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Think Carnoustie’s hard? Try winning a title on it playing golf with one arm

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When things get challenging during the 147th Open this week on the Championship Course at Carnoustie Golf Links in Scotland, the players would do well to think of Mike Benning–specifically the fortitude he channeled into success at the venerable venue.

Benning grew up with golf at Congressional while his father, Bob, was head professional at the iconic country club in Bethesda, Md. Due to a rare form of cancer, Benning, who was already a top junior in the Washington, D.C. area, lost his left arm below the elbow to amputation at age 14.

Rather than let that stop him from playing, he learned to adapt. So much so that he won back-to-back Society of One-Armed Golfers world championships in 1993-94. The first win came at Seaford Golf Course in Sussex, England, in 1993. Benning defended his title at Carnoustie in 1994, the 56th and 57th renditions of the annual event, which began in the 1930s.

Benning was low medalist in stroke play at Seaford, shooting 80-81-161. With the top 16 finishers advancing to match play, Benning won four matches in two days to become champion. He went to Carnoustie the next year full of confidence but couldn’t find the form initially that carried him at Seaford, qualifying 10th in medal play.

“My game wasn’t on, and the course was brawny and fast,” Benning said this week from his home in Scituate, Mass. “The course was so dry it was grey, and it was windy. That makes Carnoustie very difficult, even more challenging than normal. I had a difficult draw in match play, but I found my game when it mattered most, and only one of my matches went to the 18th hole.”

In the championship match, Benning defeated Scotsman Brian Crombie of Dundee, a 25-minute drive from Carnoustie.

“He had about 50 friends and family members rooting him on, the crowd was definitely behind him,” Benning recalled. “But I had a couple Americans following me. One was Mike Gibson, who now works for Titleist. He came out wearing a pair of red plus fours and an American flag shirt. He and Mark Frace really propped me up. I remember having a big decision on the 10th hole – whether to try and get a 3-wood over the burn – so I turned and looked at those guys behind me, and they encouraged me to go for it. I cleared the burn and ended up 12 feet from the hole.”

Benning was an independent sales rep in the golf business before joining Hanger, Inc., the leading U.S. provider of prosthetics and orthotics, where he is currently Marketing Manager. He has played other Open Championship courses but calls Carnoustie’s Championship layout “probably the greatest risk-reward course” in the rota. “Seeing it on television doesn’t do justice to the demanding test of golf it presents players,” he said.

To underscore his assertion, Benning cited the 6th hole – “Hogan’s Alley” – named after 1953 Open Champion Ben Hogan. Here is the description for it from the Carnoustie Golf Links website. “Normally played into prevailing wind, this can be a severe par 5. Bunkers and out of bounds await the miss-cued drive and although the best line is up Hogan’s Alley between the bunkers and the out of bounds fence, it requires a brave player to drive to that narrow piece of fairway. The second shot is no less perilous with a ditch angling across the fairway and the out of bounds continuing to be a threat. The approach is reasonably straightforward to an undulating green, particular care must be taken if the pin is located on the back-right portion of the green. A player should always be content with a five on this hole as it can be the ruin of many a scorecard.”

Benning said the pair of fairway bunkers side by side on the 14th hole – known as “The Spectacles – have to be experienced to be understood how hard they play for those unfortunate enough to find them.

“I hit into one of them during a match and it was the only time I had to hit backwards out of a bunker during the championship,” Benning remembered. “The face of the bunker was unthinkably high.”

The closing holes at Carnoustie’s Championship Course – Nos. 16-18 – may be the most difficult finish in all major golf, particularly No. 18, named “Home”.

“Just ask Jean Van de Velde,” said Benning, referring to the Frenchman who led by three strokes going to final hole of the 1999 Open Championship. Van de Velde took triple bogey to fall back into a tie and playoff, which he lost to Paul Lawrie. No golf follower who watched the debacle can forget the image of Van de Velde standing in Barry Burn with his trouser bottoms rolled up, hands on hips, stunned disbelief etched on his face. Conversely, Lawrie’s final round 67 astounded Benning, who pointed out that the final round average score was significantly higher. The 18th also cost Johnny Miller the 1975 Open title, after Miller took two shots to get out of a fairway bunker on the hole.

Suffice it to say, Carnoustie will provide many of the world’s greatest players the chance for immortal golf glory this week, or demoralizing defeat. Maybe both. Whomever emerges as champion, Mike Benning will relate to the elation felt after prevailing on one of the game’s greatest courses.

