On an early morning in late January, Wayne Birch was out on the South Course at Torrey Pines Golf Course in La Jolla, California, performing his regular pre-tournament duties for his boss, PGA Tour player Troy Merritt. With the sun breaking through a dense fog and the waves crashing below in the Pacific Ocean, the 37-year-old caddie took notes in his yardage book and listened to trap music as he walked the scenic 7,800-yard, Rees Jones-redesigned course. J. Cole’s and Migos’ forceful lyrics clash with the serenity of this beautiful setting, but for Birch these are the beats, rhythms and cadences that drive his life and daily routine.
“A lot of the trap music talks about grinding and hustling to get what you want in life,” said Birch, who grew up in College Park, Georgia, the birthplace of the music genre. “That’s what we’re doing on this golf course. I’m out here trying to put us in a position to win. Instead of trapping drugs or doing something that might get me locked up, I’m trapping golf.”
Merritt and Birch came to Torrey Pines to prepare for the 121st U.S. Open, which begins on Thursday on a South Course that will be much different from the one they encountered earlier this year for the Farmers Insurance Open, where they finished in 72nd place. With a typical U.S. Open setup, this municipal course, where Tiger Woods won the championship in 2008 in an epic 19th-hole playoff over Rocco Mediate, is expected to play firm and fast with brutal rough.
On June 7, Merritt earned his way into the U.S. Open field by claiming one of the seven spots at the 36-hole sectional qualifier held at the Springfield (Ohio) Country Club. Instead of the 25-pound staff bag that pros often use to advertise their sponsors, Birch carried Merritt’s clubs in his own lightweight canvas bag, hoping that it would ease the load on this grueling day. However, water from a steady rain soaked into the bag, forcing Birch to carry three towels to keep Merritt’s grips dry.
To comfortably earn his spot in the 156-person field at Torrey Pines, Merritt needed to birdie his last two holes of the qualifier. As Merritt was settling over a fast and breaking final birdie putt on his 36th hole of the day, Birch looked up in the sky and began to pray. He had prayed a day earlier with his wife, Alison Hall Birch, for Merritt to play well in the final round of the Memorial Tournament.
“I want you to understand that God might not say today,” Hall Birch, a professor of business at the University of Texas-Arlington, said to her husband of nearly four years. “He might say tomorrow or not right now.”
When Merritt went out that Sunday in the final round at the Memorial and played poorly with a 6-over 78 to finish in a tie for 50th, Birch understood it as a sign that it wasn’t the right time. So just before Merritt hit his putt the next day in the U.S. Open qualifier, Birch said, “Lord, let it be your will.” Merritt’s birdie on the final hole would be enough to give him the one-shot cushion he needed to avoid a playoff for one of the final spots.
What Birch does for Merritt isn’t unusual for a PGA Tour caddie, whose fortunes are tied to how well their golfer performs at each tournament. With a weekly salary paid by their player of around $2,000, a typical tour caddie earns 10% for a win, 7% for a top 10 and 5% for everything else.
“We’re in each other’s business,” Merritt said of his relationship with Birch. “You’re trying to take care of your family and the other guy’s family as well. When we both prepare well, we get good results.”
Birch briefly worked for another tour player, Andrew Loupe, before joining Merritt in March 2018. In their first 10 tournaments together, they missed just one cut and had one top 10 and a win at the Barbasol Championship in Nicholasville, Kentucky. In 2019 and 2020, they had second-place finishes at the Barracuda Championship.
Birch once aspired to be a PGA Tour player. After winning four times at Southern University and bouncing around jobs for a few years until he could pass the teacher certification exam, he taught school in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and moonlighted as a mini-tour player. Until his school principal caught on to his act, he would call in sick on Thursdays and Fridays so that he could play tournaments.
“I couldn’t lie to the man,” Birch said. “I told him that I still had this dream to play on the PGA Tour.”
He struggled on the mini-tours and after hooking up with Loupe in 2015, he gave up his playing days for good. “Once you start making the money on the PGA Tour, it’s hard to go back struggling on the mini-tours,” Birch said.
After a few years with Loupe, Birch joined Merritt. “Nobody loves golf more than Wayne,” Merritt said. “He’ll go caddie five or six hours and then go beat balls or play 18 holes. He lives and breathes the game. He is a very positive person. Sometimes I have to let him know that he doesn’t need to be so much of a cheerleader or hype man at times, but that’s just his style. He is always thinking something is good is going to happen.”
Perhaps only golf could have brought these two men together. Birch grew up around Atlanta in College Park, a mecca for African Americans, with his parents, Birch Sr. and Geraldine, and younger brother Chantz. Birch went to all-Black schools and played on public golf courses with large numbers of Black players before going to Southern University, a historically Black college and university in Baton Rouge, on a golf scholarship. On the other end of the spectrum, Merritt is white and was raised in rural Idaho and went to Boise State.
