If you like underdog stories in golf then Ben Bates is a good man to root for this week. Ben is a 58-year-old golf professional who spent the majority of his life chasing mini tours and golfing glory all across America. That pursuit hit its peak during the turn-of-the-century years when he spent four seasons on the PGA Tour. Before and after that stint, he was busy racking up a record-setting amount of starts on the often renamed Korn-Ferry Tour. Today, he’s part of a company that manages four golf courses in Pensacola, Florida, but this week he’s back on the road en route to try his luck at the U.S. Senior Open.
Ben earned his way into the Senior Open via a runner-up finish in the Montgomery, Alabama sectional qualifier earlier this summer. Staying busy with his duties in the golf business, he doesn’t have time for practice and playing much these days. Not exactly a recipe for winning the Open. However, after a long hiatus on the professional circuits, he was able to find lightning in a bottle and make it in on the number for the chance to compete for a national championship. The Senior U.S. Open kicks off later this week at the Warren Course at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana and for the first time in four years, Ben will be making a start at the highest level of Senior golf.
I should mention that I have a familial rooting interest in Ben’s career. He is my uncle on my mom’s side of the family and seeing him return to competitive golf at the Open is a big deal for those of us in his small but dedicated fan club. In my childhood, our family spent many days watching closely online to see where he would finish each week. These were the days when we got our golf news via dial-up internet, flip phones, and print journalism. Once on a Sunday, we spent hours in front of a Comfort Inn computer station in Dothan, Alabama hitting the refresh button as he plotted his way through a seven-hole playoff to capture his second win on the Korn-Ferry Tour. This week family and friends will be watching again but with much-improved technology and a hunger to see our guy play well in the big leagues once more.
Ben hardly has any business playing in a major championship these days, but sometimes the golf gods smile down on forgotten sons like him and offer another chance to prove their worth. To say that his presence at the championship is a long shot at this point would be an understatement. He is particularly proud of the fact that he made it in the Open using clubs and balls that are a decade old. Both are remnants from the last days of his tour contracts with Callaway Golf. He still has a closet full of unused gear that he plays with including his “brand new” Nike shoes that were made twenty years ago but are just now seeing daylight. Despite aging equipment and a rusty game, Bates still has the drive to compete and some serious ball striking skills. That’s what got him to the Open and if he has any success there it will be because he can still call it up when needed.
I spent a few hours with Ben last weekend at Marcus Point Golf Club, the blue-collar course that has been his office these past five years, as he was preparing to depart for the Open in Indiana. We played a few holes on a hot Saturday afternoon as he put in a few final swings before taking off for what could be his last shot at making a big splash in golf. Driving around the property, we hit a few shots throughout the course as he found openings between a busy tee sheet that day. It was tough to play much though because everyone wanted to say hello. Due to his qualifying for the Open he was getting even more shout outs than normal. Ben has a huge personality and everywhere he goes people wave for him to come over and talk or tell a story. On this day, those short visits were all filled with good luck wishes and other congratulatory remarks from the players that frequent his club.
Ben has always been beloved by the golfers he surrounds himself with. On tour, he was always the life of the party and a repository for side-splitting jokes. You might think of him as a dream Pro-am partner. Whether he is in the locker room at a tour event or the grill room of a Golf Now paradise, he is still the guy that folks flock to. This was evident as we sat around the bar at Marcus Point having a few beers as the men’s golf association was tallying the scorecards for the day. Sitting there next to him I watched player after player stop by to extend a fist pound, handshake, or call for him to “kick some ass” at the Open. It was quite the pep talk for a guy about to chase his dream again.
Life has brought Ben a long way since his days on the big tour. When he was coming off his final days as a PGA Tour member he was a brand new father. Now, he’s heading to the Open with his son Angus slated to caddie for him. Angus is a high school graduate as of earlier this month and will most certainly be the most green of loopers at the Warren Course this week. Fortunately for him, he will be carrying for a seasoned old pro who won’t need much advice. Ben’s support group goes well beyond just young Angus though. He’s got folks from all over the country watching from afar and a few special fans are making the trip. In the crowd will be his parents, Ed and Louise(my grandparents), who are thrilled at the prospect of taking another road trip to see their son tee it up.
Back in the late 90’s we all made a ritual out of traveling to watch Ben play. My grandfather had a old Dodge travel van that we all called “big red” and every summer we took trips to hunt down the chance to watch Ben go up against the big guns on tour. I remember those days well as they were the beginning of my decent into golf infatuation. We had clubhouse passes and an all access life for a few years and it was glorious. Especially for me as a kid just shy of being a teenager and meeting my heroes at each stop. I can’t make the trip this go round, but Gramps and Weezy wouldn’t miss it for the world.
Ben last teed it up on the Champions tour in 2015 at the event in Biloxi, Mississippi. He had to qualify his way into that outing as well. There just isn’t much room on that tour for guys who don’t have a healthy resume of winning. He spent some time chasing out there though. He damn near got a spot via the limited Q-school tournament and one season he even set a record for most successful attempts at Monday qualifying. It’s hard to describe just how on brand that is for him. Either way, those swings and misses led him home to Pensacola and into a new role in golf.
Ben is the perfect guy to run a golf course. He has never met a stranger and he makes everyone feel at home. When he and his partners took over Marcus Point it was closed and in serious disrepair. It still isn’t perfect, but the tee sheet now stays full every week. I believe Ben to be a major part of that success. If every club in America had a Ben Bates behind the counter there would be no issue growing the game. Despite such talents I know he misses the old life on tour and he is definitely happy to be back in the game this week.
When I asked Ben what excited him the most about the opportunity to play in the Open, he surprised me with his answer. He didn’t mention the cheering crowds or the swanky accommodations for players at the course. There was no talk of luxury courtesy cars or the thrill of the chase either. “I’m most excited to be back on the road…even for one week” he told me. “Its been a long time and I’m glad to be able to get out on the road and go after it again.” I think that’s where he has always felt most at home.
It’s a twelve hour drive from Pensacola to South Bend and for Ben he’s got plenty of memories to keep himself entertained. He has burned up more than his fare share of miles over the years, but this road trip will be different. He will have his son riding shotgun and perhaps one last shot at immortality laying in front of him. Odds are he will go through the vast array of the Elvis catalog while singing along the way and there is a good chance this trip will be the end of his career, but no matter the outcome he will be able to enjoy one more opportunity to let it fly with the best in the world. For some folks that can be a lot to think about during a long ride, but for Ben its just one more chance to chase what he loves down the open road. His love for golf has kept him in the game for decades and the pursuit of his passion has always remained relentless. In my heavily biased opinion, that’s what makes him worth rooting for.