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A University of Maryland graduate, Dan is a lifelong resident of the Mid-Atlantic, now residing in Northern Virginia. Fan of the Terps and all D.C. professional sports teams, Dan fell in love with golf through Lee Trevino's style and skill during his peak years. Dan was once Editor of Golf Inc. Magazine.

9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Greg Stark

    Jul 24, 2018 at 5:01 pm

    Awesome stuff Mike. I am sure growing at Congressional was pretty special. People speak of your family with fond memories

    Greg Stark
    DOG at Congressional

  2. Angela Silvestre

    Jul 22, 2018 at 12:30 pm

    I have had the good fortune to meet Mike and to have him give me a few golfing tips while we hit some golf balls. I am also a one armed person (and golfer). Just spending a few hours with Mike it was clear that he was not only a great golfer but also a wonderful person.
    I knew he had won 2 world championships, but I didn’t know 1 of them was at Carnoustie. WOW!
    Great article.

  3. Jack Wullkotte

    Jul 20, 2018 at 8:54 am

    Dear Dan, Pardon me for not mentioning that it was a really inspiring and well written article. When I begin to tell a story, I sometimes have a brain lock, and forget the reason for telling my story. You have had quite a career. Much success in the future. Jack Wullkotte, (former clubmaker and now, an 89 year old, retired, lazy, senior citizen.)

  4. Kim Williams

    Jul 18, 2018 at 5:25 pm

    Thank you for such an inspiring read!
    The Open golf courses test every aspect of the game, as well as demanding great precision and imagination. Well done Bob and thank you Dan for highlighting a tremendous achievement.
    Kim Williams, Bethesda,Md

    • Dan

      Jul 18, 2018 at 7:11 pm

      Thank you, Kim. Mike is forever a Carnoustie champion and even better person.

  5. Mike Benning

    Jul 18, 2018 at 3:46 pm

    Dan, Great work and thank you for reviving my memories of Carnoustie. It was a magical week and it was special to recall it with you during our call. Love the pic too! Thanks for remembering. All the best, Mike

    • Dan

      Jul 18, 2018 at 7:13 pm

      Thanks Mike. Enjoy Open Championship week and all the great memories it’ll bring!

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Podcasts

The 19th Hole (EP 69): Dave Edel | Spotlight on Puerto Rico Golf

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Legendary clubmaker Dave Edel joins host Michael Williams to talk single length sets and more. Also features Williams’ recent trip to Puerto Rico, which is appropriate, given the PGA Tour’s return to the island one year after Hurricane Maria. A look at golf in Jamaica as well.

Check out the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes or here to listen on Spotify.

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Courses

The Bandon Experience

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Do you ever have one of those memories that jumps up and slaps you in the face? It happened to me the other day. It wasn’t the first time, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. One of those memories that forces you to stop whatever it is that you are doing and reminisce. It’s been just over a year since I made the trip to Bandon, Oregon, and I still think about it often.

I find myself trying to explain the experience to friends and golf buddies back home but it’s nearly impossible to do it justice. My attempts inevitably end with “you just need to take a trip up there and see for yourself. Trust me.”

I have hit more putts from off the green in the last year than I did in 25 years of golf before that. That’s Bandon. I don’t shy away from high winds and cold temperate golf anymore. That’s Bandon. I look forward to walking 18 now and am certainly not too proud to use a pushcart. That’s Bandon. But most of all, I think I better appreciate the beauty of the game. I marvel at how gorgeous each golf course can be in its own way. And I yearn for my next chance to play golf as it was meant to be. That’s Bandon.

Before I headed to the great northwest, I read a book titled “Dream Golf: The Making of Bandon Dunes.” It tells the story of how Mike Keiser created his golf wonderland in Oregon and why he chose the architects he ended up working with. It was a tremendous read and I loved every word. And while it certainly made me more eager to arrive, it did’t prepare me for the few days of golf I had ahead of me.

Three of my best friends and I flew in from all over the country to play these courses. Nashville, Houston, Fort Worth, and San Francisco converged on a little town in Oregon. They say Bandon Dunes is like playing golf in Scotland; only it’s harder to get to. There are several different ways to arrive, but we flew to San Francisco and then took the short flight to North Bend, Oregon. There is a shuttle bus that picks you up from the airport and then takes you the remaining 30-or-so minutes to the main clubhouse.

We planned our trip in February, quite frankly, to save some money. The course fees are much cheaper in the winter months and while there is a higher chance for bad weather, we all knew that bad weather was possible year round in the Pacific Northwest anyway. We were prepared to play in less-than-ideal conditions, so we decided to pay less for it. Also, if you play two rounds a day like we did, the second 18 is priced half off. There are no carts on the property so you’ll be walking, but come on! Half off golf to play some of the best courses in the country! You need to be playing 36 a day. We booked our first 18 holes of the day in advance and then we would make an afternoon tee time the morning of. I recommend doing this if you aren’t sure which of the courses you want to play twice. It is definitely doable to hold off on waiting to make your second tee time of the day until you are on property. At least it was in February.

As incredible as the golf ended up being, I may have been more impressed with how efficiently the well-oiled Bandon machine operates. Our golf clubs, which were shipped in advance to make travel easier, were ready for us as soon as we arrived. The entire trip went this smooth. The folks at Bandon have convenience down to a science. Each clubhouse, course and practice facility is within the friendly confines of the Bandon Dunes gates. Shuttles work on a schedule that is frequent enough to prevent any downtime. Each clubhouse has a restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, all offering a unique menu to fit any taste. More on that a bit later. But imagine Disney Land for the golf nut.

The Preserve

We departed the airport shuttle, changed shoes right there on the spot and immediately headed for The Preserve, a Coore-Crenshaw designed, 13-hole par 3 course. Our luggage was handled by staff and their main priority was to make sure we got some golf in before the end of the day. We only had a couple hours of daylight left after travel, so this dynamite little track was just the right amount of golf to whet our appetite. When you make your trip to Bandon Dunes, do not be tempted to skip this course just because it is a par-3 track. Find time. Make time. Some of the best views on the property are out on The Preserve. The holes range from 63 yards to 150 yards with decision making winds on each tee. We ended up playing it again before we left for the airport at the end of our visit. The perfect bookend.

Food and Lodging

Our favorite spot to take dinner was without a doubt, McKee’s Pub. A lively atmosphere with golf history on the walls, the place is usually full of tired golfers and stories of missed birdie putts. Pro tip: the scotch eggs are a game changer. McKee’s is stocked full of good bar food and local craft brews. The meatloaf is a hefty portion and honestly, it may have saved my life after our first day of 36 holes. Above McKee’s is another bar and banquet style room where you can grab a drink if you need to wait for a table.

Every clubhouse on site has their own restaurant with a unique menu and beverage list. Trails End is within the Bandon Trails and Preserve Clubhouse and provides views of both courses. The menu is asian influenced and the noodle bowl is a legit lunch option. The Pacific Grill provides plenty of seafood dishes and it overlooks the Pacific Dunes finishing holes. It is also steps away from the Punchbowl, a 100,000 square foot putting green/course designed by Tom Doak. The PunchBowl is a fantastic way to kill an hour and practice putting on the undulated greens found on the property. There is also a green-side bar to help make the experience even more memorable. It’s a great spot to gamble a few bucks. We played two man teams and my partner was unconsciously good. So I drank for free. Thanks buddy.

The main lodge has both the Tufted Puffin Lounge and the Bunker Bar. Both spots are casual and affordable. The Bunker is also home to a billiards table, poker table and fantastic selection of spirits.

Bandon Dunes has lodging options to suit all types of guests and budgets. You can stay within the walls of the main lodge or also book from one of many apartment/condo style rooms for larger groups. We stayed in a 2 bedroom apartment with common area near Chrome Lake. The shuttles can pick you up from your room whenever you desire and take you directly to your first tee. I was genuinely shocked at how wonderfully easy it was to get around the property. Never a wasted second. And depending on the month, room rates start as low as $100 a night. But don’t spend too much on rooms. Most of our time was spent on the course.

Old Macdonald

Our first round of 18 was at Old Macdonald, named after famed course architect Charles Blair Macdonald. This was the fourth course built on property and the second track designed by Tom Doak. This time he was assisted by Jim Urbina to create the 6,944 yard (from the tips–it’s so much better from back there) par-71 course. Golf Digest’s most recent Top 100 ranking of United State’s public golf courses have all four of the Bandon tracks listed in the Top 15. Pacific Dunes comes in at number two, followed by Bandon Dunes at seven, then Old MacDonald at 10 and finally Bandon Trails at 14.

The round at Old Mac started with light dew on the ground and clouds in the sky but the temperature was pleasant enough for a light sweater. I didn’t know what to expect but whatever I had in mind, this course was different. It’s a tribute to all the classic designers with template hole after template hole. A true links style course, with the famed “Ghost Tree” visible from many spots around the course. The greens were massive and tricky, but the layout itself played incredibly fair. I think that is one of the best things about the golf at Bandon…it never was too difficult. It’s a place for golfers of all skill level to enjoy.

Old Mac had incredible ocean views, but some of the best moments of my round came from the shots that I couldn’t see at all. The course provided several elevation changes that forced us to fire at tops of flags with no pins in sight. And when we finally made it up the hill with our pushcarts, our balls could’ve been anywhere on those massive greens depending on the slope Doak and Urbina dealt to us. We only played this course one time on the trip, but I feel Old Mac is the best suited of the quartet for a drastic score improvement on the second time around. I look forward to that chance someday.

Pacific Dunes

By the time we teed off on our afternoon round at Pacific Dunes, the infamous Oregon winds had picked up. I genuinely don’t remember the first four holes because my head was down the entire time. Thankfully, we were granted some relief as the winds decided to die down and give way to clear skies. And just in time for some of the most spectacular ocean view holes I have ever played in my life.

Pacific is another Tom Doak design. The course plays to 6,633 yards and is a par 71. It was the second course built on property and a trio of par threes on the back nine were designed to best utilize the ocean frontage for several breathtaking holes.


Two of the fellas in my group decided to share a caddie for this round. The guy was a real gem and he provided us with stories that enhanced our experience a great deal. I would recommend doing this if you have a little extra money to spend. But keep in mind, you’re also going to want to break the bank on merchandise as well…each course has their own logo. One of my friends may have gone a bit overboard on gear. He’s a logo guy. And as long as we are on the subject of logos, my buddy ranks them as follows: Preserve (it really is so good), Bandon Dunes, Pacific Dunes, Punchbowl, Bandon Trails and then Old Mac.

Pacific Dunes probably has the best collection of views on property and they alone might justify the number 2 ranking on the best 100 US public courses. The high winds made it tough to judge just how difficult this course actually plays, but it really didn’t matter. Just being out there and looking around made it an enjoyable round.

As our round progressed, it became apparent that we might struggle to finish before nightfall. We picked up the pace and played ready golf but things weren’t looking good when we reached 17, a beautiful but lengthy par three over a gorge. But then the charm of Bandon showed its face. The group ahead of us, obviously realizing that we were in a race against time, waved us up and stepped aside, allowing us to hit our tee shots before they putted. We all hit and then began a somewhat lengthy walk around the gorge to the green, allowing the group ahead to putt out and proceed to the 18th tee. And we finished our round with just barely enough light to see our final putts roll in the cup. Had it not been for the kindness of those golfers on 17, whom we did not know one bit, we likely wouldn’t have finished our round. But that’s Bandon.

Bandon Trails

I went into our morning round at Bandon Trails with little excitement. I am an ocean-view kind of golfer and I had just been completely spoiled by Pacific Dunes. I knew this Coore-Crenshaw par 71 layout was all internal on the property, away from the ocean and that didn’t have my juices flowing.

By the time I had played the first three holes, all of that had changed. This course was special.


Looking back on it now, the lowest ranked course at Bandon may easily have been the round I enjoyed the most. The third course built on the property, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw somehow found a direct line to my golf heart without distracting me with views of blue water. The routing at Trails lead my foursome through forest and dunes alike, up hills and over water. The greens were challenging but fair and the fairways attainable and inviting.

The coastal forest provided a beautiful backdrop that I had largely ignored in my Bandon preparation. Trails, in my opinion, is the most underrated of the four Bandon courses. The par 4 14th hole stands out in my mind as a hole I’d like to play over and over again. The elevated tee box looks down on a drive-able par 4 begging for an escalated swing speed. I hit driver. Of course. But the target, a hog back green, is small and deadly and full of terrors. Any miss left or right required a savvy short game to salvage a good score. It was a wonderful golf hole and a highlight of the trip. One of my playing partners would like me to mention that he made birdie, I’m sure.

When I think back on my Bandon trip, I first think of those oceans holes on Bandon and Pacific Dunes. But it doesn’t take long for my mind to take me back to Trails. From a pure golf perspective, it is the best course on property.

Bandon Dunes

I had read up more on the original 18 at Bandon Dunes than either of the other three courses. Designed by relatively unknown (at the time) Scottish architect David McLay-Kidd, the course that started it all opened in 1999 and the rest was history. Bandon Dunes plays at 6,732 yards, par 72 and winds along the pacific coast towards a climactic finish that is as good as any in golf.

