. Open and a place all-time “right behind (Jack) Nicklaus and (Arnold) Palmer,” Joe Helmkamp said.
Watson isn’t likely to contend this weekend, not with a balky putting stroke and a driver that seems to lose yardage by the week. But that doesn’t mean he won’t try to make a go of it, fill-in caddy and all.
“I’m glad to have him on the bag,” Watson said. “He knows the golf course.”
Asking Helmkamp to help him read the greens probably would be unfair, Watson said, especially since he “doesn’t know your speed and hasn’t seen you putt.” But Watson said he would be “relying on him for certain bits of information,” especially wind patterns after experiencing some swirling gusts during a pair of practice rounds this week.
Those are the types of questions that I’ll ask Greg,” Watson said.
The two met for the first time early Tuesday afternoon, just before hitting the course for some reconnaissance. Watson immediately put the nervous young pro at ease, asking him about his family, the type of balls used on the range and the best way to get to the first tee from the practice area.
“He’s very personable,” Greg Helmkamp said. “It’s going to be a fun week.”
In addition to his father, Helmkamp will have his mother Brenda, a preschool teacher for the past 25 years; younger sister Julie; wife Katrina and their two young children, Bria, 4, and Holden, 2, following in the gallery. The graduate of Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne (now Purdue Fort Wayne), where he earned a marketing degree, doesn’t get to play as much as he’d like, but he’s sure to venture a few of the many questions that have flashed through his mind already this week.
His father’s advice?
“I pretty much just told him to let (Watson) ask you questions,” said Joe Helmkamp, who will work the leaderboard at the par-3 12th hole on Thursday and Friday. “Don’t force anything.”
Within the first hour of his Watson partnership, Greg Helmkamp busied himself with some of the usual caddie tasks: dipping an oversized golf towel in some water to clean Watson’s clubs, making sure there were enough velvet-sacked golf balls within easy reach on the practice area and generally keeping quiet while the renowned champion went through a lengthy public stretching routine.
It should help that Helmkamp caddied for Glen Day, also in this week’s field, at a Fort Wayne-area charity event a few years back. Helmkamp has helped a couple of his buddies reach the Indiana State Amateur, and last year he was on the bag for Scott Pieri at a U.S. Senior Open qualifier at Warren.
Pieri was the medalist and went on to miss the cut at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs with a different caddie.
“I’d like to say I’ve got a pretty good resume as a caddie,” Helmkamp said.
Watson, of course, is famously precise on the course and admittedly was spoiled by having the late Bruce Edwards as his trusted aide for 30 years. Helmkamp figures to do far more observing than talking this week, but that first part shouldn’t be diminished.
He grew up a huge fan of Tiger Woods, papering his room as a teenager with Tiger-related paraphernalia and joining his father on a couple of trips to Cog Hill Golf Club outside Chicago to watch Woods in person.
Now he’ll get to watch another Stanford man up close.
His favorite Watson memory?
“Just how he interacts with the crowd,” Greg Helmkamp said. “Once I told everybody around here I’m caddying for Tom Watson, they talked about what a nice guy he is. When it comes to his golf, I think about all his Open championship wins and the grinding it takes to win those. I love players that grind, and Tom is one of the all-time best at that.”
Joe Helmkamp, a casual golfer who plays in a weekly league in Fort Wayne, helped get both his children get started in the game.
“We’re a golf family,” he said. “I love the game.”
As does his only son.
“He’ll do a good job this week,” Joe Helmkamp said. “He’s just a natural when it comes to the golf course. He just knows what he’s doing, knows what’s going on. Hopefully he’ll help (Watson) out.”
While calling Foster “a great inspiration” and mentor to his son, the proud father pointed out that Greg was still rushing around the Warren grounds this week tending to his Open-related duties that stretched beyond Watson. In addition to lining up local caddies for players that needed them, the assistant pro is overseeing the outside service staff and making sure things run smoothly in the practice area, especially with the retrieval of range balls.
“That’s the challenge about this whole thing,” Joe Helmkamp said. “He’s actually working here too and trying to caddy, so he’s got two jobs going on plus he’s got two kids. He’s a tired boy right now.”
Source – https://www.indystar.com/story/sports/2019/06/26/2019-us-senior-open-greg-helmkamp-assistant-pro-caddies-tom-watson-warren-golf-course/1546673001/