Teacher and student combine for championship team

Mike Bender Zach Johnson
Getty Images
Mike Bender experienced a dream-come-true week as he caddied for student Zach Johnson as Johnson won a championship
Bob Denney
The PGA of America

Series: News Feature

Published: Tuesday, July 17, 2012 | 10:17 a.m.

Mike Bender and Zach Johnson grew up 20 years apart in Iowa, in cities separated by 47 miles but sharing a dream to become a golf professional.

Originally from Waterloo, Iowa, Bender, now a 56-year-old director of instruction for the Mike Bender Golf Academy at Magnolia Lake Golf Club in Lake Mary, Fla., competed three seasons on the PGA Tour (1987-89). He gravitated into building a career as one of the country's top teaching professionals. In 2009, Bender's peers honored him as the PGA Teacher of the Year.

Johnson was a late blooming talent who graduated from a high school that does not exist anymore. Cedar Rapids Regis High School produced two of the state's most celebrated athletes - Johnson, the 2007 Masters Champion and a football player who never started for his college team - former St. Louis Rams quarterback and Super Bowl MVP, Kurt Warner.
Last Sunday afternoon in Silvis, Ill., it was Bender realizing a dream that he never considered possible. He was present on a Sunday when one of his students won a championship.

Johnson, who has been Bender's student since 2000, made another statement in the John Deere Classic. He rallied from a four-stroke deficit with a closing 6-under-par 65, temporarily taking the lead, and then going two extra holes in a playoff with Troy Matteson, each time on the 18th hole.

Johnson capped a dramatic day by hitting a career-defining 6-iron approach from 192 yards from a fairway bunker that rolled to within six inches of the hole. The tap-in birdie delighted a partisan gallery of an event where Johnson is like a hometown hero.

"I've got to pinch myself; it was just amazing," said Bender, who had caddied just once in his career, the last for Mac O'Grady in 1990 in the Disney Classic. The job last week opened up when Bender learned that Johnson's longtime caddie, Damon Green, was taking the week off to compete in the U.S. Senior Open.

Realizing Johnson's dilemma, he offered his caddie services to Johnson.

"Zach said right away that he didn't think I could make it," said Bender. "I told him what I had often told my kids, 'Never underestimate a professional athlete.' It took him awhile to give the OK. I did have a good understanding of what it takes to caddie. People think you just carry a bag and that's it. It's tough work and my hat's off to Damon. There's a lot more to this job."

In his post-round news conference, Johnson praised his coach after a special week's work.

"All Mike's work was Monday to Wednesday, that's it," said Johnson, with a big grin, "No. it's awesome. We have great chemistry. Obviously, we're very close friends. We have a business relationship, too, but I think certainly that our friendship transcends that. I've always trusted him. We have a great unique trust relationship when it comes to golf. Our priorities are the same. He's a Christian man, a family man, so there are many things that mesh."

Johnson said that Bender reconstructed his golf swing and "honed and ironed in my short game."

"He knows "the specifics of the swing. I just try to go play," said Johnson. "He gives me little pieces here and there. The beauty of it is, I think, we're still learning about each other and the game and how to improve."

Despite what television viewers may think when Johnson's ball found the water in the opening of the playoff, Bender said his student was doing the right thing. Matteson had just dumped his approach from the trees into a bordering pond, but Johnson was not about to play a short approach from 190 yards.

"It is match play at that point, and anything is possible," said Bender. "Zach had a downhill lie from his first time in the bunker. The ball was below his feet and he just caught it thin. Troy was all set to make a drop closer to the green and chip up and likely make bogey. Your best play at that point was to make par." Both players settled for double bogeys, but Bender had some anxious moments.

"Troy missed his bogey putt, and Zach hit his bogey attempt five feet past the hole. I was more nervous about him making that putt," said Bender. "But, when it comes to short game and putting, I'll take Zach. He proved it again."

Given that reprieve, with both players settling for double bogeys, the twosome headed back to the 18th tee. Matteson hit a 3-wood in the fairway, while Johnson's drive again found the same fairway bunker, this time with a better lie.

"Zach's a world-class player and you trust him that he will just step in, choke down on the 6-iron and execute the shot like he has before," said Bender. "We both couldn't see the ball after it began to turn toward the green. I hope to see a replay. We were right into the sun. We just kept hearing the crowd as the ball rolled closer to the hole. David Feherty (CBS' roving reporter) came over and said that it was six inches from the hole."

Johnson's approach will serve as one of the best shots of the golf season. It is a highlight that Bender can go home, turn on his DVD player and enjoy forever.

"I didn't get a minute of sleep last night thinking 1,000 times about the final hole," said Bender.

It's OK if you pinch yourself, Coach. It was all real.