Pete Bender hits major milestone: 50 years as a PGA Tour caddie
When you think of the best caddies in the history of the PGA Tour, recent names come to mind such as Steve Williams, Jim “Bones’ Mackay, Mike “Fluff” Cowan, Bruce Edwards, Andy Martinez, Jimmy Johnson and Joe LaCava.
Then there are the better-known loopers because most of them worked for the best players: Angelo Argea, Herman Mitchell, Tony Navarro, Fanny Sunneson, Alfie Fyles and Carl Jackson.
Then there are the ones whose nicknames we can’t forget: Jeff “Squeeky” Medlen, Alfred “Rabbit” Dyer, Linn “The Growler” Strickler, Dolphus “Golf Ball” Hull, Lance “Last Call” Ten Broeck and Mark “Foochie” Fulcher, not to forget the Piddler, the Reptile and Reefer Ray.
One name is missing from this list, and it shouldn’t be: Pete Bender. All Bender did was help his players win and get the best out of their game while eschewing the limelight.
Isn’t that what a caddie is supposed to do?
“I had a lot of good caddies over the years,” said Ian Baker-Finch, “but Pete was the best one.”
Bender was on Baker-Finch’s bag when the current CBS analyst won his only major, the 1991 British Open at Royal Birkdale. Baker-Finch had a pair of top 10s in two of the next three Masters before his game vanished.
“Pete was the most professional caddie on tour,” Baker-Finch said. “He got to the course early. He walked the course. He got the pins every day. There was a clean towel on the bag every day. He was never not the first one there every day.
“He was always very positive. He talked me into shots at times. He made me feel I was better than I was.”
Bender was on Greg Norman’s bag when he finally won his first major at the 1986 British Open at Turnberry after a series of close calls (Norman had the 54-hole lead in all four majors in ’86).
“I put him in the top five of caddies,” Norman said. “He had a lot of professionalism and confidence. He knew what to say at the right time.
“Lots of caddies are afraid to speak up, afraid to get fired,” Bender said. “I have confidence in my ability.”
“He had an easy personality. You know conversations with him wouldn’t get to anywhere else. There wasn’t much tension about him, either. When you’re spending half a day on a golf course, you have to have that kind of person around you.”
Bender celebrates a rare milestone this week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill: When he totes Aaron Baddeley’s bag to the first tee, it will mark the 50th season of Bender caddying on the PGA Tour.
That’s half a century. Or more than the combined ages of Jon Rahm (24) and Cameron Smith (25), players inside the top 25 in the world rankings.
At 71, Cowan is the oldest full-time caddie on the PGA Tour, but he knows he’s not the dean.
“Nobody has been out here longer than Pete Bender,” Cowan said.
How has Bender lasted longer than balata balls, square grooves, persimmon drivers, mashies and niblicks?
“The love of the sport,” said Bender, who turns 70 on May 19. “The only thing I don’t like is the traveling and staying at hotels. But when I get to the golf course, the excitement is still there. I can’t wait for Thursday morning.”
It’s amazing Bender made it past his first week of caddying, which came at the San Francisco Open Invitational at Harding Park in 1969. Bender, a local resident, drew a hot-headed professional named Jim King.
Let’s say King had a creative way of marking his ball on the greens. There was a near-confrontation after the final round when playing partner Kermit Zarley called out King for his antics.
Welcome to life as a professional caddie, kid.
“I didn’t have second thoughts,” Bender said. “I knew it can’t be any worse than this.”
Life, and his players, became much better for Bender. How many caddies can say they caddied for Hall of Famers such as Norman, Jack Nicklaus, Raymond Floyd and Lanny Wadkins?
Bender has won an estimated 28 PGA Tour titles, which would rank him third behind Williams and Mackay. But Bender may hold the record for winning with the most players (eight): Norman, Baker-Finch, Floyd, Wadkins, Baddeley, Rocco Mediate, Jerry Heard and John Cook.
