LINKS PLAYERS MAGAZINE, 2010 ANNUAL EDITION

A FAR BETTER SANDWICH

By Jeff Hopper

Last summer, walking the 72nd hole with about-to-be PGA Championship winner Y.E. Yang, caddie AJ Montecinos found himself a long way from peanut butter. Which was a very good thing.

Not so many months before, Montecinos was pounding the hot streets of San Antonio, hawking a line of clothing he was sure the Lord had given him but that wasn’t paying the bills. “GIIC,” the logo on those shirts read: God Is in Control. Maybe. But Montecinos’ life didn’t seem blessed by the God he was trying so hard to proclaim.

The one-time National Minority College Golf champion was living alone in an empty house, sleeping on the floor, and hoping for anything God would give him.

A year before, in the fall of 2007, when his circumstances had been quite similar, Montecinos’ phone rang. It was Hoss Uresti, brother of the PGA Tour’s Omar Uresti, who had seen Montecinos’ work as a caddie on the Nationwide Tour and had a loop job in mind for Montecinos.

“Hey, AJ,” Uresti said on the other end of the line. “I want you to go caddie for Yang at second stage.” He was speaking of the second stage of the PGA Tour Qualifying School, held in six locations around the country. And he was alluding to a rising Korean star, Yong-eun Yang, who had the year before beaten some pretty big names, including Tiger Woods, to win the HSBC Champions in China. It was pretty close to a major on the international scene, but it hadn’t earned Yang much recognition outside Asia.

“Who’s Yang?” Montecinos asked.

“I know your parents live in Banning, near Oak Valley, second stage,” Oresti responded. “You need to go caddie for Yang.”

“Who is this guy?” Montecinos pressed for an answer.

“Don’t ask me questions,” Uresti snipped. “Go do it.”

So Montecinos went, and Yang won the stage. But in 2007, Montecinos was just a temp. Yang chose another man for his bag at the Q School finals.

And Montecinos returned to San Antonio, at first trying unsuccessfully to sell mortgage loans, then moving on to the clothing—the idea for which really did come to him when he awoke in the middle of the night right after he’d scraped up enough in a local skins game to make his truck payment for the month. It’s a story of tears and miracles and the voice of God. Tough stuff to handle if you don’t believe this sort of thing. Montecinos does.

“As soon as I woke up, I drew a G-I-I and a backwards C with a hidden cross in the middle. That’s what the Lord gave me.

“It’s always been the desire of my heart to share that,” he goes on. “I’ve never seen any clothing to show people love without being in their face. I believe that people like to be loved, not preached at.”

It was some time later that the dream came to fruition with the help of an old friend who knew the ins and outs of business, but that’s where Montecinos found himself in the late summer and early fall of 2008. And it wasn’t buying him more than peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

In the midst of all that, Montecinos responded to a challenge to give the last of his paltry savings to a needy ministry. “I got down on my knees,” he recalls, “and said, ‘Lord, is this real? Is this of You? If it’s real, then give me a peace about it.’ He did. So I gave the last $1,500 I had in my life.”

Not all acts of faith are met with overwhelming blessing, at least not the way we might look at blessing. But God saw Montecinos act and responded in a remarkable way.

Near the end of September, Y.E. Yang’s agent called Montecinos. “Yang has to go back to second stage,” he said. “He wants you back there with him. And if you make it past, he’ll take you to finals this year.”

Montecinos’ reply was simple. “OK.”

At second stage that fall of 2008, Yang’s score qualified him for the finals right on the number—that is, in the worst position he could finish and still get in. But this is Q School. The card is the thing. You smile and go on—especially when the next stop means a shot at the big time.

At finals, the story was the same. On the number. Yang had his PGA Tour card, making him the only other Korean on Tour besides six-time winner K.J. Choi. And on his bag was the well-traveled kid from Chicago, West Texas, Mississippi, California, and now San Antonio: A.J. Montecinos.

It was then that Montecinos began to recognize things about Yang that made him exceedingly confident.

“When Y.E. needs to practice, he practices,” his caddie says. “When he doesn’t, he rests. Normally you see guys out there just going through the motions, wasting their time. Y.E. doesn’t waste time. When I watch Y.E., I know that the work he puts in pays off.”

So Montecinos began talking up his man. “I told my family and all my friends, ‘I promise you, this year we are going to win three times, because I’ve never been around a more mentally tough player—no, person—in my life.’ So I did expect us to win.”

If you’ve never spent time around a Tour caddie, you might not understand that plurality of language, the “we” factor between a lot of players and those who do far more than tote those overstuffed, ad-marked Tour bags.

“Being a caddie is like being married,” Montecinos describes it. “You have to know what to say at the right time, what they want to hear, encourage them when they’re down, keep their spirits up, keep them relaxed when they’re nervous. You’ve got to be a preacher, you’ve got to be a teacher, help them with their golf game, know what’s going on with their body, what’s going on with this, what’s going on with that. It’s endless.”

And it may be endless. But all that time together, all that repetition, led to Montecinos’ knowing. One look in his eyes last August in Minnesota, when Yang moved into position behind Tiger Woods to make a run at the season’s last major championship, and Montecinos knew exactly what was going on. He had seen that look before, early in the season, when this Korean unknown had won the Honda Classic in just the fourth PGA event the two had worked together. And now, here it was again.

“Y.E. was clicking on all cylinders,” Montecinos recalled, “and I saw that look in his eye. I knew we were in for something special.”

Probably no one, least of all Woods, imagined how special. But when Yang holed an eagle chip to take the lead with three holes remaining, the world suddenly sat up. And when he drilled an improbable 3-hybrid over a tree then over a bunker and landed it softly near the hole where two easy putts would bring him victory, the world cheered. Y.E. Yang was men’s golf’s first-ever Asian-born major champion, and his season earnings flew past the $2 million mark.

But the most amazing story was the one that emerged in the succeeding days, when it became known that Yang had determined to succeed for Montecinos’ sake early in the season: “When I win, I will pay.” And as Yang zipped past the $2 million mark with his PGA win, the caddie’s share for the year grew to enough to pay off Montecinos’ mortgage. Yes, the same Montecinos who less than one year before had no idea from month to month how he would pay his bills. The same Montecinos who would spend the fall of 2009 not touring the sidewalks of San Antonio but walking the fairways of Harding Park for the Presidents Cup and the greens of Mission Hills for the HSBC Champions.

“You never know what God’s got in store,” Montecinos reflected last December in his hotel room during the Chevron World Challenge—Woods’ own tournament, to which Yang now certainly merited his special invitation. “God definitely has a way of wowing us. He’s definitely wowed me and got my attention.”

There’s a lot of humble pie to be eaten as a Tour caddie. Often, the caddies use the Porta-Potties while their players find a private place waiting for them behind clubhouse doors. That doesn’t bother Montecinos. He figures that “when the Lord walked the earth, He was a servant. That’s what I am.”

And those peanut butter sandwiches remind him of a right perspective too. “Win or lose, God wows me,” he says. “I’ll praise Him if we lose and I’ll praise Him if we win. It doesn’t matter to me.”

But boy, is it good to have some meat in that bread this time around.

COPYRIGHT 2010 LINKS PLAYERS INTERNATIONAL

  • AJ Montecinos

    AJ Montecinos is a PGA Tour caddie, currently working with Jeff Gove. Montecinos tells the story of God’s amazing work in his life in 2009, which included a victory with Y.E. Yang at the PGA Championship.

    Find AJ’s God is in Control clothing here.