Inside The Ropes At The Open, de Kerillis Recalls The Championship Struggle

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In the end, Lydia Ko and her caddy, Southampton native Louis de Kerillis, did not find their way onto the leaderboard of the 68th U.S. Women’s Open at Sebonack Golf Club last weekend.

Some at Sebonack had predicted that having one of their own professionals on her bag—Mr. de Kerillis has worked at the course since it opened in 2005—would give Ms. Ko the kind of advantage on the course’s infamously complicated greens that might put her in contention. It ended up being a couple of wayward shots and short, simple putts that undid that chance.

Ms. Ko, just 16 and playing in her second U.S. Women’s Open, ended the tournament 11-over par, tied for 36th place. She impressed her 39-year-old caddy, though—while the veteran of professional tours and innumerable high-pressure rounds of competition himself saw the indecision of inexperience sneak into her game at times, he said that the teenage prodigy has a tournament-ready game and mindset.

“She’s got a totally different gear when it comes to tournament time,” de Kerillis said after the tournament. “She’s a great girl, such a competitor, and her mom keeps her in perspective. On the long stuff, she rolls them so great—her pace is so good. But she missed so many short putts. She was just so hesitant over those 5-footers—that’s what undid her. She could’ve shot 2- or 3-under par, easily, if not for that.”

Through the first 27 holes of the tournament, Ms. Ko and Mr. de Kerillis, who is an assistant pro at the Sebonack Golf Club, were sitting pretty. Ko was even par, having birdied the 18th hole to finish the first half of her second round (she started the round on No. 10). A few holes earlier, she had, at de Kerillis’s urging, taken an unplayable lie drop from deep rough, and the one-stroke penalty that comes with it, and managed to save par with a long putt.

The cut line was projected at 6-over par, and a weekend berth seemed certain, if not a shot at a top-10 finish.

On the third hole of her second nine, though, the wheels on the cart started to wobble. Her tee shot on the moderately long par-3 was just left, caught the edge of the elevated green and caromed into rough higher than the 16-year old’s knees and woven together into a thick mat of thatch.

A hopeless hack at the ball sent it about 2 feet. Another swat, and

it careened sideways—into a bunker. Her shoulders slumped in dejection, her caddy offering words of encouragement, Ms. Ko splashed the ball up toward the green, only to see it again catch the lip of the green and fall back to her feet. A triple-bogey 6 ultimately went on the card—and suddenly the cut line was in sight.

Another bogey on the fourth followed. Then a birdie on the fifth seemed to right the ship. Another bogey on the sixth followed, and she carded a birdie on the seventh just as the horn blew to suspend play because of dense fog.

“She was all over the place,” de Kerillis said. “She couldn’t settle down. She wanted to keep playing after the birdie on 7, but I said, ‘No, you’re done—you’re going to sleep on that birdie.’”

On Saturday, conditions and the course set-up were harder, and almost everyone’s scores climbed, save for eventual champion Inbee Park, who posted the only under-par score of the day. Despite the confidence boost from making the cut earlier in the morning, Ms. Ko had three bogeys on the first nine holes. She followed them up with back-to-back birdies to start the second half of the round. Just 1-over for the day, a good round was still within reach. But three straight bogeys on Nos. 4, 5 and 6, and then a brutal four-putt triple-bogey on the last hole, shattered the youngster’s confidence.

“She never really recovered from that. She was shot, she was done. I could see it in her face,” de Kerillis lamented. “The next day, she was a different person—she was a lot more anxious. She still ripped off three straight birdies on 7, 8, 9, but she was rushing.”

With three holes to go, and the trophy for low-scoring amateur on the line, Mr. de Kerillis said a 5-foot birdie putt provided the only tension of the weekend between him and Ms. Ko. He advised her to aim at the center of the cup; she wanted to aim at the right side. She listened—and the putt rolled by the left edge of the hole.

“I said, ‘If you go straight at it, you can’t miss. She played it straight and it missed on the left side—and she looked at me,” de Kerillis recalled on Monday. “I went back to that hole today, for 30 minutes, and putted that ball, and it went right every time. There’s no way that goes left at all. I played it inside right 30 times and missed it right every time. It didn’t make any sense to me—she must’ve hit it too hard and pulled it, I guess.”

Mr. de Kerillis has played in U.S. Open qualifiers on minor professional tours himself but had never seen a major tournament from inside the ropes. For the players, the tension, the pressure, and the physical and mental demands are maxed out on every swing, he said. “It was awesome being inside the ropes and seeing what these girls go through. It’s precision at the highest level. You have to be at the top of your game 100-percent of the time.”

And the pressure is only slightly diminished for the caddies. Mr. de Kerillis took some credit for Ko getting to the weekend, saying that he basically forced her to take the unplayable lie and penalty stroke on the 13th rather than trying to hit out of the deep rough, where a bad shot could have meant an unraveling of the round that got her to the weekend. But he also took the blame for a bad double-bogey on the 14th hole on the last day, which cost her low-amateur honors, saying he questioned her club selection and planted a seed of doubt in his 
player’s head. That led to an unconvincing swing that missed its mark.

“That was my fault, I have to say,” he said. “I was mad at myself for putting that doubt in her head.”

With Inbee Park cruising to an easy victory, the week’s highest drama came when American golfer Jessica Korda fired her caddy midway through her third round, recruiting her boyfriend to carry her bag the rest of the way. The firing made the headlines but was not the only such incident. Four caddies, including that of last year’s U.S. Open champ, Na Yeon Choi, lost their jobs during the four days of competition. One was fired by a young player’s mother.

Mr. de Kerillis said that while Ms. Ko never got angry at him, it highlighted the demands on the caddies as well.

“I think being a tour caddy on the LPGA might be the toughest job in the world,” he chuckled, then shook his head in relief that the experience was concluded. “I’m super-glad I did it. It was a terrific experience—I learned a lot more from her than she learned from me, that’s for sure.

“But it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I didn’t sleep one bit the whole week.”

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