Last year, Michael Greller was helping sixth-graders at Narrows View Intermediate School in University Place analyze story problems.
This week, he’s assisting 19-year-old PGA Tour wunderkind Jordan Spieth at the 113th U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club near Philadelphia.
From math teacher to golf caddie is an unusual career path. But it makes sense in Greller’s case.
Greller — a former NAIA Division II golfer at Northwestern College in Iowa — decided to follow the featured group at the 2006 U.S. Amateur Public Links at his home course, the Olympic Course at Gold Mountain.
One of the golfers was carrying his own bag.
Those around Greller know the 35-year-old is a bit brash and gregarious — the type who would ask any question of any person. So when Florida State’s Matt Savage walked off the final hole after shooting a 3-over-par 75, Greller asked him if he needed any help.
“I went up on a whim and introduced myself and said, ‘I am a local teacher, this is my home course and I’m a scratch golfer, and I would caddie,’ ” said Greller, who is from Grand Haven, Mich., but now calls Tacoma home. “He agreed to it.”
With a first-time caddie, Savage not only rallied to make the cut in stroke play, but he advanced all the way to the quarterfinals out of a 64-man match-play field in a United States Golf Association national championship for public-course members.
Afterward, Greller wasn’t ready to give up his teaching job, but he did want to dabble more in caddying.
“I had the time of my life, learning a lot about the collegiate game,” Greller said. “Chambers Bay … opened the next year, so I switched school districts and took a job in University Place because I wanted to be close to that course.”
It definitely was something to do in the summer. But another USGA championship was arriving — the 2010 U.S. Amateur at Chambers Bay — and Greller’s good work with Savage landed him a higher-profile job.
Before the tournament, 17-year-old Justin Thomas, who made a PGA Tour cut the summer before at the Wyndham Championship in North Carolina, was looking for a caddie. He knew Savage, who told him about Greller.
Thomas and Greller not only paired up for that tournament, but for three U.S. Amateurs — the last being in 2012 at Cherry Hills Country Club in Colorado, where Thomas advanced to the semifinals.
But Greller’s biggest opportunity was yet to come.
In 2011, the U.S. Junior Amateur for golfers 17 and younger arrived at Gold Mountain. In the field was Spieth, the nation’s top-ranked golfer, out of Dallas.
Greller had committed to Gavin Hall weeks before the event. But when Hall injured his wrist and withdrew, Greller needed work and called in a favor to Thomas.
“I begged him to get me on Jordan’s bag,” Greller said.
Thomas obliged, and the Spieth-Greller team went on to win the U.S. Junior title that week, defeating Chelso Barrett, of Keene, N.H., in the finals.
Greller had quite a five-year run as a caddie, but he thought that was the end. He was a teacher. He had a local love interest, Ellie Morris, a kindergarten teacher. Caddying didn’t seem part of his future.
Oddly enough, it was Morris who got Greller thinking about becoming a professional caddie.
The two sat watching the final round of the Masters when she turned to him and asked if he would regret not helping Spieth or Thomas someday win that title.
Two months later, Spieth was looking for a caddie for the 2012 U.S. Open. He called Greller. And at the Olympic Club, Spieth finished as the low amateur — tied for 21st — with Greller on his bag.
When Spieth decided to turn professional later that summer, he wanted to hire a full-time caddie for 2013, whether it was on the Web.com Tour or PGA Tour. He sought out Greller.
“It was tough, just because I was 10 years into teaching,” Greller said. “I was planning on getting married, too, so it wasn’t the ideal time for me to change careers.”
But after Greller and Morris talked it out, they came to an agreement to commit to caddying for a full season.
“Jordan and I have an awesome rapport,” Greller said. “I obviously know all the people in his camp before the season started. But the whole aspect of being on the PGA Tour or the Web.com Tour, and doing it every week, I had to be a quick study with the Xs and Os of it.”
As talented as Spieth is, caddying for any golfer with no status on a professional tour is a huge gamble. Because of his high-profile name, Spieth was awarded sponsor’s exemptions at the Farmers Insurance Open (missed cut) and AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am (tied for 22nd) early in the season.
The biggest break came in the Puerto Rico Open, a second-tier PGA Tour event played opposite the WGC Accenture Match Play Championships. Spieth ended up tying for second and earned $308,000.
That showing opened the floodgates: Spieth recorded two more top-10 finishes over the next month and earned enough money to make him a special temporary member of the PGA Tour.
Between the PGA and Web.com tours, Spieth has made almost $970,000 so far this season.
“He’s made almost $1 million, yet he is the same guy I met back at Gold Mountain,” Greller said.
Earlier this spring, Spieth was asked at a news conference why he chose Greller over a more experienced caddie in his first season.
“We decided that this year, since I had no idea where my schedule was going to take me week to week, possibly going to Thursday qualifiers and Monday qualifiers, that it was going to be a lot better to have a guy that … knew my game, knew how I go through my process before each shot and was a good friend off the course,” Spieth said.
“Early in the season, when I was trying to earn as much (money) as I could … I was emotionally not neutral enough. I was a little up and down. So he was great at settling me down.”
Tricks learned from his former trade, Greller said.
“Definitely years of teaching have given me perspective how to deal with different types of people,” Greller said. “I know how to read Jordan, know when to shut up or when to offer encouragement.”
As can be imagined, the two are quite close, considering all the hours they spend together on and off the course. Greller said the two are ultra-competitive, trading wins — and barbs – in ping-pong, billiards and playing cards.
Spieth already has made an offer for Greller to remain on the bag next season.
“Looking back at Torrey (Pines) where the season started, this will be our 15th event since the end of January,” Greller said. “I think about who I was back then, and now, it is night and day in terms of the comfort level out here and interacting with other players and caddies. I know the routine well now.
“And in terms of where I am at, I basically went from minor league ball to the All-Star Game.”
Former University Place teacher Michael Greller has aided some of the better showings at recent United States Golf Association championships:
YEAREVENT GOLFER FINISH
2006U.S. Public Links Matt SavageLost in quarterfinals
2010U.S. Amateur Justin Thomas Lost in round of 32
2011 U.S. Junior Am Jordan Spieth Won
2011 U.S. Amateur Justin Thomas Lost in round of 32
2012U.S. Open Jordan SpiethT-21 (low amateur)
2012U.S. Amateur Justin ThomasLost in firstname.lastname@example.org Todd Milles: 253-597-8442 todd.milles@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/golf