That time I caddied for Michael Phelps and Justin Thomas


Wes Sanderson | Northern Star

Following walking 18 holes with his group. Olympian Michael Phelps (right) takes a selfie with Northern Star Media journalist Wes Sanderson (left) Jan. 31, 2018, in Scottsdale, Arizona. Phelps and Sanderson were in the same group during the Annexus Pro-Am.

By Wes Sanderson

Everyone has that one experience they will never forget: the first touchdown you scored, meeting a celebrity, being an extra in a movie or show. Having the opportunity to do things others seldom get to experience is what moments are made of.

Watching Golf Channel talk about this year’s 2021 Waste Management Phoenix Open made me reminisce about one of the best times in my young adult life. 

Golf has always been a huge part of my life. I’ve played it for years and have found it to be my calling, so when I was given the chance to travel in February 2018 to Phoenix, Arizona to walk inside the ropes during a Wednesday Pro-Am, I booked a Southwest Airlines flight before I even said yes.

For those who don’t follow golf, the PGA Tour hosts weekly events across the U.S. and the globe in its season race for the FedEx Cup, the weekend of the NFL’s Super Bowl. The PGA Tour hosts its annual stop at TPC Scottsdale.

In a typical year, total attendance at the Open can exceed 200,000 fans, according to the Thunderbirds, the charitable organization in charge of the tournament’s operation. 

Massive grandstands are built up on various holes across the course, tower structures that make even Ryder Cup and major championship set-ups look miniscule. The crowning jewel of the tournament: the famed par-3 16th hole that for one week a year packs 20,000 fans into a stadium hole.

I had always dreamt of visiting the tournament as a spectator, but I never thought I would get the chance to be inside the ropes with greats like NFL quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and John Elway, or 23-time gold medal olympian Michael Phelps.

In passing on the golf course, I ran into Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers who was competing in the 2018 Annexus Pro-Am.

For one six-hour round, I felt I had died and gone to sports heaven, which is where my story begins.

I woke up around 4:30 a.m. the day of the Pro-Am. Though tee times were scheduled to begin early, I could have afforded to sleep in for at least another hour before needing to roll out of bed and start my day, but like a child on Christmas morning, I was running on excitement to start my day.

I distinctly remember my morning routine that day. I rolled out of bed, threw a Nike sweatshirt on and some sandals, walked across the street to Starbucks to order my venti iced caramel macchiato and blueberry muffin, and then came back inside my apartment to get ready for the day.

I felt so excited; all I could think about was getting to the golf course and soaking in every moment of the day, but I also wanted to look fashionable. So, I did what all golfers do and I scripted my clothes for the Pro-Am day.

My look took after one of my favorite golfers: Tiger Woods. I rocked a red polo, black golf shorts, black golf shoes and black Oakley shades at the tournament. My choice in apparel was subtle, but safe. Functional, but most importantly comfortable, which was the most important thing since temperatures were expected to climb close to 100 degrees with not a single cloud in the sky.

After finishing my breakfast, I couldn’t wait any longer in my apartment, so around 5:15 a.m. I called myself an Uber to take me to the course to begin my day. In what was probably no more than a 15-minute ride from my apartment I tried to compose myself for the long day that was going to be in front of me.

The ride was uneventful, as most of my Uber rides are, since I’m a very shy person around strangers, but when my driver arrived at the welcome gates I felt like a kid seeing the entrance to Disney World for the very first time.

I barely allowed my driver to put the car in park before I was bolting out of his backseat, sprinting towards the credential pickup line. When I got to the credential window, the process was simple: I flashed my ID, signed for my credential and was then directed into the clubhouse before heading out to the practice range.

When I walked through the double doors of the desert-style clubhouse, I was greeted by a member of the Thunderbirds, the charitable organization in charge of the tournament. After quick pleasantries, I grabbed some coffee and made a b-line for the practice range.

On my walk from the clubhouse to the stadium practice range, which was no more than 1,000 feet, I saw the likes of John Rham, Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth and my childhood idol, Phil Mickelson.

