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As he drove three hours into the still of Sunday evening from Ponte Vedra Beach to Bluffton, S.C., Mark Carens watched and listened as his cell phone constantly lit up and buzzed.
Text messages and voice mails arrived at a rapid pace and with each one Carens smiled and counted his blessings.
For the longest time, “I would be one of those caddies sending the text messages,” said Carens. “Someday, I just hoped it would be me who received one.”
Had he lost hope, who could have blamed him? After all, for 15 years Carens and his golfer hadn’t crossed the finish line first in a PGA TOUR or Web.com Tour tournament. What could have accelerated the feeling of hopelessness is the fact that all six times he had been in a playoff, he had failed to win.
Spare him the shoulder to cry on, however. Instead, accept that hand he is likely to extend and say hi to a guy with the permanent smile who embodies a delightful slice of this great game. He never fell out of love with golf, even during those rough years trying to make it as fledgling pro and he surely didn’t sour on it when his winless career stretched into a 15th season.
So, as he drove home from THE PLAYERS Championship to see his wife, Mandy, and children Mia, 10, and Luke, 7, Carens stole glances at his phone and felt the love. He was on the receiving end of those texts and voice mails – and for the second time in 23 tournaments, no less. Si Woo Kim, the 21-year-old South Korean with the syrupy swing who Carens works for, had put on a stunning Sunday short-game clinic to win THE PLAYERS Championship, nine months after he had broken through to win the 2016 Wyndham Championship.
The night was dark and quiet, but Carens felt blanketed by sunshine as he tried to explain this wild swing of fortunes.
“It shows you how the game is crazy, but so good,” said Carens. “But I kept believing. We all do. Every week, 144 players and caddies show up believing they can win. It’s what keeps us going. It has kept me going. It’s why I love what I do.”
Faith, loyalty, and commitment are the main ingredients to it all and Carens’ relationship with Kim says much about him. While others may have shied away from a situation that called for patience – Kim is so young, after all, and there are the natural language and cultural challenges – Carens embraced the opportunity for the most genuine of reasons.
“Yes, I saw how good a player he could be, but he’s a great kid, a really great kid. I haven’t met one guy who doesn’t like him. Si Woo is very respectful and he’s so mature.”
Carens and Kim first met a few years ago, connected by Russ Holden, CEO of “Caddy For A Cure.” A teenager who had made it through the PGA TOUR Qualifying Tournament in 2012, Kim struggled in limited starts in 2013 and lost his card. In the spring of ’14, Carens worked for Kim in Monday qualifiers for the Honda Classic, Puerto Rico Open and Valspar Championship.
The veteran caddie was duly impressed, so when Kim made it through the Web.com Finals in 2015 and regained his PGA TOUR card, Carens accepted an offer to join in. With Carens on the bag, Kim opened 2015-16 with a T-17 at the OHL Classic at Mayakoba, a T-18 at the RSM Classic and a fourth-place finish at the Sony Open in Hawaii.
At Mayakoba, Carens had dinner every night with Kim and his parents. He felt a kinship with the family. The language barrier that would scare off some has never been an issue. “Si Woo and I communicate really well,” said Carens. “I understand when he speaks and he understands me. Maybe not perfectly, but we talk all the time in English.”
With every brilliant up-and-down to save par in Sunday’s final round of THE PLAYERS – Kim was an incredible 10-for-10 – the South Korean pulled away from veteran challengers. On a day when the field average was 73.606, he shot 3-under 69, just one of seven sub-70 scores.
When finally the three-stroke victory was complete, Kim had built a larger base of believers. All of them, though, will have to stand behind Carens, unquestionably at the head of that line.
A Boston-area guy standing side-by-side with a South Korean kid, united by this game of golf.
“Pretty wild,” said Carens, who received a half-dozen more text messages during the phone conversation and said he would savor the time he’d spend later that night reading them all.
“It’s the coolest part of it all, just seeing all your friends and peers sending congratulations,” said Carens. “It’s the best thing ever.”
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