The call never came from Canada, not after Ray Whitney twice scored 32 goals in the NHL, not ever. And when his Olympic invitation finally came, in the wrong half of the calendar, at first he turned it down.
When Canadian golfer Graham DeLaet invited his Arizona neighbor to serve as his caddy for the inaugural Olympic golf tournament, Whitney was worried about spending time away from his family and passed. When he told his wife Brijet he declined, she scoffed and told him: “You’re going. Or I’m going.”
So Whitney, the former Carolina Hurricanes forward and current scout, finally made the Olympics, sort of, on DeLaet’s bag for the tournament after DeLaet’s regular caddy bowed out, a newlywed concerned about Zika.
“I mean, it’s not how I thought I’d get to the Olympics,” Whitney said.
But he’s in Brazil, after a Spokane, Wash.-Phoenix-New York-Rio travel odyssey, arriving in time to catch the swimming Monday night. Tuesday morning, he was carrying DeLaet’s bag during a nine-hole practice round as the two got to know the course – and each other. Playing against each other back home is one thing. A player-caddy partnership is something else entirely, equal parts marriage, servitude and therapy.
Whitney always envisioned himself wearing Team Canada gear on the ice, not a Team Canada golf shirt and hat, but trying to make the Olympics as a Canadian hockey player is like trying to make it as an American women’s basketball player. If you’re not in the 99.9999th percentile, and you’re not a part of the national program from birth, you have almost no shot, no matter how many goals you score.
He was a pretty good player, though, with 385 goals and 1,064 points in 1,330 career games before he retired in 2014. He’s not bad with a golf club, either. Now spending most of his year in Arizona, where he and DeLaet are members at the same club and live nearby, he had his handicap index down to +1.8 recently before it bounced back to +0.8.
In 2001, Whitney tried to qualify for the U.S. Open but had been traded and wasn’t playing much. After posting an 88, he received a terse letter from the USGA inviting him not to attempt it again.
“I played with two mini-tour guys and we all shot in the 80s, so it didn’t feel that bad,” Whitney said.
But DeLaet has seen him at his best – typically, Whitney asks for three strokes a side, while DeLaet offers two – and thought Whitney would not only keep him loose on the course but knew DeLaet’s game and was a good enough player to think it through with him. Whitney once even had a 6-foot putt to beat DeLaet, but it rimmed out. (“I was pretty happy to see that one miss,” DeLaet said.)
Plus, having been a professional athlete and a Stanley Cup champion, DeLaet figured Whitney would bring a unique perspective to his bag in a unique event.
“I wanted a Canadian with me and I was kind of running through the names and thought it would be a lot of fun,” DeLaet said. “He’s a guy who’s got experience winning, a real positive guy who likes to have a lot of fun. That’s really what I was looking for as a rent-a-caddy for the week.”
It will be a work in progress. There’s the mental side of it, but caddying is a subtly difficult task for the uninitiated. On the first hole of DeLaet’s first practice round, Whitney dropped his towel, the cardinal sin of any caddy (followed closely by losing a headcover). The rest of the group quickly pointed it out, but Whitney’s contributions will largely be mental, not technical, anyway.
“He knows I know how to play the game,” Whitney said. “He’s going to read his own putts. But I can talk strategy with him, keep him loose. It’s no different than when I was in the locker room, trying to keep Roddie (Brind’Amour) loose.”
Brind’Amour’s competitive edge was notorious. If Whitney can find a way to poke a hole in that, DeLaet shouldn’t pose much of a challenge on the golf course.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock