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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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Mondays Off

Mondays Off: Sounding off on your favorite golf pet peeves!

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Steve and Knudson weigh in on your favorite golf pet peeves. From not fixing ball marks, to slow play, to guys telling you “good shot” when you make a quad! Knudson shot a 33 in his league and still thinks he isn’t a sandbagger.

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

Want more GolfWRX Radio? Check out our other shows (and the full archives for this show) below. 

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Opinion & Analysis

Justin Thomas talks TrackMan numbers, when he’ll switch to Titleist 620 MB irons, and more

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Fresh off his dominant BMW Championship win at Medinah, Justin Thomas joined Johnny Wunder for a Special Edition Gear Dive chat.

Here are a few highlights from JT and JW talking through some of Thomas’ Titleist equipment, his straightforward approach to fitting, changing clubs, his stock distances, and more.

On choosing his Titleist 718 MB irons

“My rookie year I picked up an iron they were testing…I was like, “is it possible to get irons like this?”…Ever since then, I’ve never wanted to use anything else…they look good, and they’re nice.”

On the reason why he put a Titleist T100 4-iron in the bag recently

“That’s exactly right. [that he put the iron in the bag for height]. I kind of was struggling getting the 4-iron up in the air, and I wasn’t really holding greens very well…this club is really unbelievable. You can really do a lot with it. I can hit it as far as I need to and hit it low if I want.”

On switching to the new 620 irons

“It’ll be very easy…I’ll throw ‘em in the bag [when I start practicing again after the season ends].”

On his elementary approach to choosing a fairway wood shaft 

“I went to the fitting. I hit it. It looked good, and the numbers were good. They said that was about as good as I could get, and I said, “sounds good.”

On not knowing that his wedge shafts were different from his iron shafts 

“I found out last year that I have different shafts in my irons and wedges. I had no idea.”

On Titleist as a whole 

“First and foremost I think it’s the best equipment across the board…I’ve used Titleist my whole life, and I’m just lucky now I get to get paid by them…I would use it if I wasn’t getting a dime from them…I like the people, I trust in them…they’ve just a great all-around company.”

On tinkering

“I think a lot of…people get in trouble trying to change too much…the game is hard enough, you don’t need to make it any harder.”

On switching putters

“For me when I putt well, it’s all about speed…I was struggling there for a bit, so I just kind of wanted to look at something different, but it was a bad decision…I should have stuck with what’s won me all of my tournaments [Scotty Cameron X5-style putter]”

Stock carry distances (4, 7, SW) and TrackMan numbers with driver 

Driving range 4-iron: 231 (“I can get it up to 240 in the air”)
7-iron: “185 is normal; I can get it to low 190s”
57.5 wedge: 112

Clubhead speed: 118-120
Ball speed: mid-to-high 170s

“When I hit up on it, I can carry it 320…but when I hit that low bullet, it’s probably only going to carry 270.”

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

Want more GolfWRX Radio? Check out our other shows (and the full archives for this show) below. 

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Opinion & Analysis

The Wedge Guy: Time for you to talk and me to listen

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I’ve really been enjoying sharing thoughts and insights with all you GolfWRX readers the past few months. And as I expected, I’ve “won a few and lost a few” with regard to offering what you consider useful information. It is always difficult writing for an audience so diverse in experience, attitudes and opinions, but your feedback keeps me on my toes…as it should be.

So, this week the GolfWRX leadership agreed to allow me to give you a chance to tell us more about your own game and how you play it. At the bottom of today’s post is a link to the first “Wedge Guy/GolfWRX Survey.” I hope you will find the questions interesting and that you will share your own insights into the intricate relationship with golf that you all certainly enjoy. Please make note of your answers so that you can compare them to your fellow GolfWRXers when we begin to share the results of the survey in a few weeks.

On a current event note, however, I found Monday morning’s stories about Justin Thomas’ convincing victory over the field and Medinah #3 this weekend quite interesting. In comparison to his 25-under destruction of venerable old Medinah, Lou Graham won the U.S. Open there in 1975 with a score of +3, with the course just under 7,000 yards. Since then, Medinah #3 has hosted several other major championships—getting ever longer but still seeing the scores go lower and lower. It would be hard to argue that Thomas (and the field) completely dismantled the old girl at 7,600 yards, with the course record tied, then broken by two shots, then broken by two shots again. All in one weekend.

Some leading pros made very telling comments about the fact that “long” is not an obstacle for these guys anymore; that the drivers and balls of today are so forgiving they just swing as hard as they can. Add in “soft”, and they have a green light to tear down flags and shoot these ultra-low scores. This is just the way the game has evolved at the highest level—hit driver as hard as you can, find it, hit a towering short iron or wedge into a soft green, like throwing darts.

It’s just not the same game as was played at the highest level when the major venues challenged the golfers’ entire games—driver to long irons to wedges to putting. When was the last time we saw tour professionals tested at the long end of their bags? In contrast, when Johnny Miller won the U.S. Open in 1973 at Oakmont, I think he could only reach one par 5 in two shots and hit something like 13 or 14 approach shots with a 5-iron or longer…and he shot 63! That’s pretty amazing, huh? And a far cry from the short iron and wedge dominance of approach shots today.

Anyway, I’m not saying it was better or worse back then…just that it was a different set of challenges for the professional golfer. But I believe the rest of us pretty much play the same game as back then—testing every club in our bags every round we play.

But back to the Survey. Please take a few minutes and give thought to the 27 questions about you, your long game and your short game, and how you play the game in general. I think it will be quite insightful for all of us at GolfWRX, and for you all too, as you compare your answers to your fellow GolfWRXers.

Here’s the link to the survey. Thanks!

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