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Chicago Loop To Pete Bender, who has worked for some of the game's greats and seen it all during his 34 years on Tour, Open week is still special

June 23, 2003
June 23, 2003

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June 23, 2003

Sports Illustrated Bonus Section: Golf Plus

Chicago Loop To Pete Bender, who has worked for some of the game's greats and seen it all during his 34 years on Tour, Open week is still special

It's Monday evening, three days before the start of the U.S. Open,
and the trees cast horizontal shadows across the 1st fairway at
Olympia Fields Country Club as a lone figure moves swiftly from
tee to green. The man is tanned and an athletic 6'3". His khaki
pants are perfectly creased, his white cotton shirt immaculate. A
bit of salt-and-pepper hair peeks out from under his black
baseball cap. There is a martial efficiency to his movements as
he veers from point A to point B to point C. He makes quick stops
and briefly looks down to jot notes in a small black book. After
the 1st hole, he walks the 2nd and then the 3rd. An hour goes by
before he reaches the 9th green.

This is an article from the June 23, 2003 issue

He is alone with the mowing crews and a three-quarter moon. There
is a smile on his face, and his hazel eyes are shining. This is
his favorite time. He loves the solitude and the beauty of the
course. He is preparing for his 20th U.S. Open. His name is Pete
Bender, and he is a caddie.

Bender's day began at his house in Roseville, Calif., with a 4
a.m. wake-up call. From there he traveled to Dallas, then on to
Chicago's O'Hare Airport, where he rented a car and crept through
late-afternoon traffic to Olympia Fields. For 34 years now the
places have changed but not the routine. Those years add up to
about 888 tournaments, 25 wins--including two British Opens--and
roughly 444 pairs of sneakers. Bender's first job was a lark. In
1969 some of the guys he caddied for in San Jose persuaded him to
try to get a bag at the Bing Crosby Pro-Am at Pebble Beach. Frank
Beard gave him a chance, paying him $75 for the week. When the
tournament ended, Beard asked Bender if he would be in Los
Angeles for the L.A. Open a couple of weeks later. Bender said
yes before he could even process the thought. "My mom asked me if
I could make money caddying," says Bender, 54. "I said, 'No, but
I can see the country.'" That was a big deal to a kid who had
never left Santa Cruz. Bender took a Greyhound bus to L.A.,
picked up Beard's bag and has been lugging precious metals (and
woods) ever since.

At 9 p.m. Olympia Fields is empty except for security guards, the
grounds crew and the support staff. Bender, having charted the
entire 18, is the last caddie to leave. He grabs a Power Bar and
a banana--dinner--from the caddie shack before driving to the
Extended Stay motel, 20 miles away off Route 80, for some
much-needed sleep. Next morning he gets to the course at 6:45 for
his 7:10 meeting with his current boss, Rocco Mediate. "The first
rule of caddying," he says, "is always be on time."

They're unable to get right to work, however, because of the
weather. While the rain pelts down, Bender sits under a white
canopy on the porch outside the players' locker room discussing
last week's caddie casualties. (Vijay Singh had fired Paul
Tesori, his man for three years, and K.J. Choi had let go Paul
Fusco.) There is no such thing as job security for a Tour caddie.
Bender has worked for, among others, Chip Beck, John Cook, Ian
Baker-Finch, Ray Floyd, Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Tom Shaw, Hal
Sutton and Lanny Wadkins. His shortest stint was six months, with
Sutton. He has been with Mediate for almost five years.

At 10 a.m. the weather clears, and Mediate emerges from the
locker room. The two rag on each other like high school buddies
as player and caddie move to the practice range. When Bender
walks off to get a towel, Mediate points toward him. "It doesn't
get any better than that man," he says. "I've done things in golf
that I didn't think I could do, and a lot of that is due to Pete.
He's very intense. He never lets his guard down, which I tend to
do too much."

Mediate pulls out a new three-wood. "He hates it when I change
clubs," says Mediate, the 25th-ranked player in the world. He
mimics a Bender moan, sounding like a bear in heat, before
saying, "I'm more afraid of what he's going to say than how the
club will perform. Last year in Vegas he had a conniption when I
pulled out the long putter." Mediate smiles. "I putted my butt
off."

The new three-wood is in the bag because Mediate's buddy,
two-time Open champion Lee Janzen, warned him that he'd need more
heat for the long par-3s (the 212-yard 7th and the 247-yard 17th)
at Olympia Fields. Immediately upon his return, Bender wants to
put the three-wood to the test. "Let's see right to left," he
says. Mediate responds with a high draw, then says, "Tight enough
for you, Pete?"

