Frank Bensel didn't think it was possible that he would be hoisting a trophy when he arrived at PGA Golf Club Sunday morning. But the PGA assistant professional at Century Country Club in Purchase, N.Y., achieved the improbable, by closing with a sparkling 6-under-par 66 to cap a memorable comeback and take home his second consecutive title in the 35th Callaway Golf PGA Assistant Championship.
Finishing more than an hour before the leaders, Bensel made a furious final-round push that included an eagle and five birdies to finish with a 5-under-par 283 total, a stroke better than a group of six that included third-round co-leaders Aaron Clark of Springfield, Mo., and Scott Berliner of Albany, N.Y.; along with Jamie Broce of Clayton, Ind., Tyler Hitchcock of Orlando, Fla., Ryan Sikora of Greensburg, Pa., and Richard Terga of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
It was just Bensel's day. The 43-year-old, who began his final 18 holes in a tie for 24th and eight strokes off the pace, staved off putts from Berliner, Clark and Sikora on the final hole, any of which would have forced a Championship playoff.
"I couldn't believe it. This game is so unpredictable," said Bensel. "I knew the only way I was going to get back into the tournament was to have the wind howl again and make some putts. Both of those things happened."
Bensel kick-started his day with three consecutive birdies on the front nine and a miraculous eagle on the par-4 12th. His gap wedge from 118 yards bounced just past the hole, spun back toward the cup, and disappeared.
"I really started off slow, but then caught fire on 6," said Bensel. "And then on 12, I knew the shot was good, but didn't actually know it went in right away because of a ridge right in front of the cup."
Bensel, who finished with birdies on 13 and 16 and a tough-to-come-by par at the 18th, knew that the final hole would be pivotal.
"The 18th hole was playing hard with the pin up, water in front and the wind in our face," said Bensel. "But I snuck by with a par and that ended up saving me in the end."
Bensel earned a coveted spot in the 45th PGA Professional National Championship at Bayonet and Black Horse in Seaside, Calif., next June, and took home a $9,000 first-place check.
With his victory, Bensel becomes the fourth player in Championship history to win more than one title. He joins Darrell Kestner (1982, '87), Jim Schuman (1996, '97) and Kyle Flinton (2002, '03, '05).
"It was a great day for me today," said Bensel. "The course was extremely hard and I caught some breaks. I feel privileged to win this Championship, not once but twice. It's special."
Aaron Clark, a PGA apprentice at Twin Oaks Country Club in Springfield, Mo., had a chance to get into a playoff with Bensel, but his 3 1/2 -foot par putt hit the back of the hole and lipped out.
"On 18 I hit a bad second shot, a good chip, and then the 3 1/2-footer I had left hit the back of the hole and came out," said Clark, who was competing in just his second PGA Assistant Championship. "But the two double bogeys earlier in the round today really sealed my fate."
Berliner, who had a share of the lead in each of the first three rounds, also had a chance to force a playoff. The 36-year-old struggled on his front nine, but bounced back with birdies on 15 and 16.
"The front nine was a disaster," said Berliner. "But I got back into it with birdies on 15 and 16 to give myself a chance."
But his 6-foot birdie putt on the final hole came up short.
"I knew what I needed to do and I hit a pitching wedge to 6 feet," said Berliner, who was coming off a tie for 14th place finish in the 2010 Championship. "But I left it short. I know I will take something from this later, but right now its pretty tough."
Following play Friday, the field was reduced to the low 70 scorers and ties, with 71 players making the cut at 5-over-par 149.
The 2011 Championship featured 126 PGA assistant professionals and apprentices. The format was changed in 2010 to include the top-4 finishers from last year's Championship as well as 122 players who advanced through their Section Championship.
Callaway Golf returned as the title sponsor for the third consecutive year.
Additionally, the top 10 finishers and ties earned a berth into the first stage of the 2012 PGA Tour Qualifying School.
The PGA Assistant Championship continues a tradition of excellence in bringing together some of the most talented players in The PGA of America as well as being models of the caliber of members who make up the world's largest sports organization.
Past champions include former Ryder Cup Team members Fred Funk and Loren Roberts, and past PGA Professional National Champions Darrell Kestner, Tim Thelen and Bruce Zabriski. Rich Beem, the 2002 PGA Champion, finished in a tie for third in 1998.