By DAVID DROSCHAK
Mike Hicks has read thousands of left-to-right putts on the PGA Tour during his 33 years as a caddy, toted the bag for major champions Payne Stewart and Justin Leonard, traveled the globe, and witnessed professional golf’s psychological pressures up close and personal.
A seven-year bout with diabetes and chronic back pain will finally force Hicks off the course following more than three successful decades as a caddy, but not away from the game he loves.
Hicks, 52, is a certified SeeMore Putter instructor and has opened up a golf studio/Stewart shrine on the second floor of Mill Creek Golf Club in Mebane.
Equipped with a Putters Edge green surface that rolls 11 on the Stimpmeter, and walls lined with framed memorabilia from his glory days with Stewart, Hicks is anxious to begin what amounts to a second career in golf.
“The big thing is teaching these kids what it takes to become a professional,” said Hicks, who caddied a dozen years for Stewart before the Hall of Fame golfer was killed in a plane crash a few months after capturing the 1999 U.S. Open. “The kids I want to work with are the kids that dream at night of playing in The Masters or the U.S. Open. I want to work with kids who have ambitions of becoming the best in the world.”
Hicks charges $75 per hour, including a fitting for a SeeMore Putter – a putter brand used by Stewart to sink his dramatic winning putt on the 18th green at Pinehurst No. 2.
“I’m not hammering home a SeeMore Putter, but I do believe in the SeeMore system,” Hicks said. “If you like your putter I’m going to give you a putting lesson with your putter.”
Hicks notes that on the heel of all SeeMore Putters is two white lines and a red dot, when you address the ball if your putter is completely square to the ball the red dot will be covered by the shaft, and you will only see two white lines when you look down at the shaft of the putter. This alignment aide is completely legal with the USGA rules, and will let you know instantly if the toe of your putter is open or closed, slightly or dramatically at address.
While there are a half dozen holes to aim at with slopes built in, Hicks’ instruction studio is so much more than learning how to stroke it into the hole. He believes his knowledge from three decades on Tour, working alongside major champions at the top of their craft and the team that surrounded them – such as noted golf mental coach Dr. Richard Coop – provides Hicks with a teaching platform few others in golf can display.
“I learned more from Payne about how to act on the course and the transformation that he took in his life from being kind of hard to be around and hard to deal with at times, depending on which side of the bed he woke up on, to being at peace with himself and just becoming a wonderful person to be around 24/7,” Hicks said. “And the transformation he took with his game. When I first started caddying for Payne it was very difficult for him to handle it down the stretch. Then once he got some help from Dr. Coop he could close.
“I have been around every aspect of this game. I’ve seen how the psychological side of things work, how they teach that, what they tell the guys. I have been right there. I have seen it all and seen it so close, seen how to react and how not to react; when to play percentages, when not to; the green light and the red light. There is a wealth of knowledge I have stored up that I’m ready to share.”
Hicks will caddy in 2013 as long as Josh Teater advances in the FedEx Cup playoffs, then focus on building a client base for his Mill Creek instruction studio.
“I am starting my own little niche in the golf industry,” Hicks said. “I am going to offer a service to younger juniors and college players and aspiring pros to teach them what it would take to get to the highest level of golf – things like course management, the mental side, the physical side, how to practice, the whole gambit.
“I know there is a market for that in junior golf. Golf is all I know and it’s my way to stay in the industry because my body is just failing. I am diabetic and it seems to be really working on my body these days. I have a herniated disc in my back. You wake up and it’s something different every way, and I’m kind of sick of having to depend on somebody to make an 8-footer for me to make money.”
Hicks’ life and financial status changed forever when Stewart’s plane went down the week of the 1999 Tour Championship. Hicks was one of a few caddies on Tour who were on a salary, even getting paid in the winter months.
“I had a deal that you don’t get. Life was good for me,” Hicks said. “I knew I had money coming in in the offseason. Payne was just a real generous person to me.”
Autographed flags from the 18th hole of Stewart’s major championships hand on the walls of Hicks’ studio – minus one – the 1999 Open flag.
“I just haven’t been able to do it for some reason,” Hicks said. “I don’t know that there is any closure. I mean, time heals all wounds, but the fact of how it happened was hard. I miss Payne and I look at him every day. There is a big picture on him on our refrigerator; he’s standing there in his outfit kind of posing.”
Back in the studio, Hicks can’t help but move from photo-to-photo and reminisce of memories that he’ll never let go. He points to a man jumping in a maze of people in a panoramic view of the 18th green at Pinehurst.
“I tell people there are three people that know the ball is gone in the hole – me, Payne and this dude who is right in line with the flag,” Hicks said.
“I know there is a niche for me and I think I’ve found it and I know what I want to do,” Hicks added. “I want to give back to the game. I want to help young people.”
Payne – approaching 15 years after his Pinehurst Pose – would be proud.