The Four Acts of Ben Garner

The golf love story of a prodigy who battled Tiger, lost it all, then found his own kind of paradise
The Four Acts of Ben Garner

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Ben Garner is hiding in plain sight.

Sort of.

One of the perks of living on a giant mass of lava rock in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that gets 350 days of sunshine a year is that everyone is hiding in plain sight. It’s easy to blend in here; celebrities casually walk past you on the beach in boardshorts and old, stretched-out T-shirts. It’s a perfect place for Garner and his second life. Nobody has to know that the guy who is selling them a vacation home was once one of the best young golfers on the planet, or that the tanned and toned blond dude with a Bill and Ted SoCal affect who is paddling out has competed against Tiger Woods more than 75 times (and won a few, too). 

It’s not exactly easy to find Garner. The 45-year-old real estate sales associate spends stretches up in the foothills of the Hualalai volcano in a vintage Airstream trailer that he affectionately calls “The Eagle’s Nest.” Up at the Nest there is a picnic table, a fire pit, a battered patch of Astroturf for rocketing purely struck 8-irons into the sunset, a lot of twinkling Christmas lights and, crucially, no cell service. If Garner goes unexpectedly dark—and he’s known to do that from time to time—people know to check the Nest, if they have been given the location. 

The Four Acts of Ben Garner surfing

But once you do find him, he’s an open book. Garner has a big, gregarious personality that is somehow both laid-back and intense. After what feels like 45 seconds of meeting in his driveway, I am sitting on a barstool in his kitchen, miraculously clutching a cold beer he’s placed in my hand. Before I can get out a notepad or tape recorder, he is a quarter of the way through explaining how, with no warning, his brain and body broke and sabotaged what friends, family, coaches and the entire golfing world expected would be a storybook career on the PGA Tour. This is minute two of our time together. What he’s telling me is, ultimately, a tragedy, which is hard to square with the way he’s telling it. He’s smiling and gesticulating grandly. Nothing sounds even remotely like complaining. He’s rattling off names like Tiger and Sergio—not as objects of fan obsession, but as characters in his story. It’s suddenly clear why I’ve traveled all this way.

Because after you’ve met Ben Garner, you start to see him everywhere. It’s not a perfect comparison, but there’s a Forrest Gump-ian quality to his story—at least in the golf world. He feels a little larger than life. Garner’s done things on a golf course and with a golf ball that few of us can ever dream of. He’s been the beneficiary of immense natural talent and work ethic as well as deep misfortune. (As a child, he was almost kidnapped not once, but twice.) He grew up with reporters calling his house and full-page photo spreads in his local newspaper. He’s straddled the bell-bottom-wearing, chain-smoking, stuffy traditionalism of the old game and the fit, powerful, lucrative and immensely cool version of the new game his famous childhood playing partner helped usher in. He’s been flown out to play courses like Cypress, and he frequently tees it up with (and absolutely crushes) billionaires and Fortune 500 CEOs. He’s been a quiet influence in the lives of Tour players as well as other pro athletes who’ve found golf as part of their second act. Turn on the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am most years and look hard enough and, yep, there’s Garner inside the ropes, on the bag for one of his best friends, surfing legend Kelly Slater. The guy is everywhere.

The Four Acts of Ben Garner tiger woods
As a pair of prodigies on the Southern California junior golf scene, Ben Garner and Tiger Woods spent enough time together to become more than simple adversaries. They bonded over gathering range balls at upscale courses and winning trophies, while helping each other cope with the ever-increasing expectations of their fathers.

To understand Ben Garner, you have to understand just how good he was. In 1983, when he was 7, he started playing in small tournaments in his hometown of Mission Viejo, California. He recorded his first even-par round two years later. Two years after that, Garner was nearly unstoppable; that summer, he played 34 events and won 27. That’s when the hype began in earnest, with headlines like “Youth Enjoys Dream Golf Season” from the Orange County Register

“I was the guy at the driving range in high school where everyone would just come around and watch me hit a golf ball,” Garner tells me. “I was the 10-year-old kid who’d beat 17- and 18-year-olds. It was like, ‘Oh, he’s going to the national scene and he’s going to win.’” 

