Sunday, September 12, 1999

Bench's second chance


Nicklaus clubs, a new game await Seniors Tour try

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Johnny Bench has achieved every golfer's fantasy. No less an authority than Jack Nicklaus has given him permission to blame his bad shots on his clubs.

        “I played with Jack last week in Park City (Utah),” Bench said Saturday afternoon at Cinergy Field. “He said, "Your game is getting a lot better, but the clubs you have aren't set right for you. You hit three or four shots that cost you six or seven. I'll show you why if we go over to the (practice) range.'”

New sticks on Friday
        The Golden Bear watched Bench shoot a 75 last Saturday and thought he saw the makings of a 67. Bench, naturally, was eager to find it. So the all-century catcher took the all-century golfer up on his offer and Friday received a new set of custom irons set to Nicklaus' discerning specifications.

        One problem: If Bench does not henceforth dominate the Senior PGA Tour, he has one less excuse.

        “I really feel like my short game has gotten better and I'm playing pretty well,” Bench said, leaning on the batting cage before Saturday's Reds-Marlins game. “But right now, I don't have time. I'm on the road for another week, and then home for a day or two. Most of these guys are hitting 300 to 400 balls a day.”

Too much thinking
        Nicklaus succeeded in becoming “a legend in his spare time,” as Chi Chi Rodriguez once put it, but Bench has found it more difficult to play the dilettante. Baseball is about instinct, reflex, muscle memory. Golf gives a man too much time to think. Bench has never been able to carve out enough time to carve himself a niche.

        He is more a celebrity golfer than a serious player, a senior who typically plays tournaments because of sponsorship exemptions and starpower rather than head-to-head qualifying.

        No shame in that. When today's Senior Tour stars were sharpening their short game, Johnny Bench was making his living by hitting the longball. It would be almost unfair if he were able to pick up golf after being inducted in baseball's Hall of Fame and zoom to the head of the class.

        A man should only get so much greatness in one lifetime. Johnny Bench has had his share and then some.

        Barring epic fraud at the ballot box, Bench will be named to Baseball's All-Century team after the polls close on Sept. 19. In the most recent returns, only Lou Gehrig has a larger lead at his position than does Bench over his back-up catcher, Yogi Berra.

        Forget that the All-Century team is a promotional gimmick for a credit card company. Forget that its roster will be overweighted with recent players. This is bound to be one very big deal.

Cinergy explosion
        The living players elected to the team will be invited to appear at ceremonies preceding the first game of the World Series. Imagine the scene if Bench and Pete Rose were introduced at Cinergy Field on Oct. 23. Imagine bedlam to the 10th power.

        For Bench, it figures to be a mixed blessing. His induction summer of 1989 was haunted by Baseball's investigation and banishment of Rose. Every other question Bench was asked was about his prodigal teammate. If Rose is elected to the All-Century team, Bench's achievement surely will be overshadowed.

        Them's the breaks. Johnny Bench knows better than to complain about forces beyond his control. Neither will he take issue with his exclusion from this month's Kroger Senior Classic, an event he had been involved with from the beginning.

        “Johnny is a friend of mine and a wonderful person,” said Don Schumacher, the tournament's general chairman. “But he's a spokesman for Fifth/Third Bank. When you have a competing bank involved (in this Firstar), it's hard to have him there.”

        Pity. Jack Nicklaus' irons will have to be broken in somewhere else.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your e-mail at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

        SULLIVAN ARCHIVE