A year ago, Derell Aton had made up his mind that he would pay whatever it took to buy a ticket to watch the 2017 Masters. A 2009 San Benito High graduate, Aton will be at this year’s Masters—as a caddie. Aton’s dream became a reality when his golfer, Mackenzie Hughes, won the RSM Classic on Nov. 21.
With the victory, Hughes earned a berth into the Masters, and more important, a 2 ½ year PGA Tour exemption. That means as long as the 26-year-old Aton is on Hughes’ bag, he’ll be caddying at PGA Tour events. Not bad for someone who started caddying on the Web.com Tour—golf’s minor leagues—in the summer of 2015.
“It’s very unreal,” Aton said. “When I got into this, I knew it was going to be a long road. I never thought I’d get on the PGA Tour this quickly.”
Make no mistake: Even though Aton’s ascension from the Web.com Tour to golf’s top stage was a relatively quick one, he’s paid his dues. Aton worked for two years at the Institute Golf Club in Morgan Hill. From there Aton made contacts with caddies and golfers, establishing a network of connections that helped him at every step in his journey.
Aton started regularly caddying at Web.com events in 2015. His start was a rather inauspicious one, as he waited in a parking lot to ask golfers if he could caddie for them at a tournament in Dallas.
“Literally I would go up to them and ask, ‘Hey, do you need a caddie?’” Aton said. “I probably got 10 no’s before I got a yes. And that’s the crazy part—it’s not like I’m the most outgoing guy. It’s kind of embarrassing asking and waiting for guys in a parking lot for work. But that is part of the deal—you have to be vulnerable and rebound from rejection.”
Aton went to Dallas after one of his friends—also a caddie—had booked a single hotel room for three people. Aton would make it four guys sharing one room, which is quite commonplace for aspiring caddies on the Web.com Tour.
“They said I could stay with them and to bring a blow-up mattress,” Aton said. “So with no job I took a leap of faith.”
No matter what happened, Aton was content knowing if he didn’t end up being a caddie for a PGA Tour golfer, he had at least pursued his passion. But never in Aton’s wildest dreams did he envision being on the PGA Tour in 2017. Aton first met Hughes through mutual friends on the Web.com Tour last year.
Months later, Aton was looking for work when Hughes—who had since parted ways with his caddie—made a call.
“(At that point) Mackenzie was already headed to the PGA Tour (for the 2017-2018 season after winning the third to last event on the Web.com Tour’s regular-season schedule),” Aton said. “He reached out to me and asked what I was doing. I was like, ‘nothing.’ He said, ‘Let’s do it,’ and we’ve been riding the wave ever since.”
Their breakthrough moment came at the RSM Classic, where Hughes bested four others in a sudden-death playoff after they all finished 72 holes of play at 17-under 265 at Sea Island Resort in St. Simons Island. The win came in Hughes’ fifth start of his rookie season, and Aton was downright euphoric afterward—and with good reason.
“You never think you’re going to be a part of a Tour victory this quickly,” he said.
A player-caddie relationship is important, as the player has to have the utmost trust in being able to hit a shot with no qualms. That’s why Hughes asked Aton to be his caddie, Aton said. Even though the majority of the caddies on the PGA Tour have more experience than Aton—the average age of a PGA Tour caddie is around 40 years old—he has gained the trust of Hughes, who played golf at Kent State University in Ohio and is currently ranked 12th in the FedEx Cup standings—just two spots behind Jordan Spieth.
“At the end of the day, your player has to trust you because you’re playing for a million dollars out there,” Aton said. “In the heat of the moment, the player wants a guy who can handle the pressure, knows what to do and not freak out. Even though I’m not the one playing, I’m very competitive. And that’s why I think we work so well together—because we both want to win.”
In one tournament, Hughes and Aton experienced the incredible highs and lows of the sport. Hughes was clutch when he drained a 17-foot par put from the fringe on the third hole of the sudden-death playoff. Hughes actually had a chance to win the tournament in regulation, but uncharacteristically missed an 8-footer.
“Walking up to the green, we thought we had legitimately won the golf tournament,” Aton said. “He missed the putt and everyone was shocked. It was too dark. He had to sleep on it, but he came back strong. Obviously the emotions were crazy.”
Since golfers are out on the course for up to six hours, the last thing they want to do during their round is talk about golf. It’s only in the minute or so leading up to a shot when the golfer and caddie exchange information. The caddie’s job the rest of the time is to keep the conversation light— with bonus points for anything that elicits laughter.
“If the golfer has to talk about golf all the time it’ll drive them crazy,” Aton said. “So my job the day before or the day of a round is to look up news, sports and other topics to talk about and keep his minds off things. When he hits a bad shot, my job is to bring up something else. Or bring in some other guys in the group into the conversation. The last thing a golfer wants to do is think about golf for five to six hours—he’ll be drained.”
Besides the bump in pay, Aton’s life hasn’t changed much. He’s still grinding away, spending countless hours previewing a course or spending time on the practice range with Hughes so when the time inevitably comes when Hughes has a bit of uncertainty over a shot, Aton’s knowledge would be paramount.
Of course, in a profession where there is no job security—besides some select caddies of top 25 players, they can be cut at any time—it’s nice that Aton was able to wipe away all of his debt he had accumulated while working on the Web.com Tour.
“Life has changed from a financial standpoint,” he said. “It’s a lot easier when you’re not worrying about a bill or the little things you used to worry about like when I was on the Web.com Tour. That is not a tour to make money on. If you have zero dollars at the end of the year, but you’re going to the PGA Tour, that’s a win.”
Like most caddies, Aton grew up playing golf, with hopes of making it professionally. Aton was the No. 1 golfer at San Benito High during his sophomore year before manning the top four varsity spots during his junior and senior seasons. Aton played one year at New Mexico Junior College before coming back home to play two years at San Jose City College.
Aton, who was born in the Philippines and lived there until he was 5, graduated with a degree in kinesiology from Cal State Monterey Bay. But golf was always in the back of his mind, and the long road to the PGA Tour started in 2013, when he made up his mind to become a pro caddie. His journey has been a circuitous one, filled with plenty of obstacles.
In Dallas, Aton ended up hooking up with Wes Homan, who he still maintains in contact with today. He made $150 that week, but at least he was on the bag and had an assignment. For two seasons, Aton caddied for six different golfers on the Web.com Tour. He also worked a couple of LGPA tournaments.
Aton knows things could change on a moment’s notice, so he’s simply enjoying the ride. Aton is on Hughes’ bag today at the Shell Houston Open, where Hughes started the day tied for 62nd place after shooting an opening 1-under par 70. Next week, of course, is the Masters. Aton’s persistence and ability to make connections got him to this point. He methodically worked his way at every level, undeterred by any type of adversity.
Even though Aton didn’t get to the PGA Tour by accident, sometimes he still can’t believe all that’s transpired in the last several months.
“It’s kind of unreal because it was unexpected,” he said. “I dropped everything to chase a dream.”
So far, reality has been better than a dream.