And he did win. Big. Garner recalls that by age 12 he felt confident he could break 70 on any course, anytime. On average, he’d win tournaments by more than five strokes. At one event in his early teen years, he won by 17. “It’s weird to say this about myself, but I was really fucking good,” he tells me. Just as important was his swagger. Garner was cocky, unafraid of the camera and the spotlight. He heard the whispers that he was, already, a shoo-in for the PGA Tour. And he started to believe it.

So, too, did his father, a former star basketball player and a tyrannical sports parent. Once reporters started calling the house, Garner remembers, things got intense. “People would come up to [my dad] everywhere, especially at the country club, and it was a source of pride,” he says, “but it went to another level.” Garner’s playing career became his father’s identity. “If I went out and played bad with him and his friends,” he says, “it became about how I embarrassed him. It became about him.” If you think that’s a lot to put on a kid who’s too young to drive, you’re right. And that’s without accounting for another kid up the road named Eldrick. 

Garner assures me that this part of his childhood was happy. He describes his time with his father as a true love/hate relationship, but says that playing golf wasn’t just his own choice, but his all-consuming obsession. Looking back at the press clippings, he sounds genuinely happy to have been playing and winning; I counted two different references to “peace of mind.” But it’s also easy to watch the pressure mounting. One Los Angeles Times article from July 1991 peppers Garner, still 14, with questions after his third junior tournament win, asking him if he thinks he can keep up. There’s a section of the story that serves as a perfect time capsule and an eerie harbinger of what’s to come:

“I can’t really be thinking about (continuing the streak) because it adds extra pressure,” Garner said. “But I hope it keeps up because I know when I turn 15, it’s going to stop really quick.”

That’s because the 15-18 division is dominated by Tiger Woods, a 15-year-old from Cypress who is currently the most celebrated junior golfer in the nation.

It’s not easy to grow up competing—especially in a solitary sport like golf—against a future professional. But it’s almost cruel to grow up going toe-to-toe each week with the boy who will become the man who will dominate the game so thoroughly that it will never be the same. Before the hindsight, however, Garner held his own. By 1991, Garner and Woods were considered by ranking services as the two best 14- to 15-year-old golfers in America. 

Talented young athletes tend to have their friends from school and the neighborhood, and then their sports friends. And Woods and Garner were good sports friends. On the course after school, they bonded over their raw talent and the pressures placed on them by their families, their coaches and the press. Photos of them from their junior golf days often show them holding up plaques or trophies side by side, making serious faces. But Garner’s recollections of Woods are what he calls “the lighthearted memories of idiot kids,” like the time in France on an AJGA trip when Garner, Woods and a few other kids were wrestling in a hotel room and Woods broke one of the beds, or the playful chipping contests in the last moments of dusk. 

Or like the time in Monterey on the second day of a two-day tournament where Woods was trailing Garner and stuck in an uncomfortable bunker lie. “I’m walking behind the green and setting my bag down, then I hear this hissing noise,” he tells me during a round we play at his home course, Kukio. “Then there’s this feeling, this searing feeling, in my ass. I look down and realize Tiger skulled one and just hit me directly in my ass. And it bounced right off me and rolled on the green and he drained the putt.” Garner pauses in the middle of the fairway, standing over a ball that he melted 300-some yards. He takes fewer than four seconds to set himself and hits a delicate wedge to 5 feet. He looks back up at me and resumes the story. “Not that the fucking guy needed my help,” he says with a smile. 

When I ask if playing Woods was intimidating, Garner almost sounds injured. It was clear, he told me, that Woods was an exceptional talent, but by no means a god. “I was used to an 80 or 90 percent win rate when I was 12, and playing Tiger was just a new challenge,” he says. Woods won a lot, but Garner battled him hard. “To be honest, none of us thought much of it. A lot of people worshipped him, but in our small group, we were all just comfortable. Nobody wanted anything from him—except to beat him from time to time.” Their senior year, he bested Woods by a stroke in what would be their last high school match. The local paper described them as “friendly adversaries.” 

Most of Garner’s Tiger stories are the purest kind. His most indelible memories of them traveling and playing together are about how they were kids just beginning to unravel the delights and challenges of golf, hopelessly lost in the magic of the game. Stories of them shoveling pricey range balls into their pockets at fancy courses, and of knowing looks and wordless pats on the back after one of their dads chewed them out. “We worked hard and we grinded all the time,” Garner tells me. “But it was just so special. All of us growing up, we were just in love with being out there.” They were dreaming constantly of what could be, blissfully unaware of what would come.

