A Homecoming for Duane Bock at U.S. Open

‘You get out of it what you put into it.’
East Hampton Town Police Chief Michael Sarlo, who is hosting the Bocks this week, says that no one prepares as well for tournaments as his longtime friend, above. Jack Graves

This week has been a homecoming for Duane Bock, a Bonacker born and bred, who since graduating from East Hampton High in 1985 has made his way in the world of professional golf, first as a high-level player and then, for the past 13 years, as a caddie on the P.G.A. tour.

He’s in his ninth year with Kevin Kisner, a 34-year-old South Carolinian who is the world’s 30th-ranked player at the moment, and whose chances of winning the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills this week were, said Bock during a conversation at Town Police Chief Michael Sarlo’s house Sunday morning, as good as anybody’s.

“I think Kevin’s chances are great — he’s as good as anybody out there. You don’t have to hit it 300-plus yards here. It will come down to how straight you hit the ball and putting, and he’s a great putter, which will help him. I love our chances. Every tournament we go to now he has an opportunity to win — he’s that good.”

Kisner came very close last August to winning the P.G.A. championship in Charlotte, N.C. He led going into the final day, and took a chance on the 18th fairway that, because there was some mud on the ball, altering its flight, resulted in a double-bogey and a seventh-place finish.

“You do everything you can to win — nobody remembers if you were second or seventh,” said Bock, who when he won the North-South Amateur in 1992, a win that kick-started his playing career, was described as “a young Billy Casper.”

The youngest of Dave and Betty Bock’s three sons — Dave Jr. and Darrell, who’ve also worked in the golf world, being his older brothers — the interviewee was introduced at the age of 4 to the sport by his father, a very talented self-taught golfer, a semipro basketball player, and steely competitor, as this writer can attest.

Reminded of what Dave Bock had once said, to wit, that the only two sports were golf and bowling, his son smiled. “He probably said that because they’re individual sports. In other words, it’s up to you. If you want the job done right do it yourself.”

His father, who often played at the public course at Indian Island in Riverhead, had never pushed him, “though I was always around the game. . . .”

At 13, he started working at the Maidstone Club, first with Dave Spencer, and then, a while later, with Dave Alvarez and Glen Farnsworth. “I worked in the pro shop, I caddied for members and learned how to manage the game, I worked in the bag room, on the driving range. . . . Absolutely, it spurred me on. They really helped me, with my swing, with course management, they gave me opportunities to play, at Maidstone, at National, at Shinnecock. . . . I would caddie for them when they played in Met P.G.A. tournaments. They got me into the game.”

Lee Janzen too had helped, for, after playing with the future two-time Open champion at Maidstone, Bock realized that Janzen’s bad shots were always less bad than his. That knowledge persuaded him to focus even more on his short game, “for it’s chipping and putting around the greens where you will gain the biggest advantage. The average amateur doesn’t practice that. They go out on the driving range and hit away. The year after I played with him at Maidstone he won the U.S. Open — he won it twice. I love it that we learn from others. We watch what the pros do, and then try to follow it. I see that happening with my kids. They’re watching and learning.” 

His father, in turn, caddied for him when, having graduated from Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C., where he enjoyed a stellar Division 1 career, Bock won the North-South Amateur at Pinehurst 2, a course somewhat similar, Rees Jones has said, to Shinnecock. He finished 1992 as the ninth-ranked amateur in the United States, and the next year, with the backing of supporters, began play on the South African tour, along with such pros as Nick Price, Ernie Els, who will be playing here this week, and Retief Goosen, who won the Open the last time it was played at Shinnecock Hills in 2004.

In the summer of ’93 he qualified to play on the Canadian tour, and continued to do so for the next decade.

“Yes, I made a good living,” Bock said in answer to a question. “I was in the top 17 in my first four years Canada. I . . . for whatever reason . . . never won, but I had eight seconds. And when I wasn’t in Canada I was playing in a lot of two and three-day mini-tour tournaments in the Southern states. I won a lot of those, but, finally, around 2004, I just decided that I could no longer put in the constant effort that was required to get onto the P.G.A. tour. I couldn’t quite make it through the third stage of qualifying school.”

“My daughter [Albany] was born then. . . . It’s not just the 30 weeks you’re on the road, but you’ve got to put in the time and effort when you’re home too, you’ve got to practice long hours. Plus, it’s hard to travel with an infant, and I wanted to spend more time with her. . . .”

It had been a tough decision to give it up, he said, after having enjoyed “12 really good, solid years playing this great game all over the world.” He had, he said, “no regrets.”

