Caddie Pete Bender back on the job — and winning — after fight with cancer

February 12, 2014

BOCA RATON, Fla. –- In the pantheon of Tour caddies, you of course know about Steve Williams and Jim “Bones” Mackay. You likely know about Andy Martinez, who first made his mark with Johnny Miller in the early 1970s and has been with Tom Lehman for the past two decades and change. Fluff and Fanny and a few others can travel the world on a single name. Of course there was Bruce Edwards, RIP.

But Sunday night here, in the clubhouse of a place called Broken Sound, the bleating of one caddie cell phone was clear above the din, and it belonged to the great Pete Bender. (His ringtone is a few bars of the Ennio Marricone classic, the theme song from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.) Pete is 64. He looks like the fittest 50-year-old you’ve ever seen. His man, Michael Allen, had just won the Champions Tour event here, the Allianz Championship. He was carting around Allen’s bag and his XXL cardboard check for $240,000. On a nearby flatscreen, he was watching old Clint being interviewed by Jim Nantz on the CBS broadcast. (If The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is not Eastwood at the height of his powers, it’s right up there.) Bender, who has spent his life in northern California, first caddied in the Clambake in the late 1960s. He caddied for Greg Norman when Shark won the 1986 British Open. He caddied for Ian Baker-Finch when IBF won the ’91 British Open. He’s back on tour after a four-year absence.

“Were you a smoker?” the oncologist asked him. Bender had throat cancer and the prognosis was bad.

“Not a day in my life.”

“Must be secondhand smoke,” the doctor.

“It’s not.”

Bender has a theory, but that’s all it is: the thousand times, back in the day, he licked grass stains off soiled balls.

He came out of the hospital weighing 125 pounds. He’s a six-footer. Now he’s 165 and doing hundreds of pushups and sit-ups a day. He roomed last week with Martinez. They’ve been sharing cheap digs forever. “Andy’s 24-7 with the God stuff,” Pete said the other day, “but this whole experience has made me more aware of God. I thank Him for keeping me alive.”

He has now worked five tournaments from Michael Allen, on the edge of 55, strong as an ox and a man who anchors his putter. Allen is looking to make hay while he can, this year and next. He opened with a 60, played only to win, hit some crazy-good and nervy shots with Pete in his ear, and beat Duffy Waldorf in a two-hole playoff. Martinez was the Allen-Bender matchmaker, with Allen’s regular man, Michael Maroney, out with a bad back.

Allen’s got smokes in the bag, a beer in hand when the day is done and a flat, clearing swing that produces shots out of the Hogan playbook. He figured it out late in the day but over the past 10 years this guy’s been deadly, and a pleasure to hang with. He’s not in a rush. He’s not chasing corporate money. There’s no entourage. He got a swing from the teacher Mike Mitchell and he has stayed with it. At Broken Sound, he was wearing a Seminole visor. He’s very good at golf. He’s not trying to save the world. He knows his way around a wine list and the cigar case. His idea of a good time and Pete’s might be different, but not on the course, especially late on Sunday. On the first playoff hole, the second shot was a smashed thread-the-needle 6-iron that in the end is all player, but the preamble to this one was a decidedly affirmative caddie-player conversation.

In ’86, Norman led all four majors through 54 holes. He won one of them, that Open at Turnberry. Pete says he did one significant thing. On the sixth hole, he grabbed him by the waistband, pulled him closer and said, “You’re racing. You’re walking fast, swinging fast. Walk with me.” That’s the art of the thing.

On Sunday night, Martinez and Bender made the drive to Naples, for the next senior event. Two caddies in a car, same as forever. Pete says he has no desire to go back to the regular tour, where he last worked for Aaron Baddeley. That life comes with too many complications these days, all rooted in being a member of an entourage. The senior tour is not nearly as exciting, but he knows everybody. It feels like home.

Bender was on the first tee with Baddeley on Father’s Day 2007 at the U.S Open at Oakmont. Baddeley and Woods were in day’s last twosome. Woods walked on that tee wearing the tightest red T-shirt you’ve ever seen, his muscles bulging through it. He looked like he owned the place. Baddeley was stacking-and-tilting, but how much he really believed in it Bender did not know. Woods shot two over and finished a shot behind Angel Cabrera. Who would have guessed that at High Noon? Baddeley shot 80 and over time parted ways with s-and-t. Only cancer got in the way of his relationship with Pete.

Anyway, Pete’s cell phone was bleating on that Sunday night in Pittsburgh, not like it was here at Boca. It wasn’t just that again he was carrying a winning bag. It’s that he’s here.