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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

Faldo’s ‘commercial’ dig at Rickie Fowler was narcissistic, unfair and hypocritical

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This week, Rickie Fowler opened up on his current struggles on the course, describing the enormous frustration he’s going through and the toll it’s even taking on his life at home.

Instead of Fowler being commended for his honesty during the most challenging period of his career to date, he found himself attacked. Not just by some nameless, faceless troll on social media either, but by a six-time major winner turned talking head: Nick Faldo.

Replying to Golf Digest’s article on Fowler, the Englishman decided he’d take a swipe at Fowler’s commercial success, saying:

“Good news is if he misses the Masters he can shoot another six commercials that week!”

He then doubled down on the comment, highlighting his own excellent achievements in the sport while knocking Fowler who is still looking for his maiden major win, posting shortly after: “What would you rather have, a boatload of cash or your name in three green books?”

Had Faldo bothered to read the article in question, then he’d have seen that Fowler is extremely hungry and putting in hours of practice to get back to the heights that saw him once ranked inside the world’s top 5.

If Fowler was content to do commercials instead of grinding away on the course as Faldo suggests, why will this week at Bay Hill mark his 6th appearance in the last seven weeks on the PGA Tour?

That schedule just doesn’t fit Nick’s narrative that Fowler is satisfied with things in his professional life.

Sadly, Faldo’s dig at Rickie had nothing to do with his golf game, nor did it even acknowledge how hard he is trying to turn things around.

It was a petty knock at a universally well-liked player from his peers to fans alike because he happens to do well for himself outside of the course as well as on it.

And let’s not forget how good Fowler has been on it, five PGA Tour wins (including The Players), 2 European Tour wins, and 11 top-ten finishes at majors—and he’s still just 32.

All that the Englishman’s cheap shot at Fowler’s commercial success did was amplify the undercurrent of jealousy within Faldo, who spends the majority of his time on social media plugging and endorsing a golf shoe.

Does anyone really think that Faldo wouldn’t snap up Rickie’s commercial opportunities if they presented themselves to him?

To knock Fowler’s current level of play is fair game, but to suggest he’d be happy to miss the Masters so that he can “shoot another six commercials that week” is out of line and does a disservice to the effort he puts in each day to get better at his craft.

Fowler has demonstrated time and time again that he is a class act, an excellent ambassador for the sport, and he deserves much better than a blindsided attack on Twitter from a prominent figure in golf media.

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Club Junkie

Club Junkie: Odyssey Ten putter review and hitting the new Callaway Apex Pro irons

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Reviewing the new Odyssey Ten putters, and I like the overall look compared to last year’s model. The shape is a little more squared off and simple, less distracting. Callaway’s new Apex Pro irons offer a lot of distance and forgiveness in a small package, but do they feel as good as other players irons?

 

 

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Opinion & Analysis

The Wedge Guy: Understanding CG

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One of the most misunderstood concepts involved in golf club design is that of “CG,” or “center of gravity,” also “center of mass.” While this particular measurement of any golf club head can certainly offer insight into its probable performance, it is not the “be all, end all” with regard to any club’s specific launch or forgiveness attributes.

What “CG” specifically refers to is the exact center location of a club’s distribution of mass, which will generally coincide with that club’s “sweet spot”—but that’s not always true. There are lots of ways to manipulate or manage any club’s exact CG location, and therein lies a “Pandora’s Box” of misunderstanding.

Let’s start back in the very old days, when irons were single pieces of forged steel and woods were made of persimmon. Since there was no science inside the club, CG was essentially a result of how the clubhead is formed—its essential shape.

A typical persimmon driver head, for example, was sized to deliver its ideal weight without any additional weights added. The solid block of persimmon, with some kind of face insert and an aluminum soleplate was all you had to work with. So, the CG was located pretty close to the center of the clubhead from all three axes – vertical, front-go-back and heel-to-toe. If you remember, persimmon fairway woods were smaller and had a brass sole plate to add mass lower in the head and often a lead weight under the sole plate to move the CG even lower to help produce higher ball flights on shots hit from the turf, rather than off a tee.

Traditional forged irons up to the 1960s-70s typically had a CG very close to the hosel, a result of the mass of the hosel itself and the typical design that put “muscle” behind the impact area, and very little mass out toward the toe. An examination of worn faces on those old irons would reveal the wear very much toward the heel. I distinctly remember fighting the shanks back in those days, and that ugly shot usually felt very close to a perfectly struck one, rather than feeling as awful as it looked.

As metal woods and cavity-back irons became the norm, designers were able to move the CG ever lower in order to produce higher ball flight, and more toward the center of the face to put the CG further from the hosel. As technology has continued to be refined, the use of tungsten inserts has further allowed designers to position the CG exactly where they want it – typically lower in the club and more toward the center or even the toe of the golf club.

And therein lies a problem with pushing this insert technology too far.

There is no question that in addition to making contact somewhere close to the CG of the clubhead, ball performance is also a product of how much mass is directly behind the impact point. Let me offer this example of how important that can be.

Let’s assume two identically shaped cavity-back 7-irons – same size, face thickness, overall weight and a design that places the CG in the exact same spot in the scoring pattern. The only difference between the two is that one is a single piece forged or cast steel head, with the other being cast of aluminum, with heavy tungsten inserts in the hosel and toe areas to achieve the same overall weight and CG location.
Which do you think would deliver the more solid feel of impact and better transfer of energy to the ball?

Now, we could take that even further by cutting out the entire center of both clubheads and increase the mass or the weight of tungsten in the hosel and toe to bring each back up to weight. The CG location would not change, but there would be absolutely no mass at all where the ball impact location would be. That would not work at all, would it?

I’ve learned long ago that it’s not just about the location of the CG that makes a golf club perform, but also the amount of mass that is placed directly behind the spot on the face where impact with the ball is made.

Here’s a fun, “non-golf” way to embrace this concept.

Suppose we had a two-pound sledgehammer and another 2 lb piece of steel hammered into a large circular sheet 1/16” thick. And then suppose someone hit you on the head with the exact CG of each one – which do you think would hurt the most?

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