He remained in the game though, segueing into professional caddying, first with Ken Duke, a fellow Canadian tour competitor, and then with Doug LaBelle before hooking on, in 2009, with Kisner. He had initially toyed with, and then rejected, the idea of coaching, a passion of his, because it would have meant uprooting his family from Morganton, N.C., his wife’s hometown, in the foothills of the Appalachians.

The routing at Shinnecock was the same as it ever was, he said, when asked about the course, which he had walked the day before. “They’ve changed a lot of the tees, and when you add tee boxes you’re also changing the angles of approaches into the fairway, so the fairway bunkers are slightly different from the time I last played there, in ’93. The fairways are fairly generous, not tight as they are in some of the Opens, but if you miss them by more than a couple of yards, you’ll pay. You’ll either be in a fairway bunker or in high fescue.”

As for the undulating and at times elevated greens, “they flow into the fairway, which means you have to be precise coming into them . . . a slight miss of only a couple of yards from the pin and the ball will roll and roll and roll.”

The greens were allowed to dry out severely in 2004, angering the pros, one of whom compared their surfaces to that of a parking lot, though Bock said he was confident the U.S.G.A. had learned its lesson. “They can make them as firm and fast or as soft and slow as they want,” he added. “There’s so much slope around the edges of the greens . . . if they’re too firm you can’t keep a ball on them. They were monitoring them when I was out there yesterday.”

As for the wind, “if there’s none you can hit the ball where you want it to go. But if you add wind you’ve got to account for it. As of now, the forecast seems pretty good. The strongest wind predicted is about 10 miles an hour. The guys can handle that. But if it gets up to between 15 and 20, it will be hard to predict.”

“I would say the front nine is ‘easier’ than the back nine, if that’s the word,” Bock said, in reply to another question. “Number 1, flowing downhill, gives you a fairly easy start. Number 10 is a blind shot. You have to land your shot at 11 on a green the size of this patio. . . . The meat of it is the middle part . . . 9, 10, 11, and 12. We’re starting on 10 on Thursday [at 1:58]. It’s tough to start on 10.”

When he was inducted into East Hampton High School’s Hall of Fame last fall, Bock said there ought to be a Hall of Fame for his wife, Geraldine.

Geraldine, for her part — she caddied for him a couple of times when he was a runner-up on the Canadian tour — said that it was easier now, now that their children, Albany, 15, and Alex, 11, are older. Asked if she played golf, she said, with a smile, “No, I drive the cart.”

Her husband is easing his children into the game just as his father had done with him and his brothers. Albany and Alex will play in junior tournaments this summer, the first of which is to begin a day or two after the Open finishes here. The family also will go to several P.G.A. tournaments together this summer. 

It has, she agreed, been a fun life.

Sarlo and Bock, whose nickname is Dewey, have been friends since they were around 8 years old, playing Biddy basketball together and against each other in Little League. About a dozen from that group of friends, including Pat Bistrian, David DiSunno, Jeff Miller, Jason Menu, and Gavin Menu, all of whom lived, Sarlo said, within biking distance of one another in their early years in East Hampton, got together at the Sarlos’ Saturday night.

Further on the subject of caddying, Bock said, “I’m part of a team. When I played, it was just about flexibility. Kevin has a swing instructor, a caddie, a short-game coach, a strength trainer, a physical therapist. . . . We all have our roles to play. I’m an important part of it. If a caddie and a player are not getting along, the five hours you spend on a course will be very stressful. That’s not the way it is with Kevin and me. That’s not to say there aren’t stressful times, but you get through it. It’s like a marriage.”

On hearing that, Sarlo said, “I’ve observed Duane prepare, I’ve seen him measuring from the edge of the green to the flagstick, jotting down the carry distance off the tee . . . he spends hours on end preparing for every situation. His player relies on him for that knowledge.” 

Asked what it was he loved about golf, the amiable interviewee, folding his arms about him, said, “What I love about it is what you put into it is what you’re going to get out of it. It’s like life; it symbolizes life. If you’re good to people, people will be good to you. In golf you’re not relying on others to call the balls and strikes — if you have a penalty, you call it on yourself, and if you practice you’ll be rewarded with success. . . . You can go out by yourself and have a nice, quiet time, and you can go out with your friends and have a nice day too. You get out of it what you put into it — that’s what I love about the game.”

After Kevin Kisner’s tour of Shinnecock’s front nine Monday, his caddie, Duane Bock, and Bock’s wife, Geraldine, and their children, Albany, 15, and Alex, 11, posed in front of the Stanford White clubhouse with their friend and host for the week, East Hampton Town Police Chief Michael Sarlo.