The Four Acts of Ben Garner green

Now begins the second act of what should have been Ben Garner’s classic three-act structure: the rising action and conflict. It all began with college recruiting. Garner was set to play at Arizona, one of the nation’s elite golf programs, but withdrew his commitment after a falling-out with the coach. Because it was late in the year, Garner had to scramble to find a place to play. He ended up taking a scholarship offer at the University of Washington, where, a year later, with a new coach installed, he was cut. 

Eventually, he ended up at LSU, but that, too, ended early when an injury kept him off the team. In 1997, just three years after that last win against Woods, Garner’s dream of being an All-American was dead. It’s 1,814 miles from Baton Rouge to Los Angeles, a long drive for anyone. But for Garner, it was an eternity. “You look at your life and what you thought it would be and then realize that it’s the opposite of that. And it’s just so embarrassing,” he says. Driving across west Texas on Interstate 10, he was deeply and depressedly lost in his mind. By California, he was preparing for a different life. 

He took a break from the game, but couldn’t quit. What followed was, essentially, the ultimate test of will from the golf gods. When he came back, playing mini-tour events, something unexpected happened. His whole life, he’d had a pure putting stroke, but he noticed his confidence faltering. The problem rattled him and things quickly spiraled. 

We’re not talking about “go see a pro and get a lesson and this, too, shall pass” yips. Something, it seems, was changing in his brain. “I’d go and play in a tournament and I’d hit 17 or 18 greens in a round,” Garner recalls. “I’d out-ball-strike everybody, and then, each time I’d walk up the fairway to the green, just get seized by terror. I’d start shaking and sweating.” He wouldn’t just miss or pull putts; he’d straight-up chunk them. Once, he actually hit his own foot in his backswing. “Imagine hitting 18 greens and you can’t break 80 because you can’t put the ball in the hole, and all your friends and the people around you are looking around like, ‘What the fuck has happened to you?’”

The Four Acts of Ben Garner

It got so bad that Garner would get anxious if he spotted a flagstick while driving past a local golf course. He’d dealt with setbacks and bad decisions and unlucky breaks casually and calmly before, but this was different. As his putting slipped, intense memories from the past—from junior golf and his dad to Little League to college—were dredged up from the recesses of his brain, creating an immense pressure. One day, while standing on a green and trying to putt through what can be described only as a panic attack, he says he felt something snap in his brain. He described it as a literal feeling, not a metaphorical snap. He walked off the course mid-round, something he’d never done before. “Toughest year and a half in my life,” he says. “Just so many shake-cries in the parking lot of my car where you’re so overwhelmed.”

At 26, he was so broke that the only car he could afford was a barely functional white 1987 Chrysler Fifth Avenue (non-affectionately named White Lightning) with fake red leather and shag carpet that he purchased from a friend’s grandmother for $500. One day that year, while caddying at Big Canyon Country Club in Newport Beach, Garner ran into Woods on the course. The pair embraced, caught up on old friends and played a few holes together. Only eight years removed from their last high school match, the two men couldn’t have been further apart. Garner was arguably at rock bottom—a junior-golf legend forced to pick up loops in order to scrounge up money for Q-School—while Woods was arguably the most famous man in the world. Garner had White Lightning; Woods had a best-selling video game, countless endorsement deals and—just that year—five Tour wins, including the Masters and the U.S. Open. 

As they walked off the course, Garner recalls, Woods turned to him and asked him earnestly and without judgment if he was doing alright. With a false bravado, Garner lied, assuring him that he was, in fact, living the dream. But, as the pair neared the parking lot, Garner’s stomach dropped. It was late in the day and the lot was nearly empty, revealing that he had parked the hulking, rusting carcass of White Lightning directly next to Woods’ gleaming, tricked-out, fully paid-for Buick. “It was probably the most embarrassing moment of my life,” he says. “Just an immediate tell that I’d been bullshitting him.” Garner remembers getting in his car first, turning the key and praying. But the engine wouldn’t turn over. “I can see Tiger just looking over at me as I’m hunched over trying everything. And it’s just so clear: I am struggling.”

