Walking With Tigers

The true story of two best friends — Washington’s Joel Dahmen and Idaho’s Geno Bonnalie — and their unlikely, unconventional and unforgettable journey to the PGA TOUR

Walking With Tigers is an amazing but true underdog story. I had the pleasure of documenting this unlikely journey, which covers the rookie season of two incredible young men — Clarkston native and former University of Washington golfer Joel Dahmen, and his caddie, Lewiston, Idaho’s Geno Bonnalie — trying to carve out a career on the PGA TOUR.

There are moments of high drama — for instance, Joel goes head-to-head with world No. 1 Dustin Johnson on a magical Sunday afternoon in Dallas, an experience that still brings goose bumps when the memory is evoked. But, mostly, the tale is about coping with failure and disappointment on the biggest stage in golf.

When the story began, I, as an author, had no idea how many outside challenges were working against a PGA TOUR rookie, especially one like Joel who isn’t surrounded by swing coaches, sports psychologists, trainers or corporate sponsors. There are no limos or private jets in Joel’s world. There is only he and Geno. Against the world.

If you choose to read this book, you will be rooting for these young heroes. They are good guys and you will get to know them very well. You will share their dreams and their fears. You will laugh with them. Sometimes, you will feel their pain.

This is Walking With Tigers.

Sunday, Aug. 16, 2016 | Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club | 6:10 p.m.

The mission was clear for Jack Maguire as he walked to the 18th tee on the iconic Pumpkin Ridge golf course. If he made birdie, he would make enough money at the WinCo Foods Portland Open to earn his PGA TOUR card and become eligible to enter the tour’s tournaments in 2017.

However, if the former Florida State University star made par or worse, he would fall short, and could only get into tour events through other, more difficult qualifying methods.

The Golf Channel’s live coverage made it possible for viewers to share the drama. Maguire had put himself into this precarious position by missing makeable birdie putts on the three previous holes. Now, he had absolutely no margin for error.

But, there was a good chance he would succeed. Pumpkin’s 18th, the tournament’s 72nd and final hole, is a reachable par five, and while he did not reach the putting surface in two, he did the next-best thing by leaving the ball in perfect position for a simple, straightforward pitch shot. Getting the ball in the hole in two more shots seemed likely for a player with Maguire’s talent.

The pitch shot seemed perfectly struck, but ran a bit more than planned and ended up some 12 feet from the cup. Suddenly, Maguire’s odds of making birdie swung to about 50/50. He began to study his putt. Even through the lens of the television camera, you could feel the tension.

Dahmen won the PGA TOUR Canada’s Order of Merit in 2014 to secure his Web.com Tour card.

Joel Dahmen and two friends were sitting 15 miles away, in a rental house in Beaverton, the tension every bit as intense as it was on the green at Pumpkin Ridge. At this exact second, Dahmen sat 25th on the money list of the Web.com Tour. If Maguire missed the putt, he would remain in that position and it would be he, not Maguire, who would be getting the coveted PGA TOUR card.

For most of the year, earning the card seemed a cinch for Dahmen. He got off to a fast and consistent start and was earning a check almost every week. Getting into to the top-25 seemed to be a no-brainer, and the attitude of Dahmen and those around him was one of quiet confidence. He was headed to the big-time, the Mecca of professional golf. There was no stopping him.

Then, suddenly, things turned ugly. He missed five cuts in a row and took another week off, citing fatigue. He had fallen to 22nd on the money list, and it now looked like he had to make the cut in the tour’s final event to secure the right to play on the higher-paying and more prestigious tour in 2017.

But, it didn’t happen. Dahmen shot an opening-round 73 on Thursday, followed by a demoralizing 74 on Friday. He was suffering on the back-nine Friday as the reality of the situation sunk in. As far as he knew, his dream of playing on the big tour was gone.

“I had a really big cry with my girlfriend, Lona Skutt, right out in the middle of the driving range,” he said. “I was crying the entire back nine, as I knew I was missing the cut and felt I had let everyone down.”

Caddie Geno Bonnalie was suffering with Dahmen and sharing his pain.

“It was a helpless feeling,” he said. “I was watching my best friend suffering with every step and there was nothing I could do to help. Finally, I just hugged him and said, ‘I love you, man,’ and kind of broke down.”

Geno’s wife, Holly, had flown to Portland the day before the opening round. She immediately felt that things were different.

“Usually, Joel is calm and relaxed before a tournament, but the minute I saw him I knew things were different,” she observed. “He wasn’t himself and it was obvious that he was very nervous.”

Joel agreed.

“The slump created a pressure I had never experienced. It was different than anything I had ever felt on the golf course and I didn’t handle it,” he said. “I had rented this big house many weeks previously and had invited friends and family to join me for what was to be a major weekend celebration. Now, there would be no victory lap. Friday night was a real downer.”

Skutt went to Geno on Friday evening because she knew he was adept in analyzing odds and assessing probabilities.

“Straight up, what are his chances now?” she asked.

“Sadly, only about 2 percent,” Bonnalie predicted. “Too many things have to fall just right.”

But, things brightened a bit on Saturday morning. A supportive text from Joel’s father, Ed, pointed out that he still had a chance if the right sequence of events happened during the weekend. Then, Joel’s chances got even more realistic when he learned that the players ranked 23rd to 28th on the money list had also all missed the cut.

By Sunday evening, it all came down to the 18th hole, and a 12-foot putt by Jack Maguire.

Geno Bonnalie (left) and Joel Dahmen

Geno and Holly made the 350-mile trip from Portland to their home in Lewiston, Idaho, on Sunday morning. They arrived when Maguire was on the 14th hole and, at that exact second, they knew the importance of Maguire’s situation and its potential effect on their future. With their nerves on full-scale alert, they went to Geno’s parents’ house to watch the drama on his father, Jim’s, 70-inch big screen.

“But, Geno couldn’t watch. He turned his back, sat on Jim’s Bowflex machine and listened to the audio,” Holly said.

“Geno’s parents and I watched nervously. We knew what was at stake for Geno and Joel, and we had major butterflies. But, Geno? He was in a frenzy,” she laughed.

Bonnalie has been Dahmen’s caddie since 2014, and their relationship is special. They grew up playing golf together and have been friends since boyhood. They had grown even closer on the tournament trail, with its ups and downs. For the past two years, they had survived on a meager budget, rushed from town to town and, in the words of the old Wide World of Sports, had seen “the thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat.”

They had worked hard on and off the course, and went through countless ordeals, periods of loneliness, thoughts of self-doubt and all the other emotions and experiences that had put them on the road to getting a coveted PGA TOUR card.

Now, their fate rested in the hands of someone else.

Sunday, Aug. 16, 2016 | Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club | 6:30 p.m.

Maguire strikes his putt.

Back in Lewiston, Jim Bonnalie says, “He missed it left!” Geno Bonnalie turns around and, tapped by his mother, screams, screams and screams some more.

At the rental house in Beaverton, Dahmen watches the putt roll past the cup and bows his head in relief.

Geno phones Joel and there is more screaming, yelling and distant high fives.

“We’ve made it! We’re on the PGA Tour!” Geno yells.

And, indeed they were. Their joint dream had come true. They had earned the right to go head-to-head with the best golfers on the planet.

They were about to go walking with tigers.

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