Birch’s willingness to bring his whole self to the golf course has been enlightening for Merritt.
“Where I grew up in a middle-of-nowhere farm community in southern Idaho, we didn’t have any kind of rap or hip-hop,” said Merritt, who is 35. “We listened to country music and some Latin music because of our Mexican population. Meeting someone from College Park, Georgia, who mixes golf, art and hip-hop the way Wayne does was new to me. What he’s done to try to change the narrative on what trap means is pretty cool.”
Birch’s connection to his Atlanta roots with trap music has carried over into Trap Golf, an apparel company that he owns with Aaron Munn and Roger Steele. The apparel branding, which couples the name of the company with art and hip-hop themes such as a T-shirt embossed with a sketch of a boombox resting on a golf tee, blends streetwear with golf. “Golf Is Dope” is one of their popular slogans. Another says “Golf, Art & Hip Hop.” The messages are simple and declarative, but deeply complex, controversial and reflective of the intersecting themes that make Birch one of the most interesting figures in the world of golf. For Birch, who savors his time as physical education teacher, recasting the meaning of trap is his favorite lesson.
“People have criticized us for glorifying the trap lifestyle of drugs and violence,” Birch said. “But we’re trying to change the negative image of trap in our communities. A lot of the kids want to be trappers because they hear it in the music. We want to show them that they can use that hustle they see in the street for positive purposes.”
One of Trap Golf’s short videos features a 1984 Box Chevy on 26-inch rims, a Chevy C-10 on 26-inch rims and a 1986 Cutlass on 24-inch rims. “When the kids see that we hope, they say, ‘Those Trap Golf boys drive the same cars as the dope boys, but they aren’t going to jail. They are on the golf course having fun and don’t have to worry about getting shot or the police stopping them.’ ”
Trap isn’t the only legacy important to Birch. He is a caretaker of the legacy of the Black caddie, who was once a ubiquitous presence in major championships such as the Masters and the U.S. Open and regular PGA Tour events. Birch and Reynolds Robinson, who works for Joseph Bramlett, are currently the only two full-time Black caddies on tour. Once tour caddies were mostly working-class men who started looping for quarters when they were kids. Now almost all of them at the top levels of the game are mostly white and former players, college graduates or close friends of the men they work for. In the old days before the money was big, a player might pick up a local caddie in the parking lot at a tournament.
For the last decade or so, Zack Rasego, a South African, has been one of the most visible Black caddies in the game. In 2010, Rasego was on the bag for his fellow countryman Louis Oosthuizen when he won the Open Championship at St. Andrews by seven shots over Lee Westwood. Three years later, Rasego helped Branden Grace to four wins on the European Tour, earning the Caddie of the Year Award in Europe. Yet now he doesn’t have a full-time job on the PGA Tour.
Rasego has been an important mentor to Birch. Richard “Jelly” Hansberry, a former tour caddie who works for CBS Sports, has also schooled Birch on the nuances of the job and life on tour. When Birch first came out on tour with Loupe in 2015, Tommy Bennett was still caddying on tour. At his first tournament, Birch walked the course with Bennett, who grew up caddying at Augusta National and caddied for Woods in 1995 at his first Masters Tournament. “I take a little bit from all those guys,” Birch said. “They taught me a lot about how to do my job and also about just how to carry myself out here as a Black caddie.”
Birch’s dream is to caddie at the Masters and win the tournament. “I want to win the Masters for all those Black caddies who didn’t have a chance to win after 1982 when players were allowed to bring their tour caddies,” Birch said. “I want to let them know how much I appreciated what they brought to the game.”
This week at Torrey Pines, Birch will have a chance to win a major championship with Merritt. Long ago, he earned the nickname “Wayne-O-Draino” for his putting prowess and excellent ability to read greens. Merritt will call him in when he needs another set of eyes. But Birch will not lean fully on his own understanding. He’ll pray every day before each round. Lord let us play good. If we make a mistake, let us bounce back from it. No matter what fate holds for his golfer at Torrey Pines, Birch is Trap Golf, a Black man who has become an elite and well-respected caddie by combining the vigor, creativity and tenacity of his favorite rappers with an unwavering love for golf.
On late Monday afternoon after walking the South Course with Merritt for nine holes, Birch was back out on the course looking for yardages on sprinkler heads in the deep rough off 4th fairway with the Pacific Ocean to his left. If Merritt hit his driver in this rough during the tournament, Birch reckoned, he would have the data that might save his boss a shot that could be the difference between him making the cut or winning the tournament. “Vaccine” off the new Migos album Culture III is pumping out of his AirPods. All around him are people working. The grounds crew is cutting the rough. Other caddies are on the course filling up their yardage books. The place is ablaze with anticipation of the start of the year’s second major championship. Birch is in heaven. He says, “Everybody is trapping!”