OAKMONT, Pa. Aaron Baddeley, two over par through two rounds and in the thick of it, has a lot going for him as he tries to win his first major. He's never even contended for a major before, but he's a big talent. His controlled swing produces a low, sneaky-long tee ball; he has much-improved distance control with his irons; and he has an imaginative chipping and bunker game.
Then he's got one more thing going for him: his caddie. Much has been made of the role of the caddie in recent years, far too much, really. But Pete Bender, Badd's bagman, is the real deal. He's caddied for winners in dozens of Tour events Greg Norman when he won the '86 British Open and Ian Baker-Finch when he won the British in '91. He's been in contention so many times in majors that he can't even keep track. Lanny Wadkins here, Hal Sutton there, Jack Nicklaus in the late '80s, long past his prime but still thinking better than anybody in the game.
Bender and Baddeley both know that the Australian golfer has enough game to win a major. But Bender knows something Baddeley doesn't. To win a major, you have to keep giving yourself chances, again and again and again. Eventually, maybe, you break through.
"My first year?" Bender said yesterday, squinting in the sun, golf and California all over his face. "Well, my first full year was '69, but you couldn't caddie in summer then." (In those days, outside caddies weren't permitted in summer so that club caddies could get work.)
He and Andrew Martinez, who worked for Johnny Miller in his prime and now works for Tom Lehman, came out together. Bender and Baddeley have a conversation about every single shot, and once or twice a round on putts. They've been together for three years.
"The thing I do best is read greens," Bender said. It's one of the things Baddeley does well, too. Bender reads every putt in his head; if and when Baddeley calls him in, he's ready. On Friday, Bender was one-for-one, on a 15-footer on No. 13 that Baddeley couldn't get a handle on. In it went. If your guy saves you a shot a round, it's huge.
When Baker-Finch won at Birkdale, Bender was in his ear all the way around, keeping his player's mind off the Claret Jug and the screaming crowds and the crowded leaderboard. This weekend at Oakmont, it might be more of the same.
Baddeley won last year at Hilton Head, with Bender in bed, in a dark room. He suffers from vertigo and the bouts can last up to a week.
"Sunday of Hilton Head I was able to watch a few holes," Bender said. It's always a strange thing for a caddie, to see your player working with another guy. "But I was rooting for him like crazy. He'd called several times during the week, to see how I was doing. He's a great golfer and a great friend."
This weekend at Oakmont, Baddeley is going to find out for the first time just how good his caddie really is. Pete Bender can't make the shots for him, of course. But he can make sure the thinking is sound before the clubhead goes back. At a U.S. Open, that's half the battle, maybe more.