Bench can't catch a break

Saturday, September 19, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Johnny Bench plays in the Kroger Senior Classic.
(Tony Jones photo)

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MASON -- Johnny Bench emerged from a drainage ditch with the pants to prove it. He had mud on both legs, mud on the bill of his baseball cap, and some figurative egg on his face.

He had made a mess of a smart gray ensemble, and failed to bridge the gap to the green. After eight straight systematic pars, the great slugger lost sight of his own strength Friday afternoon at the Kroger Senior Classic. He hit the ball harder than he had intended, only to find it in the middle of a swamp.

"I knew what I was doing in baseball," Bench explained. "In golf, the oldest line in the world is you have to play your foul balls."

Johnny Bench has more than enough power to compete on the Senior PGA Tour. His problem is precision. He has improved his putting with an unconventional grip, but his short game continues to spring leaks. He doesn't play enough golf to perfect the delicate touch shots that win tournaments, and he hasn't made the commitment to master them. He shot a 6-over par 76 Friday on a golf course known for its generosity. He might do better, but he won't make the time.

Not driven to drive

"I haven't had the discipline," he said. "I think that I probably lose focus. Maybe I don't think I can come out here and beat the bigger percentage of these players. But I think I could reach a level . . . The way I played the first eight holes, it's just a step up to reach a pretty competitive level on this tour."

Much as Bench would like to make this step, he is not driven to do so. His post-baseball career consists largely of motivational speeches and personal appearances, by airports and autographs and adulation. Golf amounts to an afterthought.

His life allows him the luxury to treat his hobby as recreation instead of religion. If Bench has short-changed his talent to chase other goals, the same might be said of an old catcher named Jack Nicklaus.

"I don't feel totally out of place out here," Bench said, standing outside the scoring trailer at The Golf Center at Kings Island. "I'm four or five shots away from being competitive. I should come in here at 72, at my worst."

He shot a 76 Friday because he overshot the green at Nos. 9 and 11, and his trouble shots were terrible. He took a double bogey amid the mud on No. 9, and struck a tree, chili-dipped a chip shot and triple-bogeyed No. 11.

When he hit his tee shot on the par three No. 16 to within six feet of the hole -- setting up his only birdie -- Bench raised his arms as if to signal a touchdown, and announced, "Hey, that looked like a golf shot, didn't it?"

When he hit his tee shot on No. 17, however, Bench's only audible reaction was, "Fore."

Bench's 76 left him 12 shots off the lead, but was nonetheless superior to the scores of three former Masters champions: Tommy Aaron, Gay Brewer and Billy Casper. All three of those green-jacket owners, it should be noted, are in their 60s.

Getting old even for seniors

If Bench is to compete with younger lions like Bruce Summerhays, he must do so soon. The senior tour tends to be dominated by those players most recently removed from their 50th birthday, and Bench turns 51 in December.

He plans to try the Senior Tour's regional tour school qualifier in Arizona in November, and he's already telling himself that this might be his last shot. They say golf is the game of a lifetime because it sometimes takes that long to figure it out.

"It was instinct in baseball," Bench said. "You reacted when you catch the ball. You reacted when you see the ball. There's way too much time to think (in golf)."

Before Bench bogeyed the 18th hole, a woman looked at the tote board and noticed the black number 5 beside his name.

"Hey, that's his number, isn't it?" she said, referring to the uniform Bench wore en route to the Hall of Fame. One difference: Bench's baseball number was always red. To get a red number in golf, you must first break par.