SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Aaron Baddeley’s loss to Tiger Woods in 20 holes in the third round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship last year wasn’t a life-or-death situation for Baddeley’s caddie, Pete Bender. That came later.
Bender hadn’t felt well all week, and one of his lymph nodes had swollen to the size of a golf ball. One doctor insisted he was fine, but a second opinion confirmed his worst fear. As Bender, 59, put it at the FBR Open on Wednesday, he’d “caught” cancer.
“It’s the same thing Hubert Green had,” he said as he stood on the practice putting green, where he received well-wishes and the boss practiced his stroke. “A doctor tried to tell me it was secondhand smoke. I’ve never smoked in my life.”
When Bender dropped out of sight after the Match Play, word got out that one of the Tour’s most famous caddies was in bad shape.
Bender counts two British Open victories (1986, ’90) among 28 Tour wins in his 38-year career. He’s worked for Greg Norman, Ian Baker-Finch, Ray Floyd, Jack Nicklaus, Lanny Wadkins, Hal Sutton, Rocco Mediate and now Baddeley. The caddie didn’t think he’d hit retirement age, but had to reconsider from his hospital bed.
He left the Tour, went home outside Sacramento, Calif., had his tonsils out, underwent chemotherapy and radiation, and didn’t eat for 62 days. Always skinny to begin with, he went from 178 pounds to 130. He spent two months in the hospital.
“Eventually I was so depressed I just had to get out of there,” he said. “I told them to get me out whatever it took.”
Wouldn’t you know it, the caddie strapped his salvation to his back. Doctors fit him with a backpack full of calorie-rich liquid food, a mobile soup kitchen that began to restore some of Bender’s vitality by way of his veins. He wore it for two months.
As he began to gain back weight (he’s now 150), he began to feel better. Baddeley, who played the rest of 2008 and his first two tournaments of ’09 with an old friend and longtime Tour caddie named Anthony (Ant Man) Knight, called Bender regularly, although the caddie couldn’t always talk.
In his first week back on Tour at TPC Scottsdale this week, Bender will tote a special lightweight carry bag, courtesy of his boss and Adams Golf. He walked the course without the bag Sunday and “felt great,” and went nine holes with the bag Wednesday.
“He’s skinnier,” Baddeley said, “but he’s still pretty chatty.”
Bender goes in for regular check-ups and is guarded in assessing his health, which he has continued to address with a combination of traditional and holistic treatments. He’s done with the chemo, but it’s not yet done with him.
“I can taste avocadoes and bananas but not salad dressings and certain soups,” he said. “I live on vitamins. I’m taking like 45 a day. I knew I needed help, and found a woman who has really been great. That’s how I’ve put on the 20 pounds.”
Baddeley finished up his putting and Bender followed him to the tiny carry bag, leaning on its kickstand in the fringe. Bender hoisted the clubs over his shoulders for the short walk to the range, a man trying to make the most of a mulligan.
(Photo: Stan Badz/PGA TOUR/Getty Images)