Michael Burrow, caddy to world top-50 player Haotong Li, tells Dean Bailey what it’s like to work alongside the greatest golfers on the world’s best courses
We’ve all dreamt of making it onto the European Tour, playing in The Masters alongside the likes of Fred Couples and Paul Casey, and beating Rory McIlroy down the stretch on Sunday to win in Dubai, haven’t we?
Michael Burrow had those dreams growing up and now he’s been a part of all those things having teamed up with Chinese sensation Haotong Li late last year.
Back home in Newcastle, Michael admits it’s been an interesting start to the year – he’s just arrived back from caddying at The Masters when we catch up at his home club, Northumberland.
“I’d always dreamed of being a tour player but just didn’t have the talent. The next best thing is carrying the bag. You get all the experience of being one of the best golfers in the world without having the talent,” says Michael, who made his second trip to Augusta having caddied for British Amateur champion Garrick Porteous there in 2014.
“Haotong was leading after 16 holes on the first day and looking at that leaderboard was a pretty cool moment. It’s the one course where you can’t switch off so to actually enjoy it during any rounds is near-impossible. I’ve had a bit of time to let it settle in now and there were so many amazing moments.
“I was lucky enough to visit the week before the tournament with Haotong and have breakfast and lunch in the clubhouse, and absorb it all. That was something I never thought I’d be able to do.
“It’s warm with those boiler suits on though,” adds Michael.
“The wind is so challenging and you can’t switch off for a second. You’ll play 11 down to the bottom of Amen Corner and it’s into the wind, which means 12 should be in off the right. Then you get there and 12 feels like it’s straight down wind but the flag on 11 just 50 yards away is telling you it should be in and the tree tops are telling you it’s in off the left.
“The greens are unbelievable too. We spent a long time working them out and they can catch anybody out. We played with Fred Couples the first two days, who was playing his 30th Masters, and on 11 he still chipped it down the hill and into the water.”
A tied 32nd place finish at The Masters added to Haotong’s excellent stock among the best golfers in the world – a position which took a huge leap forward in Dubai when he saw off Rory McIlroy in Sunday’s final group at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic to win by a shot.
Having taken up the role at the start of 2018, Michael explains what it was like getting off to such a fast start. “We’d actually missed the cut the week before in our first event of the year together. Then everything clicked into place.
“To be part of a win on the European Tour for the first time, in just my third event with Haotong, was fantastic. I knew I wouldn’t be phased by it on Sunday. There’s something very odd that just takes me out of being a fan or a golfer and we can get down to working through each shot. Before you know it, you’re standing on 18 and once we’d agree the line for the putt on the last, inside left up the hill, my work was done. That was the best feeling I’ve had as a caddy so far. To experience that so early in my caddying career was pretty special.”
There’s a lot of luck involved when it comes to caddying, and even more to get the chance to pick up the bag of one of the world’s best players.
Having taken holidays from his career in hotel management to caddy during European Seniors Tour events at Slaley Hall, Michael teamed up with Garrick Porteous, first for the Masters then for his first tilt at European Tour Qualifying School.
Good fortune, a call from Garrick’s Q School playing partner Mike Lorenzo-Vera, led to what Michael calls his first big break. The pair teamed up in 2014 when Lorenzo-Vera captured a European Tour card by finishing ninth on the Challenge Tour order of merit.
“I’ve managed to work pretty much on the main tour since then,” says Michael. “I teamed up with Scott Henry for a couple of seasons, then worked for Marcus Armitage in 2017 as he got a place on the tour through the Challenge Tour rankings.”
The biggest break of Michael’s career followed as Haotong – then around 60th in the world, contacted him with a one-week job out in Hong Kong.
“By the Sunday morning, having played with Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia, Haotong asked me to work for him on a more permanent basis and I wasn’t going to pass up a chance to work with one of the best players in the world.
“It was a long way to go for just a week but Marcus had just missed his card by a shot at Q School and when you get an opportunity like that you have to take the chance.”
For a golfer – in Michael’s case a two-handicapper who holds the club championship at Northumberland having grown up playing at Morpeth – there’s no better job in the world.
“You get a front row seat to the best golf in the world. It takes a little bit to get used to when you first start but you get used to it pretty quick. We’ve played with Rory, Justin Rose, Fred Couples, Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson – all these guys are huge stars but once you’re inside the ropes they’re personable guys and you relax pretty quickly. I talked to Rory a bit in Dubai. He’s a Manchester United fan and I’m a Sunderland fan so we got to talk about this season, just normal chat like you’d have with your mates off the first tee at home. You do have to pinch yourself occasionally.”
While there’s no caddies’ university, Michael says he picked up the skills pretty quickly.
“There’s a lot more than the old cliché of keep up and shut up. You’ve got all the basics like being on time – we say if you’re not five minutes early as a caddy you’re late. But you’ve got to be able to understand your player and be adaptable in how you approach them on different days, different holes, even one shot to the next. It’s about knowing when to speak and what to say when you do.
“You’ve also got to measure how much information he wants. Some days your player will be so dialled in he just needs a number and a line, other times you need to manage things and talk through it. That’s different for every golfer on the planet.
“The biggest thing is to do the work. I’ll spend Monday walking the course before he’s even on-site, be there before and after every practice round and range session working things out and having all the information. You need to be ready so that when he asks you’re ready to go. If you’ve been there on Monday and Tuesday rolling balls and checking wind, measuring angles, you’ll have the answers come the back nine on Sunday.
“Ultimately it boils down to communication. There’s no blueprint for a caddie so you need to do what your player needs you to do. The only way to know that is to be able to communicate with them really well. You also need to be able to communicate when you know your reads are right on the greens – and that comes back to doing the hard yards at the start of the week.”
So how does that relationship work for Michael and Haotong?
“For a 22-year-old, Haotong is supremely professional. He knows exactly what he wants and his standards are high, but he’s also pretty relaxed in general,” says Michael.
“There’s one big rule though – only me and Haotong can touch his putter.
Michael is preparing to head out to US to start a busy summer of the game’s biggest events, including The Players and US Open.
“We’ve got a busy summer so it’s great to have a chance to recharge. It will be amazing to experience events like the Open.
“The lifestyle when you’re working for someone like Haotong is pretty good – though I’ve done plenty of the two days of flights through three different airports because it was £100 cheaper. It’s not as glamorous as it looks on TV.
“That said, I’d happily take that while getting to be inside the ropes with the best golfers in the world. If England got to the World Cup final, you couldn’t just go and sit in the dug out between the players. As a caddy, working for one of the best players in the world, I’m right in there at the biggest events in the world.
“I’d love to be able to caddy for Haotong in the President’s Cup in the future, or for a player in the Ryder Cup, but for now we’ve got a lot to experience and I can’t wait to see where we get to.”