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Opinion & Analysis

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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Opinion & Analysis

Everyone sucks at golf sometimes

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“Golf is a game whose aim is to hit a very small ball into an even smaller hole, with tools singularly ill-designed for the purpose.”

This quote dates back over 100 years, and has been credited to a number of people through history including Winston Churchill and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. Although the game and the tools have changed a lot in 100 years, this quote remains timeless because golf is inherently difficult, and is impossible to master, which is exactly what also makes it so endearing to those that play it.

No matter how hard we practice, or how much time we spend trying to improve there will inevitably be times when we will suck at golf. Just like with other aspects of the game the idea of “sucking” will vary based on your skillset, but a PGA Tour player can hit a hosel rocket shank just as well as a 25 handicap. As Tom Brady proved this past weekend, any golfer can have a bad day, but even during a poor round of golf there are glimmers of hope—like a holed-out wedge, even if it is followed by having your pants rip out on live TV.

I distinctly remember one time during a broadcast when Chris DiMarco hit a poor iron shot on a par 3 and the microphone caught hit exclaim “Come on Chris, you’re hitting it like a 4 handicap out here today” – the shot just barely caught the right side of the green and I imagine a lot of higher handicap golfers said to themselves ” I’d love to hit it like a 4 handicap!”. This is just one example of the expectations we put on ourselves even when most golfers will admit to playing their best when expectations are thrown out the window.

– Gary Larson

Dr. Bob Rotella says golf is not a game of perfect, and that’s totally ok. The game is about the constant pursuit of improvement, not perfection and with that in mind there are going to be days when no matter what we just suck.

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Opinion & Analysis

By definition, there will be no 2020 U.S. Open. Here’s why the USGA should reconsider

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In 1942, the USGA decided to cancel the U.S. Open because it was scheduled so soon after U.S. entry into WWII.  They did this out of respect for the nation and those called to war. There was a Championship however called The Hale America National Open Golf Tournament, which was contested at Chicago’s  Ridgemoor Country Club. It was a great distraction from the horror of war and raised money for the great cause.

All the top players of the era (except Sam Snead) played, and the organizers (USGA, Chicago Golf Association, and the PGA of America) did hold qualifying at some 70 sites around the country. So effectively, it was the 1942 U.S. Open—but the USGA never recognized it as such. They labeled it a “wartime effort to raise money” for the cause.  Their objection to it being the official U.S. Open was never clear, although the sub-standard Ridgemoor course (a veritable birdie fest) was certainly part of it.

The USGA co-sponsored the event but did not host it at one of their premier venues, where they typically set the golf course up unusually difficult to test the best players. Anyway, Ben Hogan won the event and many thought this should have counted as his fifth U.S. Open win. The USGA disagreed. That debate may never be settled in golfer’s minds.

Ahead to the 1964 U.S. Open…Ken Venturi, the eventual winner, qualified to play in the tournament. His game at the time was a shell of what it was just a few years earlier, but Kenny caught lighting in a bottle, got through both stages of qualifying, and realized his lifelong dream of winning the U.S. Open at Congressional.

Ahead to the 1969 U.S. Open…Orville Moody, a former army sergeant had been playing the PGA Tour for two years with moderate success-at best. But the golfing gods shone brightly upon “sarge” through both stages of qualifying, and the tournament, as he too realized the dream of a lifetime in Houston.

Ahead to 2009 U.S. Open…Lucas Glover was the 71st ranked player in the world and had never made the cut in his three previous U.S. Opens. But he did get through the final stage of qualifying and went on to win the title at Bethpage in New York.

Ahead to 2020…The USGA has decided to postpone the event this year to September because of the Covid-19 virus. This was for the fear of the global pandemic. But this year there is a fundamental difference—the USGA has announced there will be no qualifying for the event. It will be an exempt-only event. By doing so, the event loses it status as an “open event,” by definition.

This is more than a slight difference in semantics.

The U.S. Open, our national championship, is the crown jewel of all USGA events for many reasons, not the least of which is that it is just that: open. Granted, the likelihood of a club professional or a highly-ranked amateur winning the event—or even making the cut—is slim, but that misses the point: they have been stripped of their chance to do so, and have thereby lost a perhaps once in a lifetime opportunity to realize something they have worked for their whole lives. Although I respect the decision from a  health perspective, golf is being played now across the country, (The Match and Driving Relief—apparently safely)

So, what to do? I believe it would be possible to have one-day 36-hole qualifiers (complete with social distancing regulations) all over the country to open the field. Perhaps, the current health crisis limits the opportunity to hold the qualifiers at the normally premier qualifying sites around the country but, as always, everyone is playing the same course and is at least given the chance to play in tournament.

In light of the recent “opening” of the country, I am asking that the USGA reconsider the decision.

 

featured image modified from USGA image

 

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Podcasts

TG2: Reviewing Tour Edge Exotics Pro woods, forged irons, and LA Golf shafts

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Reviewing the new Tour Edge Exotics Pro wood lineup, forged irons, and wedge. Maybe more than one makes it into the bag? Fujikura’s MCI iron shafts are some of the smoothest I have ever hit and LA Golf wood shafts get some time on the course.

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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