In 2001, Rick Reilly of Sports Illustrated dubbed Bender as the most “underrated caddie of all time.” Bender is as proud of that claim as any of his 18th-hole flags.
He was never a “yes,” caddie, someone who would give his boss only what he wanted to hear. “Lots of caddies are afraid to speak up, afraid to get fired,” Bender said. “I have confidence in my ability.”
Bender was valued by his players. With Norman, he was the first caddie to earn $100,000 a year. He earned $2,500 a week caddying for Nicklaus.
This information was provided by others, not Bender. “I never talk about finances,” he says. “That’s between me and my player.”
Tall and lean, Bender struck quite a figure on the PGA Tour, especially next to his famous bosses. He was married from 1978-96 and they never had children. He has two step-daughters he says he stays in constant contact.
Bender was – and is– as old school as they come. He never wore shorts. He promised Edwards he would never wear a double strap on his bag. He walks all the courses, using his legs as measurements, not lasers. He doesn’t rely on pin sheets or green-reading devices.
“It broke my heart. I never thought about dropping the bag and walking away in my career, but that’s as close as I ever came.” — Bender on a situation at the Masters with Chip Beck
“I’ve never seen him confused on a golf course,” said Martinez, who joined the Tour a few months after Bender in ’69. “He was always very confident with his calls, and that inspires confidence in the player. Players know when they had Pete, they had one of the best, if not the best caddie out there.”
It was a different time when Bender and Martinez joined the tour. At the time, the full-time caddie population was largely African-American.
Here come these two long-haired white guys from California to break into their ranks. “They called us ‘the hippies,’” Martinez said.
Says Bender: “A lot of the black caddies took us under their wings. Guys like “Golf Ball” and Mitch. They cooked us soul food and showed us the ropes.”
Gradually, Bender started getting better players. The best, of course, was Norman. The White Shark should have won the Masters and U.S. Open in 1986, losing to Nicklaus’ remarkable comeback at Augusta and to Raymond Floyd at Shinnecock Hills in the U.S. Open.
Norman stormed back into the lead in the British at Turnberry and seemed determined to quiet the criticism. He had a three-shot lead early in the fourth round and his game was working on all cylinders.
“He was probably the greatest driver of the golf ball of all time,” Bender said.
But when Norman hooked a drive into the rough at the par-5 seventh hole, a warning sign went off in Bender’s head. That was an obvious signal Norman was becoming nervous.
“Greg was starting to walk faster and talk faster,” Bender said. “I knew I had to do something. So I asked, ‘Greg, do me a favor: Let’s slow down and enjoy this.’”
Norman didn’t pay attention. He strode even faster to his ball, wanting to know the lie. Bender knew he had to do something, anything, to calm his man down.
“I caught up to him and pulled on the back of his sweater,” Bender said. “Greg looked at me. I said. ‘Easy. I’m here to help. Just walk at my pace.’”
Norman got the message, saved par on the hole and cruised to a five-shot victory. At 31, he finally won a major.
Five years later, Bender’s player once again had a chance to win the claret jug. Baker-Finch shot a 29 on his front nine in the final round at Royal Birkdale to surge into the lead.
Baker-Finch was nursing a two-shot advantage when he faced a difficult approach shot to the par-4 16th. He was looking at 180 yards into a breeze on a downhill lie. Baker-Finch didn’t know what to hit, but Bender knew.
He just knew.
“He talked me into hitting a 4-iron,” Baker-Finch said. “He gave me just a great calm to hit that shot. I hit it right at the flag and I said, ‘You like that one, Petey? You like it?’”
“Love it!” Bender answered.
“Looking back,” Baker-Finch said, “that sounded boastful. I wasn’t a player with great confidence, but Pete gave me that confidence.”
Baker-Finch paused. “I wish I had never let him go,” he said.
That’s the thing about caddying. Even the best ones move on. Sometimes it’s their call. Usually, it’s not.
