The Nerve of Sam Bennett
The big-talking Aggie from small-town Texas backed up his words and rolled to an impressive victory at the U.S. Amateur
By Jordan Perez
PARAMUS, N.J. – Sam Bennett doesn’t give a damn what you think.
He knows his pre-shot routine — the shuffling of the feet and the regripping of the club up to a dozen times — is grating for some to watch. He knows that many observers don’t believe his swing will hold up. He hears the demands to be conventional and to play faster. But that’s not his style.
“Some people say, ‘I wanna see a pretty swing, pretty flight, pretty this’ – that’s not the game, you know? It’s called golf, not golf swing,” Bennett said after his victory over Stewart Hagestad in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Amateur. “I can get the ball in the hole pretty fast and usually faster than other people. So we’ll be fine.”
Fine, indeed. On Sunday, Bennett jumped to an early lead, then outlasted Ben Carr for a 1-up victory in a taut 36-hole final at Ridgewood Country Club. Say hello to your 122nd U.S. Amateur champion.
All week long, the kid from small-town Texas carried himself like a lone ranger, strutting around Ridgewood with all the badass antihero energy in the world.
His play matched his swagger. In the first round, Bennett was taken to extra holes by Nick Gabrelcik, a quarterfinalist in 2021, but he made quick work of things, stiffing a wedge to 3 feet at the 19th hole for a kick-in birdie. He thumped Fred Biondi, the top-ranked player in the PGA Tour U standings, 6 and 5, knocked out David Puig, 4 and 2, and defiantly escaped the seasoned Hagestad, 3 and 2. Along the way, Bennett, the third-ranked amateur in the world, served notice, saying, “I’m the dog in this fight.”
His opponent for the Saturday semifinal was another decorated player — Dylan Menante, the ninth-ranked amateur in the world. Bennett was 2 up through 13, but Menante won the next two holes to pull even. And when Bennett’s tee shot at the par-5th 17th hole settled in the fescue next to a towering tree, Menante appeared to have the advantage. Bennett, however, played a remarkable shot to a fairway bunker, hit his approach within 12 feet and holed the birdie putt. And that was that. He had invitations to the 2023 Masters and U.S. Open in hand by virtue of reaching the final match, but the goal all week was to bring home the Havemeyer Trophy.
Bennett admits he couldn’t have imagined being in such a position last summer. A year after not even making it to match play at Oakmont, he could be found sitting in the clubhouse at Ridgewood Country Club, confirming to the engraver that his last name is indeed spelled with two Ts. “Yes, ma’am,” he said with his smooth Texan inflection. A Miller Lite in hand, Bennett, 22, was grinning from ear to ear. Then he realized he has forgotten to call his mother back home in Madisonville.
For all his bravado, Bennett is studied in the way he carries himself. In lieu of participating in the grinding summer amateur schedule, he was selective about his tournament play, competing only in the U.S. Open and the Arnold Palmer Cup in Switzerland. Asked why he decided on that, he replied, “This is my fourth go-around. There’s no need to travel around the world and waste time and play amateur tournaments.” Instead, he opted for casual rounds with friends — not teammates at Texas A&M — to stay in form.
“It’s fun to get away,” Bennett said, noting those casual rounds are accompanied by playlists filled with Bryce Vine and Wiz Khalifa. “I don’t live with any golfers on the team, and I’m able to kind of live a more normal lifestyle. It seems to be working.”
That’s not to say it has been easy. The story of Bennett growing up on a nine-hole course in Central Texas has been well-documented. In high school he juggled basketball, tennis, baseball and golf. He excelled in all of them, but golf most of all. He ended up at Texas A&M, just 45 minutes from home. But his time in college has not been without adversity. His father, Mark, died of early onset Alzheimer’s in June 2021. In the wake of that, Bennett battled anxiety and depression. At one point he found no joy in playing the game he had always been so passionate about.
“We all have thoughts in our head,” Bennett said. “Mine could be a little different than others; mine never stop. But sometimes I use that to push, sometimes I back off and take some more time to get my mind right.” He has found a confidant in Texas A&M coach Brian Kortan, whom Bennett refers to as his “best friend” and who was on the bag at Ridgewood. “Yeah, we’re great friends. Doesn’t stop me from [telling him] if he misses a workout he’s going to run a stadium,” Kortan said with a laugh.
Bennett’s newfound sense of control helped him beat the gritty Carr, who rode a hot putter to the final. Bennett was 3 up at the lunch break and when he won the 20th and 21st holes, it appeared the match would be headed for an early end. Then, much to the delight of his family and friends, many decked out in Georgia Southern gear, Carr dropped a putt from off the green and a chip on consecutive holes to get back in the fight. When Bennett conceded the 28th hole, he was only 2 up. Carr missed an opportunity when he followed Bennett’s OB shot at the 31st hole with one of his own, but his opponent returned the favor with a three-putt at the next. Carr extended the match by rolling in a 14-foot birdie putt at the 35th hole.
As was the case against Menante, Bennett found the fairway on No. 18 while his opponent landed in the right rough. Citing his most nervy shot yet, Bennett hit an 8-iron that landed perilously left of the pin, but the ball came down softly and stopped just 15 feet away. Carr’s approach rolled over the green and into the rough. Fired up, Bennett slammed his club into his bag and strutted down the 18th fairway. Carr’s chip shot stopped 12 feet short, and Bennett lagged his birdie putt to within inches of the cup. The two exchanged words and a warm embrace.
“He’s unbelievable,” Carr said. “Some of the shots he hit in the morning, just like, how am I going to beat this guy? He just can’t miss a golf shot.”
Said Bennett, “This was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life.”
Woof. Bennett had been right all along: He was, in fact, the dog in this fight.