WNY golf preview: Buffalo’s Alpern helps call the shots as PGA Tour caddie - The Buffalo News
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WNY golf preview: Buffalo’s Alpern helps call the shots as PGA Tour caddie

Observant Western New Yorkers who are fans of the PGA Tour may have noticed Aaron Alpern’s subtle shout out to his hometown. The 36-year-old Buffalonian has been on camera plenty in recent months in his job as the caddie for tour player Jason Kokrak. Each time they’re shown, Alpern is not sporting the usual sponsor’s logo on his hat, but rather the unmistakable blue and gold of his beloved Buffalo Sabres. Or recently, a throwback Buffalo Braves hat.

“I’ve been getting a lot of grief lately whenever I wear the Sabres hat from other hockey fans,” Alpern said. “I enjoy being able to wear a Sabres hat or the Braves hat – that was a recent acquisition. I like to show off where I’m from, I guess. Not everybody does that.”

Western New York connections to the PGA Tour are sparse. Alpern and veteran player Dudley Hart, a Clarence resident, are this area’s only representatives.

“A lot of people have specific deals where they get paid to wear a specific hat. Up until this point, that hasn’t been something I’ve pursued very much,” Alpern said. “I’d rather wear a hat that shows where I’m from and tells a little about myself instead of just wearing all the hats that the other guys tend to wear.”

Of course, Buffalo isn’t exactly centrally located when it comes to the highest level of professional golf. So why does Alpern continue to make the Elmwood Village his home base?

“Home is home,” he says.

Alpern grew up playing at Cherry Hill Club in Fort Erie, Ont., with his father, Michael. He graduated from Nichols in 1996, serving as the golf team’s captain in his junior and senior seasons.

The Walter J. Travis-designed course remains Alpern’s favorite when he’s home.

“I could play there every day for the rest of my life and never get bored with it,” he said.

Of course, those opportunities are few and far between. Alpern is traveling about half the year, by his estimation. Since January, he’s gone from Hawaii to California to Arizona to Florida and finally Texas.

Not that he’s complaining.

“I could probably talk for hours about all the great things about my job. When it comes down to it, though, I really enjoy it whenever Jason or in the past other players that I’ve worked for are in contention,” Alpern said. “It’s exciting and really rewarding to be relied on to help make decisions that are important, that are that crucial to the outcome of the tournament.

“To say, ‘Is it 6-iron or 7-iron?’ I love the opportunity to help make those decisions and to help my player excel as much as he possibly can. I never feel like it’s pressure because that’s what we do the job for is to be in those moments and to make those tough decisions under the gun.”

A true partnership

Alpern and Kokrak have had plenty of big shots to ponder over the past few months. Kokrak has finished in the top 20 in four of his 10 events played since January, including a season-best fourth last month at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

“I think it really is just a matter of time with him,” Alpern said of Kokrak, who is still chasing his first career victory on the PGA Tour. “The more opportunities he gives himself, the better he’s going to be in those situations. He’s really knocking on the door and getting close.”

Kokrak consults with Alpern on nearly every shot, by design.

“You’ll see the full spectrum when it comes to players. Each guy is different. Jason is one of those guys who wants a caddie’s input. So most every shot I’m there discussing what his options are and what’s going on with it,” Alpern said. “I’m relied on a heavy amount by him – more so than some of the other people I’ve worked for in the past. There aren’t many shots where he’s not asking me at least something about it”

Alpern first started carrying the bag for Kokrak in September 2011. At their first event together, the Web.com Tour’s Boise Open, Kokrak got his first win.

“Aaron and I were paired together a couple times when he was working for another guy,” Kokrak said. “I knew he was a good caddie. I knew he did good work. And it was just one of those things where I decided that I was going from caddie to caddie week to week and not really having a good, strong caddie on the bag. “… I was kind of waiting for somebody like that to become available. They’re few and far between.”

Kokrak’s success on the Web.com Tour in 2011 earned him his PGA Tour card for the 2012 season. Alpern did not immediately come with him, though, as Kokrak opted to work with a veteran caddie who knew the courses he would be playing.

“I wanted a veteran caddie for my first couple of events on the PGA Tour,” Kokrak said. “It’s very hard for a caddie to learn courses straight off the Web.com Tour.”

With the Humana having a couple different golf courses and Torrey Pines having a couple different courses, Pebble Beach having three different golf courses, that’s more work than most people can handle. You really need to be there two or three different times to get a good, solid handle on those golf courses.”

Kokrak, however, got into a funk at the start of his PGA Tour career, and quickly turned back to Alpern.

“I trusted his work and the way he goes about things. So I definitely take his opinion seriously,” Kokrak said of Alpern. “I know he played high school golf. He can definitely play golf himself so he has a good feel for the game.”

He’s watched me play hundreds of rounds of golf, so he knows my game well enough that he can say one way or another whether I can get a shot to the hole.”

A day in the life

Alpern prides himself on his preparation.

“I’m one of those caddies who some people would say over-prepares, but I don’t like to be surprised during the tournament,” he said. “I like to know what I’m talking about instead of maybe guessing as to what’s going to happen. I’ll spend an awful lot of time on greens rolling balls, looking at specific hole locations, measuring yardages and doing all the things I need to do to be prepared.”

