Ben Campbell is lying on his bed in his hotel room in Sydney and he’s in agony.
The 29-year-old from Masterton is crippled by debilitating pain in his hip and his lower back that started in 2016 as he fought a mysterious virus in his chest.
He had battled through three rounds of the NSW Open but he couldn’t take any more.
“It was just so painful,” says Campbell. “I couldn’t complete the third round so that was the point where I knew I had to get it fixed. It was time to have the operation which I’d been fighting.”
Campbell, a former World No 6 amateur and one of New Zealand’s most promising young golfers for many years has had to endure a testing professional career that has been punctuated and stalled by major injuries.
“It was incredibly frustrating,” he says. “Looking back I probably should’ve got the operation done straight away, but I was playing well and I had a chance to get my European Tour card and I had just been out for a year and a half and my mindset was, ‘I should be able to manage it’.”
For all of his talent and potential, you could understand if Campbell decided it was time to throw in the towel.
“I definitely thought about quitting,” he says, “I’d just had enough and wanted to walk away. After the last injury I was just left scratching my head and pretty down about it.
“There have been tough times mentally through my injuries. In those times you have just got to have good people around you to support and help you out to see what you are doing is worthwhile.”
That was almost two years ago, and the world is a much brighter place now.
Back to his best
Fast forward the clock to April 2021. Campbell is back competing in his first professional tournament in 18 months since his hip operation. He winds back the clock in an impressive display.
In a field that included European Tour winners (Ryan Fox, Mark Brown) and New Zealand Open champions (Michael Hendry, Peter Fowler), Campbell turns on a masterclass in round three.
His putter is running hot and he makes a birdie putt on the 12th hole to be the 8-under par for the day and the outright leader on 14-under par. He’s on the cusp of a fairytale return.
“It was a great feeling to be back,” he says. “After a long break to get back that feeling that I could win at any time was awesome. It was what I had put in all of the hard work for.”
Campbell shot a 1-over par 73 in the final round and was overtaken by Fox who carded an incredible 10-under par 62 to break the course record and win by seven strokes. But there were plenty of positives.
“Even though I was frustrated with my final round, I finished the week and knew that I had plenty to be proud of.
“I just need to fine-tune my game and get my chipping and putting that bit better – all of a sudden you make a par when you could have made a bogey – and that keeps your momentum going which is important in golf. That week reminded me what I am capable of.”
It also underlined what he’d been missing. Campbell loves being in the heat of the battle coming down the final stretch.
“I love trying to perform under pressure. That is the challenge that gets me and keeps me coming back. There is nothing like that feeling of being in contention to win a golf tournament.”
His eyes are set on much bigger things but to win the Mondiale Omaha Pro-Am in May was a good first step. He shot rounds of 67 and 66 to secure his first win in more than three years.
The long road to recovery
Campbell remembers the moment when his back pain started. He was warming up in the Bangladesh Open and he felt a pang in his left hip.
“I didn’t think too much of it at the time. I played that week and finished up but my back didn’t feel quite right,” he says
He arrived home and had some scans which revealed a tear in one of his discs at L5/ S1.
Campbell had suffered trouble with his left hip so all the rotation in my hip had been lost and it was putting pressure on his back.
He was in two minds whether to go ahead with the operation or not. He decided on the latter and tried to play for the next eight months.
“But it was always there, and I just couldn’t get on top of it.”
ACC supported Campbell in dealing with his chest injury and more recently his back and hip pain. They provided MRI scans, assessments and physio and chiropractor appointments to manage his pain and keep him playing.
In December 2020 he decided to get it sorted and paid for the operation privately. He accepted that meant another 12 months of recovery and rehab before he was back at his best.
“I had just got back to playing some really good golf and I felt like I was playing well enough to win on any tour in the world,” says Campbell.
His results show exactly that. Campbell led the Fiji Open (co-sanctioned on the European Tour) before finishing T3, he finished T5 in the ISPS Handa Super 6s in Perth. Before that, he had finished runner-up in the 2017 NZ Open in Queenstown.
“That was the most frustrating thing. I did all of that work after the chest operation. It had been a really big six months to get back to that level so that was pretty disappointing.”
But Campbell got back into his rehab and every day got a little better with his strength and conditioning so he could compete again.
“It was a lot of time in the gym and making slow progress at first,” he says. “You have just got to have good people around you and make the best decision you can. I’m feeling good now and I’m pretty happy with how the game has come back.
“[In the past few events] my game off the tee and ball striking wise felt really good. It was just the chipping and pitching which let me down a bit. That will come with more playing.”
Winning on a major tour
Campbell has set himself the goal to win on a major tour in the world in the next 12 months.
The 2018 NZ PGA Champion, who still has status on the Asian Tour and Australasian Tour, feels like he is ready to make up for lost time.
“Winning at least one event on a major world tour is the goal for the next 12 months,” he says.
“The main goal right now is getting my game back to a place where I feel I can win on any tour in the world. I am confident I can do that.”
Playing alongside good mate Fox in the recent Charles Tour events underlined that his game is good enough to compete on the world stage.
“It was good to play alongside him and see where he’s at. If you don’t feel like you can compete with someone like Foxy then I don’t think there is any point giving it a go,” he says.
“I played a lot of golf with Foxy as an amateur and I felt my game was on par with his. When I am playing well I definitely feel like I can compete. That gave me a lot of motivation and showed me that I am right there and can compete.”
Breeding ground for success
These days, Queenstown is home for Campbell.
He is a member of The Hills Golf Club and Millbrook and frequents Jack’s Point and Arrowtown which is an ideal breeding ground to get him ready to compete.
“I love it down there,” he says. “I’m surrounded by three world-class golf courses and there is always someone to play with.
“I play those courses to get ready and I go to the tournament and the courses are easier than where you have been practising which helps heaps. It makes training easier and it has definitely improved the level of my play.”
He feels it is the ideal place to help him achieve some lifelong tour goals.
“I have a routine where I know I need to have my game at. I have a few fundamentals on chipping and putting and getting them to the standard I know I need to compete. For me, it is getting everything feeling technically good, then taking it to the course.
Campbell is treating the winter months as an offseason. He wants to put the hard work in so come September when things have hopefully settled down COVID-19 wise, he is ready to fire.
“It’s tough to know when tour golf is going to open up and be more accessible but when it does, I want to win in that first year. It would be good to win and get back up there.
“I’ve always said to myself that I will retire when I have lost that motivation to compete. When there is a morning when I can’t be bothered getting out of bed to train and it feels like a chore then I will know it is time but that will be the time I hang up the boots, but I am not there yet.”
After what he’s been through Campbell deserves a big break on the world stage. It would be one of New Zealand’s greatest and most revered comeback stories if he can manage it.