Bender’s persuasive abilities didn’t work on every player, though. At the 1993 Masters, his player, Chip Beck, arrived at the 15th hole in the final round two shots behind leader Bernhard Langer. Beck had never come close to winning a major, but here was his shot.
After a great drive, Beck had 235 yards to the front of the green. “It’s a perfect 3-wood,” Bender told his guy.
Beck shook his head. “The wind’s in my face,” he said.
“I don’t care. The yardage plays downhill,” Bender responded. “It’s a 3-wood.”
Beck wasn’t sold, even though the announcers, the viewers and the gallery were all thinking, “How can this guy lay up at this point of the championship?”
Beck finally turned to Bender. “I don’t want to mess my round up,” he said. “If I finish second, it’s double points in the Ryder Cup (standings).”
Bender (use Verne Lundquist voice) could not believe what he was hearing.
“I was stunned,” Bender said. “I told Chip, ‘You hired me for this situation, and I’m telling you what to do.’
“It broke my heart. I never thought about dropping the bag and walking away in my career, but that’s as close as I ever came.”
Beck ignored Bender’s advice and laid up, hit his third shot over the green and made par. He finished four shots behind Langer – and two ahead of third place.
“Chip was never the same player after that,” said Bender, who worked for Beck for two more tournaments and they parted ways.
Bender said his favorite boss is Baddeley. Not only because of his sharp short game, but Baddeley is one of the most likable players on the PGA Tour.
“A good player and an even better father,” Bender says.
They won twice together, but it was during a loss to Tiger Woods at the 2008 Match Play Championship when Bender’s world changed.
Bender couldn’t caddie in the first two rounds because he was sick, but he decided to give it a go when Baddeley faced Tiger Woods in the third round. Baddeley and Woods went extra holes, Baddeley losing on the 20th hole.
Bender couldn’t walk another step. He knew something was wrong. He went to see a doctor and was told he had throat cancer that had spread into his lymph nodes.
“I had never smoked a cigarette in my life, never taken drugs,” Bender said.
That didn’t stop his world from collapsing. Unable to eat, his weight dropped to 128 pounds.
“I looked like I had AIDS,” he said
His mother and sister came to visit him, and his sister collapsed from a heart attack. Bender knew he had to get out of the hospital. He called Martinez, and he and a friend carried Bender out of the hospital, against doctors’ orders.
Within a year, Bender returned to the tour, working again for Baddeley. But he wasn’t there long.
Bender’s mother was dying, and Pete had always promised her he would never place her in a home. He went to Sacramento and took care of Ann Bender and his sister.
“Aaron sent me this heartfelt, hand-written letter and a check for $50,000, saying ‘I hope this holds you over,’” Bender said. “How many golfers would do that?”
Bender spent the next four years taking care of his mom, who died in 2013 at 90. He had fulfilled his promise.
Bender returned to looping. He helped buddy Michael Allen win the 2014 Allianz Championship in a playoff over Duffy Waldorf. Bender hadn’t lost his touch.
Nor has he lost his motivation. He works out every day and may be the fittest 69-year-old on the Champions Tour. Bender has increased his weight to 170 and hopes to caddie for five more years.
He knows the game has changed.
“Now everybody gets the same information… the yardage books, pin placement, green-reading books,” Bender said. “They’ve created a situation where almost all caddies are equal.”
But there is that moment, on the seventh, 15th or 16th fairway, where a caddie can get into his player’s ear and say the thing that will help him lift the trophy.
That can’t be taught and it can’t be duplicated. A caddie either has it or he doesn’t.
Pete Bender has had it for a half-century. The players know it. His peers know it. He knows it.
Even if most golf fans don’t.
“That was Pete,” Norman said. “He wasn’t a guy that chased the fanfare.
“He’s done the golfing world a world of good, and he’s done the caddie world a lot of good. They should look at him and say, ‘Thank you.’”