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‘The dog’ vs. the other (faster) dog, Sam Bennett and Dylan Menante to meet in an All-Alpha semifinal

PARAMUS, N.J. – North Carolina assistant coach Matt Clark stood about 50 yards from the green at the par-3 15th hole Friday at The Ridgewood Country Club. His newest player, Pepperdine stud transfer Dylan Menante, had a birdie putt to win his U.S. Amateur quarterfinal match against 15-year-old Nicholas Gross.

“I would be shocked if he misses this,” Clark said.

“How long is it?” this reporter asked him.

“I don’t know,” Clark responded. “He’s just going to make it.”

Clark has been Menante’s coach for just over two months, but he’s seen him in an opposing uniform enough to know. Dean Menante, a 1984 alum of this championship and his son’s caddie this week, had the exact feeling.

“He’ll ask me questions,” Dean explained, “but when he doesn’t say anything, I know that he’s dialed in. I’ve seen it many, many times.”

This time, from 15 feet, the 21-year-old Menante was not missing. When the winning putt dropped to clinch Menante’s spot in Saturday’s first semifinal, which begins at 2 p.m. ET, the only question was who he would play.

It’d take nearly an hour to find the answer.

While the Menantes hopped on a cart for a lift back to Ridgewood’s three-story clubhouse, the match behind them, which teed off 15 minutes later, was still only through 12 holes.

Match scoring from the U.S. Amateur

“Either way I’m getting slow-played tomorrow,” Menante said of his potential semifinal opponents, fellow top-10 amateurs Sam Bennett and Stewart Hagestad. “I know that for a fact.”

A day earlier, Menante, widely regarded as the fastest player in amateur golf, got so impatient in his match versus Maxwell Moldovan that he started hitting chip-drivers on purpose just so he could play his second shots first and not have to wait.

Once Bennett knocked off Hagestad, 3 and 2, Menante was already readying for, at least for him, another slog.

“Yeah, he plays fast,” Bennett said. “I can slow him down, but he’s going to walk ahead and kind of do what he wants. I think I’m a pretty slow player, but I don’t know … it’s not going to matter that much.”

Bennett isn’t one to be easily fazed. He ignores critics of his homemade swing, and he doesn’t care if people disagree with his decision to forfeit Korn Ferry Tour status in favor of returning to Texas A&M for a fifth year. He broke his collarbone playing intramural flag football as a sophomore, but that won’t stop him from joining an IM basketball team this fall.

So, he definitely hasn’t cared that his path to the semifinals has been arguably the toughest in championship history, at least in the World Amateur Golf Ranking era, which began in 2007.

This week he’s beaten No. 13 Nick Gabrelcik, No. 27 Fred Biondi, No. 10 David Puig and now No. 9 Hagestad, who on Thursday morning carded eight birdies and an eagle in just 14 holes.

“They’re great players, but I’m a better player,” said Bennett, who isn’t wrong if you go by world rank; Bennett is third, the top-ranked American.

Bennett fell down early to Hagestad, but he rarely got out of position as the match went on. He won a hole with bogey (No. 8) to grab his first lead and later took advantage of a lucky break at the par-5 13th, where the flagstick kept a poorly struck wedge shot from ending up well past the hole and helped him save a tying par.

A hole later, Bennett delivered a huge fist pump after rolling in a 15-footer for birdie to go 3 up, and he then stuck his tee shot to gimme distance at the par-3 15th hole, forcing Hagestad to hit a great shot; he did and made birdie, but a potential comeback was nixed a few shots later.

“He’s got a lot of self-belief,” said the 31-year-old Hagestad, who was trying to become the first mid-amateur to win the U.S. Amateur since 1993, “and I think he’s got a good mentality for match play … ready to go all 12 rounds from the first tee on.”

The guy in the other corner on Saturday will demand every bit of Bennett’s attention. Ranked eighth in the world, Menante turned in a dominating performance in defense of his Northeast Amateur title earlier this summer, posting a record-breaking 19 under.

He’s a little unorthodox, taking little time and sometimes teeing up his ball centimeters from the right tee marker, but there’s no question Menante can play. And he can get downright unconscious with the flatstick.

“Once I see one and I like it, it’s like I get comfortable and make it,” Menante said.

Even when Gross was canning bomb after bomb, Menante never wavered. He was 2 down through four holes before rattling off four straight birdies to flip the match to 2 up in his favor. The first two were conceded as Gross, who could’ve become this championship’s youngest semifinalist ever, started to slip, but Menante stuffed one to 5 feet at No. 7 and then drained a long-distance putt of his own, from 22 feet away at No. 8.

From there, he made all pars until his no-doubter to close out the victory.

“I was just more consistent,” Menante said. “I think he made those longer putts, but I was always on the green giving myself a chance, which is what you’ve got to do.”

Menante made headlines earlier this year when he entered the transfer portal after winning an NCAA title with the Waves the season before. As Menante tells it, he needed a change of scenery.

“Two weeks before nationals, I was like, ‘I’m done. I don’t want to be here anymore,’” Menante recalls.

With some of his teammates turning pro and assistant coach Blaine Woodruff taking the head job at Chattanooga, Menante entered the portal on June 2. He was contacted by about 50 schools, but he had a list of four desired destinations narrowed down pretty quickly. He signed with the Tar Heels a few weeks later.

Why that is significant this week is that Menante’s former teammate Derek Hitchner is still alive in the bottom half of the bracket, and Pepperdine head coach Michael Beard is caddying for Hitchner. Should Hitchner beat Ben Carr is their semifinal and Menante take care of business himself, they would meet for the Havemeyer Trophy on Sunday.

“I’ve thought about it,” Menante said. “It’s interesting since Beard’s on the bag. I’d take that match very personally, like MJ. … I’m making everything I see. I’m grinding. I’m making sure every shot’s the last one.”

If you think Menante doesn’t mince words, Bennett failed to hold back on Saturday as well, telling Golf Channel on-course analyst Colt Knost on live television after beating Hagestad: “I feel like I’m the dog in this race right now.”

Those yearning for a matchup between two alphas are licking their chops.

Bennett may have the biggest bite left in this field, but he’ll have to keep up with Menante first in order to use it.