In the lexicon of golf, a "loop" is an 18-hole trip around the course for a caddie. At local clubs, two loops in a day is a profitable routine. On the PGA Tour, for professional caddie Wayne Birch, four rounds a week can be a meal ticket with his Loupe, Andrew Loupe.
In his fifth professional season, and third full run on Tour, the former LSU Tiger is starting to realize some of the promise he displayed as a collegian. In his four years at Baton Rouge, the Louisiana native earned All-SEC honors twice and was an All-American in his junior and senior years. During his final year with the Tigers, he ran up seven top 10s and 10 top 20s in 13 tournament starts. Along with teammate John Pederson, also now on the PGA Tour, they elevated the Tiger program to rank among college golf's finest.
His professional story starts out pretty typically. For his first two years of play for pay, Loupe paid his dues on the NGA Tour. In that first year as a professional, he sampled the cuisine at one of golf's culinary hot spots, the Zurich Classic in New Orleans, but by the weekend he was paying for his own meals from outside the cutline.
In 2013 he moved a step closer to the majors with a year on the Web.com Tour, using a top-10 finish in the season-ending Tour Championship to earn his card and launch his PGA Tour career in 2014. Like most players trying to establish a foothold among the world's best, he was limited to two "loops" a week with five missed cuts to start his PGA Tour season. A blistering opening-round 63 at Monterey Peninsula Country Club in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am sent him to his first four-day workweek and a T27.
For Loupe those opening weeks were as much about looking around as they were about looking down the fairway. "I think it's settling in. You're not putting next to the guys you've been putting next to. You're not hitting balls next to the guys you've been hitting balls next to. I'm looking at guys I've been watching on TV, you know, and it's just realizing that I'm supposed to be here."
The top 30 at Pebble was followed by a top 15 in Puerto Rico and a quantum leap up the food chain with a T4 at the Valero Texas Open. Playing in the final group on Sunday with a chance to win was complicated by an increasingly problematic pre-shot routine. As one golf analyst criticized, "If everyone on Tour played like him, I'd quit announcing."
After Texas, Loupe settled into a pattern of alternating missed and made cuts, completing his rookie year with provisional status for 2015. That uncertain existence actually proved beneficial.
Splitting time between opportunities on the big Tour and return trips to Web.com in 2015, he never cracked the top 40 on the PGA Tour until a T6 in July at an alternate Tour event, the Barbasol Championship. Three more missed cuts sent him to Web.com in search of his card for 2016. His third event on that return gave him his biggest moment as a professional -- a win at the Nationwide Children's Hospital Classic in Ohio.
Knowing what closing the deal would mean for the coming year, Loupe admitted battling nerves coming in and looked to his veteran caddie for an assist. "Thought Wayne did a great job keeping us in the present. I got a little uptight there on the back nine, and he did a good job of loosening me up and keeping everything loosey-goosey a little bit."
It's once again been baby steps this season. After three top 10s, including a T3 in Palm Springs, his game leveled off for several months before cratering at the end of May. Starting at Colonial, Loupe took weekends off for seven consecutive starts before stopping the bleeding last week at the John Deere with an opening 64 and a T16 finish.
Loupe has largely shaken the reputation for slow play and preserved his trademark in golf -- his length. Ranked fifth in distance, he's averaged over 300 yards off the tee for three straight years. Ranked 166th in the world, however, he still doesn't quite know where he's going.
His progression as a player worth watching is trending upward. No longer is he getting dinged for his Kevin Na-like hesitancy at address. He is one of the breed on Tour showcasing their workout routines, and finds himself now considered possibly the best athlete on Tour.
At 103 in the FedExCup standings with the curtain coming down on 2016, Loupe looks secure for the coming year. And his more than $1 million dollars in earnings keeps his caddie depositing more than tip money with his current loop.
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 32 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf's Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.
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