Mercifully, the engine finally obeyed and the pair pulled out of Big Canyon in their separate cars, heading to separate worlds. But not before one final humbling: For the first 2 miles, Woods and Garner stopped beside each other at every light. Garner, now mortified, just stared straight ahead, too afraid to make eye contact.

“I laugh now, but, to this day, that one stings,” he says. “But that’s the way life works with me. I lied to Tiger there and the universe was like, ‘You’re gonna learn your lesson right now.’” Not long after, the Big Canyon membership asked Garner to start parking White Lightning in the maintenance lot.

The Four Acts of Ben Garner

Shortly after that, Garner found himself in a sporting-goods store, desperate for a solution. He’s not really sure why, but he picked up a left-handed putter and dropped a ball on the ground. It didn’t feel great, but it didn’t feel bad, either. Most importantly, there was no pressure. Left-handed Ben Garner wasn’t one of the country’s best junior golfers gone awry; he was just a guy putting. He drained a few and left the store with the putter. He won the first tournament he entered with it. It’s the same one he uses today.

In a movie, this is where Act 2 would end and the redemption would begin. But the golf gods weren’t done. Just as Garner was mounting his comeback, a freak car accident seriously injured him, costing him precious time and money to get back to Q-School. He slowly rebuilt his swing, but his body was less resilient. Two strokes behind the cut line at a Q-School qualifier, he battled, going eagle-birdie and sneaking into the next stage in Houston. But he’d given all he could. In Texas, even with cortisone shots in his hand and shoulder, he could barely hit the golf ball. There, his professional dream died for good. He was left with yet another lonely ride west down I-10.

Brutal as it may be, Garner’s story up to this point—save for the Tiger stuff—isn’t wholly unique. Thousands of promising young athletes struggle to reach their potential every year. Even the pros flame out or are derailed by injury, leaving them in their 20s and 30s precarious and adrift, having given their lives to a sport that seemingly betrayed them. There’s a particular tragedy when it happens in golf, souring people on a sport that allows us to play to old age. What makes Garner different in a sea of “what if” prospects?

To find out, you have to fly to Hawaii and have him convince you that, no, no, you’d be much more comfortable canceling your hotel and just staying at his bungalow with a distant view of the ocean. You have to wake up in said house jetlagged at 5:15 a.m. to realize he’s been up doing yoga for 45 minutes and hey, we’re heading down to the exclusive beach club he works for to get some dawn surfing in. You have to watch as he bro-hugs the resort employees and chats up the high-roller members with nine-figure bank accounts like they’re schlubby locals at the bar. You have to watch the smile on his face infect everyone within a 50-yard radius until, somehow, everyone is smiling. You have to watch him emerge from the ocean and ask you, with a shit-eating grin, “All right, time to play some G?” You have to watch him effortlessly break par on a nine-hole short course without missing a putt and then casually mention he has some personal business to do for an hour. You have to ask his boss later what that business was and learn that he was closing a deal on a multimillion-dollar home with a Hollywood blockbuster actor. You have to then have him take you to the house of his buddy, former NFL quarterback Alex Smith, for their weekly charades-style game night, where you watch him be the life of the party. You have to see that his life is absolutely amazing—in a way that makes you text your editor mid-trip, “​​I’ve never been so certain I’m living wrong as I am today.”

And you also have to realize that everything—the high highs of this new Good Life and the epic lows of the one that came before it—is because of golf. For Garner, golf is an elemental, almost religious, force. It gives and it takes. But even when it takes—maybe especially when it takes—it also gives. It connects people in wholly unexpected ways. He met surf legends Slater and Rob Machado through the sport at one of his lowest points, then those relationships grew into friendships bordering on brotherhood, which led him to Hawaii and to a job and island he loves. Walking fairways is what helps him sell homes and make friends and “separates the assholes from the people you want to go into battle with.” But, most of all, golf gave him a dose of punishing adversity—a true identity crisis that stripped him down to the studs and revealed the person who’d been there all along.

“What I’ve learned is that golf is my identity in many ways, but, crucially, it’s not who I am,” he tells me late one night. “It wasn’t always that way; I used to live and die with the number I posted. Shoot a 68 and you’re somebody; post a 74 the next day and you’re nothing. And then it fell apart. And that’s when you actually learn it all. You learn who your real friends are and you figure out who you are.” 