Phoenix native, and 23-time Gold medal olympian Michael Phelps walking to his bag jan. 31, 2018, during the 2018 Annexus Pro-Am in Scottsdale, Arizona. Phelps Played along side Professionals Rickie Fowler and Justin Thomas. (Wes Sanderson | Northern Star)

Watching these professionals warm up, flushing golf ball after golf ball with perfect flight characteristics made me question why a schmuck like me was even allowed to play the game of golf, but then I saw some of the celebrities chunking balls, and I felt those shots were more attainable.

Once I slid under the ropes to the practice range, I ventured down toward the far end of the range to meet my group. I had no idea who I was going to be walking with; I just knew the group as “7:55 a.m. tee-1.” 

When I found my group I was shocked by who was in this foursome. The PGA Tour professional was Rickie Fowler for the first nine holes and Thomas would round out the back-nine with the group. The celebrity portion of our group consisted of a friend of the Thunderbirds, country music superstar Chris Lane and Michael Phelps, which is where my jaw dropped.

I was going to be walking 18-holes with arguably the greatest olympian of all time, his wife and young son. My thought process leading up to my first interaction was “don’t say anything stupid.”

After the group had finished its warmups, I introduced myself as one of the group’s guides for the round and that I was looking forward to spending most of the day with them. That’s when I got my first interaction with Phelps, who told me he was spraying the ball today and I was in for a long day. I just smiled, fist bumped him and said “alright let’s have ourselves a day!”

During the first few holes everyone was very silent. It was still early in the morning and the coffee probably hadn’t kicked in for everyone. Walking inside with the group and hearing them talk about the afterparty at the Bird’s Nest later that evening made me wish I was 21 at the time. 

At the fourth hole is when the group started to liven up, thanks to Lane holing one out from 75 yards. After that hole, the group began mixing it up and playing music from their golf bags. Phelps’ son Boomer began running around a bit more. 

The group itself was not scoring the best, but was having fun. Then we got to the 15th hole, which is when my juices really got flowing. After the group made a net-par we walked off the green, grabbed a burrito and walked towards the famous 16th hole stadium course.

While waiting for our burritos, we could hear the cheers, music and occasional boos coming from the stadium. Everyone was excited to get into the hole, but I was not prepared for what was going to be inside.

The 16th hole was packed early on the first day of competition Thursday. Fans wake at the crack of dawn to secure on of 5,000 general admission seats on the loudest hole in golf. I was lucky enough to have a wristband to the suite level on the hole. (Wes Sanderson | Northern Star)

The walk from the burrito station on 15 to the entrance to 16 is no more than 200 feet, but it felt so much longer than that. Walking into the tunnel we were greeted by members of the PGA Tours media relations team who were filming the hole and doing interviews with each group.

Fowler had rejoined us, just to play the 170-yard par-3. Walking through the tunnel, I felt like a superstar on gameday. The music changed and then our group was announced. The professionals hit first. Both Rickie and JT hit the green, then came the celebrities.

The first to go was Lane who hit it deep and it rolled off the back partition of the green. Like clockwork the stadium crowd booed him for missing the green. Then came the city favorite: Michael Phelps was announced and just as the olympian received before his 2016 final gold medal race, the local crowd cheered the Phoenix native at the top of their lungs.

While the crowd nearly lost their collective voices, Phelps began his traditional olympic warm-up routine, which stirred the crowd up even more. The stretch, the arm flaps hitting his back as he would always do before a swim final. 

I felt chills watching this up close and I just watched, dazed over. Then, Phelps’ tee shot hit the green and rolled back closer to the pin. The crowd didn’t heckle the olympian this year; instead, they cheered louder than I had ever heard at a golf tournament.

An aerial view of TPC Scottsdale prior to landing at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport the Saturday before tournament week

The group passed high fives and some celebratory hugs all around before we danced our way to the green to putt. Phelps sank his birdie putt, while Lane 3-putted for bogey and was taunted as we left the stadium.

The last two holes were pretty status quo, minus the drunk fan who decided it’d be a fun idea to go streaking on 17 fairway. After members of Scottsdales’ finest cleared the fairway, we finished our round, and then went our separate ways.

After walking off the 18-green, I got a photo with Phelps, and the group to sign a tournament flag for me to take back to my man cave. That flag still hangs in my bedroom to this day.

It’s moments like this that have made me love golf, made me want to be a part of the industry. So, as I watched this year’s playing of the Phoenix Open, I thought back to that hot Wednesday during Super Bowl week.