The fist pump is intense. And the arms are strong. But these days it’s the braces covering J.J. Jakovac’s clenched teeth that stand out. He looks so young in the photo outside the Chico State Department of Athletics office. The image captures his reaction to his birdie putt slithering into the 16th hole at the 2002 NCAA Championships—inevitably securing his first of two NCAA titles.
Flash forward nearly two decades. The braces are off, and Jakovac’s been cutting his teeth as a caddie in the professional ranks for 14 years, including 12 on the PGA Tour. That’s a lot of time playing rounds with fellow caddies during off-days and spinning yarns at the 19th hole.
Jakovac has been caddying for Collin Morikawa—ranked among the top 10 golfers in the world—since the latter turned professional in June 2019. From November 12–15, he’ll be by the star golfer’s side at the 2020 Masters Tournament.
Showcasing his expertly honed storytelling skills, Jakovac jokes he is finally taking the advice of legendary looper Mike “Fluff” Cowan, Tiger Woods’ caddie from 1996–99 and currently Jim Furyk’s.
That is the preface to one of Jakovac’s best stories, which happened at the 2009 Sony Open on his first day on the PGA Tour.
“I walked up and started talking to him, and he couldn’t have been nicer,” Jakovac remembers. “I talked to him for a few minutes and then I said, ‘All right, give me some advice, Fluff. How do I become a good caddie?’ He’s smoking his Marlboro Red. He looks up and goes, ‘You wanna be a good caddie?’ in his Maine accent. ‘Get the best player.’”
If Morikawa’s not the best (at least not yet), the young phenom is close enough. With Jakovac at his side since his first professional PGA event, Morikawa made his first 22 cuts, a feat surpassed only by Woods. He won on his sixth time out and has since amassed three victories and more than $7 million in earnings in just 31 pro starts. In August, playing in just the second major of his career, Morikawa became the fourth player since WWII to win the PGA Championship before turning 24, joining Jack Nicklaus, Woods, and Rory McIlroy. He’s currently ranked No. 6 in the world.
“He’s pretty special,” Jakovac marvels.
When he was just a bit younger than the 23-year-old Morikawa, Jakovac himself was wrapping up a special run of golf.
During the first few years of this millennium, there was no better golfer at the NCAA Division II level—and perhaps at any collegiate level—than Jakovac. The individual champion at the 2002 and 2004 Division II Championships and three-time All-American, Jakovac was “so well-known across the country it was remarkable. People would seek out our team just to see him,” said Keith Thomas, his Chico State coach during those last three seasons.
A two-time winner of the Arnold Palmer Award, given to the Division II Player of the Year, Jakovac capped his remarkable collegiate run as the recipient of the 2004 Jack Nicklaus Award, presented annually to the most outstanding collegiate golfer in the nation, regardless of division.
Winning did not come as easily once Jakovac turned professional, however, and after a few years he decided to try his hand as a caddie. Now, more than 15 years later, he’s once again at the top of the game.
Chico State alums tuning into the final round of the 2020 PGA Championship in August may not have known a fellow Wildcat was next to Morikawa during that marvelous (sometimes near-miraculous) final round. First Morikawa chipped in from the bunker on 14 to snap a seven-way tie for the lead. He took control of the tournament with a majestic eagle-2 at 16 by driving the green and burying a clutch putt on the way to his first major championship.
The story of how Jakovac and Morikawa paired up is nearly as wild as that finish.
In early 2019, Jakovac was spending time at home with his wife, Amanda, and son, Bo (In late October 2020, they welcomed a new addition to the family when son Benji was born). Considering his next move, he wanted someone who would be a fit for the long term and reached out to Morikawa’s agent.
Five days later, he was caddying for him at the US Open Qualifier. Morikawa qualified, and they headed to Toronto, where the rising star had been granted a spot in his first PGA Tour event as a professional, the Canadian Open. He finished 13th.
“It was kind of off to the races after that,” Jakovac said.
What, exactly, is the role he plays?
“We’re just trying to help one or two shots a tournament and sometimes that could be the difference in winning and losing or finishing in the top five or top 10,” he said. “It’s basically course management and knowing when it’s time to hit the safe shot and when it’s time to go for it.”
He believes that his time spent at Chico State playing for NCAA titles helps him to this day.
“I’ve always said that if I was playing, I would want someone who had been in a big spot before and had to hit a big shot and felt the nerves and the pressure,” Jakovac said.
Depending on the golf course and layout, he will spend three to four hours alone on the course and then pair up with Morikawa for an 18-hole practice round and two nine-hole practices rounds in preparation for a tournament.
But his course knowledge is only as good as his player is confident.
“You want to put what you think is the best plan in their mind. But if they can’t see it and they don’t believe it, it’s not going to work,” Jakovac said. “What you’re really doing as a caddie is breeding confidence. That’s how you get the best out of the player.”
It is clear he and Morikawa quickly developed that trust. Morikawa won their sixth PGA Tournament start together and finished 35th in the FedEx Cup standings as a rookie. This year, he won again at the Workday Charity Open, moving into the FedEx standings top 10 to stay.
A month later, he stood atop the golfing world as the winner of the PGA Championship. Jakovac still loves telling the story of the legendary drive Morikawa hit on 16.
“We walked to the tee and he’s not saying anything,” remembers Jakovac. “I give him the numbers, and I said to him, ‘What are your thoughts?’”
The rest of the conversation went like this:
Morikawa: “It’s into the wind off the left, isn’t it?”
Morikawa: “It’s a perfect driver.”
“And he just grabbed the driver and hit it. And it was an incredible golf shot,” Jakovac said. “I’m running out and we’re both saying, ‘One straight bounce.’ One straight bounce is all this ball needs. And it bounced straight and then you can hear me on the audio saying, ‘Get in the hole!’”
As it turned out, it came up a bit short and they had to wait for the eagle putt—which went right in. Similarly, Jakovac needed drive to keep pushing for an opportunity to caddie for someone like Morikawa. It’s safe to say both waits were worth it.