For Garner, what’s left after professional golf are the people—the ones the game brought into his life. His life, in many ways, is devoted to preserving and strengthening those relationships. Just as he found purpose and dignity grinding away at the range, he finds the same virtues being the guy who shows up and helps you move in the sweltering Kona sun.

“Ben’s example has been so meaningful to me,” Smith tells me a few days after game night. After Smith’s devastating and life-threatening injury—he suffered a compound fracture to his right tibia and fibula in a November 2018 NFL game, underwent 17 surgeries and sat out the entire 2019 season—he spent large parts of his recovery in Hawaii, a lot of it around Garner, who ended up running receiver routes in Smith’s backyard as he quietly mounted his comeback. “After my injury, I got really angry with football—that it had done this to me. I was bitter about how unlucky I was,” Smith says. Before his extensive rehab at a military facility for wounded veterans, he couldn’t even look at a football. Like Garner, the sport that gave him everything, including an identity, threatened to take it all away. 

It’s an exaggeration to say that Garner was responsible for Smith’s miraculous 2020 NFL comeback, but, listening to the quarterback talk, it’s clear how important the relationship was. “I needed to set an example for myself, my team, my family and my kids. And Ben’s relationship with golf provided that healthy example to me,” Smith says. “It was proof of how you can love the game and make peace with the game and be grateful for what it’s done for you. I’m so thankful for that.” 

Making peace with the game—at least for Garner—doesn’t mean life is suddenly perfect or easy. His support and happiness for his friends on Tour is genuine. He’ll never complain, but sticking so close to golf can get a little uncomfortable. On the occasional Sunday, he gets teary-eyed watching a tournament and seeing people he used to play with out there living his dream. He says he still feels ashamed that he putts lefty (and admits he still chunks putts on his right side). He adores caddying for Slater at AT&T, but that joy is also heavy. “We were walking down the fairway one time and Kelly told me, ‘Man, I should be caddying for you out here,’ and that just meant a lot,” Garner says. “Because I just miss it, you know?”

On my last night on the Big Island, Garner suggests we head to the Eagle’s Nest for “an epic sunset.” Sitting on two teak deck chairs in a clearing near the Airstream, we watch the tall grasses around us sway in the evening breeze. A line of dark clouds above the ocean creates a false horizon that explodes into a perfect sherbet sunset. Garner, the consummate host, is excited I’ve seen a good one. We sit there for two hours talking about family, friends, music, dads and almost everything except golf. At one point, I ask him how he’s managed to find that peace and not resent the sport. 

“Ultimately, I love golf,” he tells me, his eyes just a bit glassy. “I love everything about the game. I love waking up early and teeing it up—being a dewsweeper—and I love chasing the sunset. I love the feeling of a purely struck golf shot, that clip of a good chip. The feeling when you hit a putt and it’s rolling on the line and you know it’s going to drop, but you just have to wait for gravity. I love hitting a big, hard power draw. And I love the challenge of it. Because every day you gotta friggin’ fight and grind. And in this world, you have to be tough, man. And I think golf teaches you that. But I forgot why I loved it for a while—so did my dad. All the bullshit, all the pressure—I forgot the main thing. The reason I played to begin with.”

Rediscovering his love of the game also allowed him to forgive. “Despite all the stuff with my dad, with all the pressure, at the end of the day he introduced me to this sport that’s given me my whole life. I’ll always have such immense gratitude for that,” he says. 

We close up the Eagle’s Nest and hop in Garner’s pickup truck—him headed back to his unexpected life and me back to mine. I’m lost thinking about my own world and expectations and what I would do if everything I’d worked toward suddenly vanished. Thankfully, I’m interrupted mid-thought. 

“You like John Prine?” he asks. I tell him I do.

He plays “Lonesome Friends of Science,” from Prine’s 2018 album, The Tree of Forgiveness. The song is lovely and haunting, in that way a genius songwriter’s last wizened lyrics should be. As we turn onto a main road, Prine sings:

˜

The world will end most any day

Well, if it does, then that’s okay

’Cause I don’t live here anyway

I live down deep inside my head

Well, long ago I made my bed

˜

“Ah, I love that line, man,” Garner says with a smile. 

I do, too. It sounds like being at peace. 

The Four Acts of Ben Garner