If Kokrak is not in the field one week, Alpern will travel to the site of their next tournament the weekend before it begins to start his prep work. If they are in the field, Alpern will try to leave Sunday night to get to the next week’s location.

The typical days before a PGA tournament starts are busy, with a pro-am Monday, practice round Tuesday and another pro-am Wednesday.

“I’ll go out and try to walk the course and at least get a refresher Monday morning before the pro-am, just to let things come back to me and make sure I know what I’m looking at and what’s in my yardage book,” Alpern said.

“Tuesday I’ll do a little more extensive work on the greens and looking at some of the hole locations that have maybe fooled us in the past.”

Aside from the nuts and bolts of the job, a caddie has to be part psychologist and buddy.

“The thing that I’ve really enjoyed is the fact that we’ve become really close and are good friends as well,” Alpern said. “It’s a very important part of the caddie-player relationship, being able to get along, because you spend a lot of time together. On a usual day we get to the golf course at 7 a.m. and are there until almost 5.”

“For me, it’s more about feeling comfortable, feeling relaxed out on the golf course,” Kokrak said. “I’d rather have somebody to talk to. If Aaron didn’t do anything for me – yardages or putting or anything like that – we’d still be friends because we get along and we have a lot to talk about. We have a similar sense of humor. It’s a lot of fun out on the golf course.”

Kokrak grew up in northeastern Ohio, so he can relate to Alpern about what it’s like to root for a struggling football team. And they share other sports affinities.

“We’re both big hockey fans. I grew up a Penguins fan and he’s a Sabres fan, so I definitely give him a little bit of grief about that,” Kokrak said.

Some of the perks of Alpern’s job are obvious. Just see the list of places he’s visited this year, going to iconic courses like Pebble Beach, Riviera Country Club and Torrey Pines.

“It’s one of the great things about my job that I get to go out and take in some of the historically great golf courses,” Alpern said. “I’m kind of a golf course nerd, especially when it comes to classic architecture and getting to see some places that have been around since the ’20s and ’30s, like Riviera and Colonial. It never feels like work when I’m out on the course because they’re just awesome places to be.”

But before you hand in your two-week notice, realize it’s not as simple as showing up at a tournament, ready to carry a bag. Just as it does for players, it takes years before a caddie advances to the PGA Tour.

Alpern attended Miami University in Ohio after high school and graduated with a degree in mass communications, with a focus on broadcast journalism.

While in school, he worked a few different jobs in the broadcasting field, including an internship at a radio station in Pittsburgh.

“I kind of fell in love with working in the news business at that point,” he said.

After graduation, Alpern started working at Wyoming Public Radio in Laramie.

“I was the news anchor/reporter and ended up being the assistant news director after a while,” he said.

He eventually got burned out in the communications field and decided to give caddying a try.

As Alpern started his career, his passion and time for golf waned. Eventually, though, he started to get back into the game, right around the same time he was becoming burned out in the communications field.

“I really got to a point where I said I’m not thrilled with what I’m doing now in life and I really never gave golf a chance to be my vocation,” he said.

Alpern first looked for a way to blend the two fields, but when that didn’t work, he turned his attention toward being a caddie – a job he thought he’d be good at based on his playing experience and passion for learning about golf courses.

A career change

Alpern moved back east in the spring of 2006 to work as a looper at a course in New Jersey.

“It was an interesting decision,” he said. “I realized it was something that I really did enjoy and I wanted to figure out a way to make a career out of it.”

He worked his first professional event at the Nationwide Tour (now Web.com Tour) Xerox Classic at Irondequoit Country Club in Rochester.

“I decided pretty quickly I could make this a career,” Alpern said, “but it probably took a little bit more time to try to convince other people.”

Life as a caddie on the minor professional tours isn’t always glamorous. The travel is often worse, because it’s by car and not plane. Alpern, though, isn’t married and doesn’t have any children. That makes the frequent travel easier to handle.

“There are plenty of guys in this business who are married and do have families. It’s a lot more difficult for them to make it work than it is for me,” he said.

Compensation for caddies is dependent on their agreement with players, but usually involves a weekly salary (between $1,000 and $2,000 is typical), plus a percentage of the player’s winnings (5 percent for finishes outside of the top 10, 7 percent inside the top 10 and 10 percent for winning are a baseline).

Alpern is home this week, as Kokrak is not in the field for the Masters.

“Neither of us have been to Augusta before,” Alpern said. “Jason and I both agree: He doesn’t want to go to the Masters until he’s earned it.”

That could be coming. Kokrak has broken into the top 100 in the Official World Golf Ranking, at No. 96.

If he can get into the top 50, or pick up his first PGA Tour win, he gets an automatic Masters invite.

Next up is a trip to Hilton Head Island, S.C., for next week’s RBC Heritage.

If he’s got one gripe about his job, it’s this: “I don’t get to play nearly as much as I want to. I spend all day every day at the golf course and barely get any time to work on my own game.”

Still, though, there could be worse places to call your office.

email: jskurski@buffnews.com

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