Weather for our round at Bandon was ideal. Overcast, slight wind but not too cold. It turns out, our decision to play in February worked out great for us. We dealt with rain on the morning of our third day but we were still able to fit in our golf.

Golf rankers tend to rave about Pacific Dunes, but I will take Bandon over Pacific, pound for pound, any day of the week. The bunkers are deep and large and the fairways are pristine condition. And while Pacific Dunes clearly worked hard to maximize its ocean views, the flow of Bandon Dunes seemed more natural while still providing incredible coastal holes.

Hole 16 is a classic risk reward par 4. Reachable off the tee with a typical down wind, the smart play is to poke your spoon out to the raised fairway on the left. But with the pacific ocean crashing ashore to our right and the sun setting behind, we all decided to hit driver. And it worked out for a couple of us. This is arguably the most beautiful hole I’ve ever played in my life and I remember walking off the green, looking back towards the tee box thinking “wow…I am not sure it gets any better than that.”

Until I played the next hole. And then the hole after that. Both 17 and 18 are incredible golf holes in their own right. The closing stretch at Bandon Dunes is truly as good as it gets. And if you time it correctly like we did, your walk down 18 is illuminated by the setting sun bouncing off the windows of the clubhouse. Life is good.

People who visit Bandon love to rank the courses and then ask for your rank as well. Half of the conversations at McKee’s Pub are started with this very topic. And while you certainly can’t go wrong with any selection, for me it starts and ends with the original, Bandon Dunes. I’d rank Bandon Trails second, Pacific Dunes third and Old MacDonald fourth. And you know what…each of my three buddies put those courses in a different order.

There is something for everyone at Bandon Dunes. You just need to take a trip up there and see for yourself. Trust me.

 

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Opinion & Analysis

An important way Tiger Woods changed professional golf

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Tiger Woods is, without a doubt, one of the most influential players in the history of golf. 80 tour wins, 14 majors (10 of them before he was 30) are all incredible numbers.

But this article is not about his amazing stats.

Today, I want to talk about one thing he has done for the game off the course. Most of us remember the Nike commercial with all the little kids saying “I am Tiger Woods.” What we didn’t realize at the time was that an entire generation of young players were growing up idolizing Tiger.

While other kids may have had posters of Michael Jordan or Troy Aikman on their walls, these kids had posters of Tiger. They watched his every move. They all had black shorts or pants with a red shirt to wear on Sunday. They all wanted to be him. Some of those kids were Jason Day, Brooks Koepka, Tony Finau, Rory Mcllroy, and Lexi Thompson. They watched him and were amazed at how dominate he was and wanted to be like him.

As these kids grew up, they understood that the physical shape that Tiger always seemed to be in played a key role in how many tournaments he won and how, even on bad days when his skills seemed to take a day or two off, his physical conditioning got him through it. The young people watched him and started to include physical conditioning in their game. They were spending time in the gym and working with personal trainers. They still worked with swing coaches and in most cases played NCAA golf but the difference in their game was the work they did without a club in their hand.

So what is it that gives these players an edge? Is it because they are stronger? Maybe. Is it because they hit the ball further? No, because John Daly could bomb the driver but was in no way the most dominate player of his day. The key here is endurance. Because of the incredible shape these players keep themselves in, they can walk 72 holes of golf in brutally hot conditions and still have their A games on Sunday.

This is exactly what helped Tiger to be so good his competition couldn’t keep up with him and just faded down the leaderboard. Playing Tiger in his prime meant you had to have your entire game at its best and hope he missed a few shots or got sick. If he didn’t he was going to sneak up on you and pounce or he was already so far ahead that you were in a race for second place.

Today’s players have swing coaches and athletic trainers they work closely with nutrition experts and monitor everything they put into their bodies. These are the type of things we historically have expected to see from top NFL, NHL and NBA players, not golfers. This is the difference that Tiger has made and this may be the thing that impacts golf for decades to come. He has made golf into a sport that requires you to be in the best shape of your life if you want to play at the highest levels. It is also exactly what the game needed.

I can’t imagine the players of 25 years ago wearing golf shirts that were designed to be skin tight. I never would have believed seeing players with biceps bigger than some peoples legs (Brooks Koepka) but today it’s a reality. Most of the top players on both the PGA and LPGA are in great shape and reap the benefits of it on the 18th green on Sunday. Tiger will be remembered as an amazing player with amazing numbers. He is one of just a few players whose galleries could rival that of small cities. He is also a player that changed the way a generation of greats now play the game.

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19th Hole

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