Mediate tells a story about competing in the Buick Classic a few
years ago at Westchester Country Club. "It's the second round,
and I'm on the cut line. It's the 7th hole, and I'm in a funk. I
chip the ball up on the green, and it comes rolling back down. I
swipe a chip, and the ball goes in the hole for par. Pete throws
the bag down really hard and says, 'After the round we have to
talk.' He told me that if I ever did that again, he'd drop the
bag and leave." Mediate shakes his head. "A lot of caddies
wouldn't have said anything."

Not all Tour players would respond well to Bender's
tell-it-like-it-is style. "There are plenty of yes-caddies out
there," says Andy Martinez, Bender's friend and Tom Lehman's
caddie. "The player says, 'You like the six-iron?' The caddie
says, 'Yes.' 'It's downwind?' 'Yes.' Pete is old school. A lot of
new guys are afraid to disagree or question the boss's judgment."
When Bender and Martinez started out, they were among the handful
of caddies who weren't African-American, and nobody was in it for
the money because there wasn't much. The top guys now, almost all
of whom are white, make a modest salary but usually get 10% of
the check if their man wins and 5% to 7% if he makes the cut. "I
work for a guy who lets me into the ball game," says Bender. "I
love the pressure."

The only stat that matters to Bender is his player's spot on the
money list. In 1998, the year before hiring Bender, Mediate made
less than $400,000 and ranked 78th in earnings. In 1999 he won
close to $1 million and was 37th on the money list. Last season
Mediate won more than $2 million and was 22nd.

After a one-hour warmup session during which Mediate worked
through his bag, Mediate, Janzen and 1995 Open champion Corey
Pavin are ready to tee off at the 10th hole. Bender rifles
through Mediate's bag and pulls out one of the two paper
envelopes that contain the ingredients for a vitamin C-rich
drink, which he mixes with bottled water. Besides clubs and balls
Bender always packs the drink mix, a few high-protein energy bars
and a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, as well as Mediate's
cellphone and a picture of his family. The bag weighs about 40
pounds. "When he's playing bad, it feels more like 60," says
Bender. "When he's in contention, I don't even feel it." Bender
has been injured only once. Back in the 1970s, when caddies still
shagged balls during practice, he couldn't work for two days
after Shaw hit him in the right shoulder with a tee shot.

Mediate is not a good practice player, so Bender is unfazed when
Mediate begins his round by spraying his drives every which way.
After nine, Mediate leaves his playing partners to work on his
driving at the range. Almost immediately he starts whacking the
liver out of the ball--a good 20 yards farther than usual. "I'm
hitting it perfect," Mediate says to Bender. Mediate has a large
smile on his face when he finally calls it a day, at 3:30 p.m.,
which pleases Bender. If the boss leaves happy, the caddie leaves
happy.

With some time to kill, Bender drives to a nearby Fuddruckers for
a leisurely steak sandwich and shake, then decides to do some
late-afternoon shopping. He loves clothes, particularly black
clothes (he always wears black on Sundays), and knows a good deal
on cashmere when he sees one. It might have something to do with
having four sisters, but Bender swears he's the best shopper of
the bunch. He stops at T.J. Maxx to look at golf shirts but winds
up buying a pair of white Adidas ($39) with blue stripes. Then
it's back to the Extended Stay for some rest. Bender doesn't
smoke, rarely drinks and, except for the occasional dinner with
Martinez, keeps to himself. He sleeps well and often has the same
dream--catching rainbow trout on the Fall River, in Northern
California.

Wednesday, which usually includes a five-hour pro-am round, is
not Bender's favorite day, but because there are no pro-ams at
the majors, most pros play an extra practice round. Mediate,
though, opts to go off-campus to play the exclusive Chicago Golf
Club with his coach, Rick Smith, and Phil Mickelson, so Bender
gets the day off. He works out, as he does four or five times a
week, and makes personal calls. (He's checking on a fly rod
that's in for repairs and trying to score Open tickets for
friends of friends.) At 11 a.m. he returns to the course to buy
U.S. Open merchandise for Arizona Diamondbacks players Mark
Grace, who played with Mediate in this year's AT&T, and Mike
Myers. Bender buys money clips, T-shirts and sweatshirts, and
even with the 20% discount given to caddies, his bill comes to
$398.

Later Bender drives to the Adventure Trails Family Entertainment
and Golf Center, in nearby Crete, Ill., to hit a bucket of balls
and play miniature golf with his friend Dov Harris, a Tour caddie
who was working for NBC at the Open, and Harris's wife, Elan.
"What's the course record?" Bender asks the girl behind the
counter before picking out a putter. She smiles, showing off a
full set of braces. Bender is considered one of the best on Tour
at reading greens, but he overcoaches in this game, offering
strategies on how to play the slope of the turf and how to avoid
a wrecked pirate ship and a waterfall. He's breaking caddie rule
number 2: Know when to talk and when to shut up. Bender is very
competitive and makes everything a game. Back in the car, he
initiates a contest. The first person to name the artist whose
song is playing on the radio wins a point, and he laughs when he
gets one and ups the bet when he misses.

The final day-off stop is U.S. Cellular Field, where his beloved
Giants beat the White Sox 11-4. Bender calls Mediate en route to
check on his man's frame of mind, but there's no answer so he
leaves a message. After five innings of pizza, beer, peanuts and
a Barry Bonds homer, it's back to the Extended Stay.

Mediate has on his game face on Thursday when he, Bernhard Langer
and Vijay Singh tee off at 7:50 a.m. "I can tell at the 1st tee
whether he's ready to play or not," says Bender. "If there's
something I don't like, I give him this look, and he says, 'Why
are you giving me that look?' I say, 'Come on! Let's get going!
Quit screwing around!'"

Today, Mediate is struggling. Bender tells him he looks a little
quick. Mediate is three over at the turn, and when he starts
hitting cut shots, Bender calls him on it, telling him to get
back to his usual draw. "I can't," says Mediate, who has been
fighting a bad back.

"Bull. I'm not buying it," says Bender.

The tough love seems to work. Mediate starts finding the fairway
and at one point gets to one over. But he makes two bogeys coming
in and ends the day back at plus-three. "That was so ugly," says
Bender as the player and caddie exit through the tunnel of fans
between the 18th green and the clubhouse. "We're heading straight
to the range."

Confidence, drive and desire are the qualities of champions. Good
caddies can help bring them out, but even a great caddie can't
make a man believe in himself. Bender remembers the plane ride
home after Ian Baker-Finch won the 1991 British Open. "People
didn't expect him to win," Bender says. "He was nervous, and he
said to me, 'Do you think it was a fluke?' I said, 'Ian, you shot
64-66 on the last two days of the British Open. That's not a
fluke.'"

Bender says he knew Baker-Finch was in trouble when he responded,
"Now I have to play at this level all the time."

At the Olympia Fields range Mediate is met by Smith. Bender
cleans Mediate's clubs while Smith works on his swing.

Two hours later Mediate is satisfied. "We need to get off to a
good start and get some momentum," Bender says as they walk back
to the clubhouse. "We have to get back to even par tomorrow."

Bender is wearing a well-ironed black shirt as he and Mediate
walk to the range at noon on Friday, 50 minutes before their tee
time. As Mediate hits short irons, Bender studies the pin sheet
and checks yardages. Smith comes by, and Bender steps back. When
Smith says, "There's a 62 out there today," Bender overrules him,
saying, "We're looking for even par."

The day begins well as Mediate birdies the 1st hole, but he
three-putts from 20 feet on number 2, sending his first roll
eight feet past the cup. "Hit it!" Bender yells when the
comebacker stops short.

Four hours later, as they walk up 18, Mediate is eight over. An
unhappy Bender removes his caddie bib before Mediate makes a
meaningless birdie putt. This is the first time all year that his
man has missed the cut.

Another U.S. Open is over. On Monday, Bender will fly to
Westchester for this week's Tour stop. At dusk when the course is
quiet, he plans to take his lone walk, starting the process all
over again. This is the only life he knows. He once gave it up
for a year, in 1996, in an attempt to save his 12-year marriage,
but it didn't work. "She was happy that I was home, but I was
miserable," Bender says.

He plans to caddie for five more years, then put up a gone
fishin' sign. He has two houses in Roseville, one where he lives
with his 81-year-old mother, Ann, and his twin sister, Carol, and
another that he rents. He wants to spend his retirement at the
lodge he and Mediate plan to build on Fall River. He says he'll
be a fishing guide, helping people, which, when you think about
it, is a lot like caddying, only wetter.

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRED VUICH PERFECT PACE Bender's work week started on Monday evening, when he charted the course for Mediate (inset, right).COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRED VUICH SLICE OF LIFE Bender, a big Giants fan, brought Harris, a fellow caddie, to see his team beat the White Sox on Wednesday.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRED VUICH SHOPPING SPREE Bender spent $398 on souvenirs for, among others, the Diamondbacks' Grace and Myers.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRED VUICH SMALL BALL Despite his overcoaching, Bender beat Harris in a spirited game of miniature golf during a rare afternoon off.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRED VUICH MARKED MAN Bender's all-business, all-the-time approach has helped Mediate, who sometimes loses focus, raise his game.
Mediate once made a careless chip, he says, and "Pete throws the
bag down hard and says, 'After the round we have to talk.'"