The toughest man in the arena: Sam Bennett overcomes loss, difficult road to win U.S. Amateur
PARAMUS, N.J. – Drop Sam Bennett in any sports arena and he’ll find a way to excel. He played four sports at Madisonville (Texas) High School, where he was an All-District shooting guard on the basketball hardwood, defensive specialist on the baseball diamond and district champion on the tennis court.
But it’s on the golf course where he’s always performed best. Even during those early years as a kid in Madisonville, a small town about two hours north of Houston, where Bennett learned the game on a public nine-hole layout that barely measured 3,300 yards from the tips. He’d often play in swim trunks and flip flops, hit off hardpan and putt on scruffy greens.
It’s arguably the furthest one could get from The Ridgewood Country Club, Bennett’s most demanding arena yet, where he beat Ben Carr, 1 up, in Sunday’s final of the 122nd U.S. Amateur.
“It’s definitely crazy from where I grew up – if people saw that course where I played – to be standing here,” said the 22-year-old Bennett as he fielded questions on Ridgewood’s pristine 18th green, a gold medal around his neck and the Havemeyer Trophy in his hands.
Bennett, a fifth-year senior at Texas A&M, would’ve loved to have borrowed some football pads from an Aggies equipment manager for this week.
His path to victory was the most bruising in championship history if one goes by the World Amateur Golf Ranking, which began 15 years ago. Bennett took down Nos. 13, 27, 10, 9 and 8, in order, before holding off Carr, a fifth-year senior at Georgia Southern who is ranked No. 70 yet notched nine top-10s last season.
“He just wouldn’t go away,” Bennett said of Carr, who got hot with the putter to claw back from a 5-down deficit after 22 holes of the scheduled 36-hole final.
But in the end, Bennett proved too tough, knocking 8-iron from 177 yards to 15 feet at the par-4 finishing hole to earn not only the biggest victory of his young career but also exemptions into next year’s Masters and U.S. Open, plus likely several PGA Tour invites.
“I definitely earned this championship,” said Bennett, the highest-ranked American in the 312-player field at No. 3 in the world. “This was by far the hardest thing I’ve done in my golfing career so far.”
In life, however, it doesn’t compare.
For seven years, Bennett watched his father, Mark, battle early onset Alzheimer’s. As his condition deteriorated, Mark Bennett went from Air Force veteran and dentist to requiring around-the-clock care and losing his ability to communicate. He passed away last summer at age 53.
A year earlier, Sam was doing yard work with his mother when Mark, still able to speak, offered his final words of advice to his youngest son.
“I was struggling mentally with some things,” Bennett said. “He told me, ‘Don’t wait to do something.’ That was the last advice given to me before everything went south.”
Sam got that final quote tattooed on the inside of his left forearm and made glancing at the ink part of his pre-shot routine. But after his father passed, Sam stopped, the constant reminder likely too painful.
Bennett has been guarded, and understandably, when talking about his struggles with depression. As he grieved in the months after his dad’s death, not even golf was a refuge. If anything, Bennett said last fall, it made things worse.
“I was getting really angry on the golf course,” Bennett said. “I’d just be playing bad and then it was like a double whammy: I’d play bad and then I’d think, dang, my dad’s dead, this f------ sucks, and I’d get more mad.”
With such high expectations placed on Bennett’s golf potential, Bennett contemplated whether he would ever meet them — or even care to. After a rough summer that included a missed cut at the U.S. Amateur at Oakmont, he returned to campus for his senior season, not knowing what the future held. But getting back into the team room was cathartic for Bennett, and he leaned heavily on his teammates and Texas A&M head coach Brian Kortan to help himself heal.
Bennett calls Kortan his best friend, and he’d frequently find himself in Kortan’s office at 8 a.m., often just to talk.
“Girl problems, whatever, I’ll talk to him about anything,” Bennett said. “He knows more things than my parents do. I’ve told him everything I’ve done. Everything. I’m honest with him, and he’s honest with me, and we just have a lot of respect [for each other]. He’s helped me out in golf, but he’s a father in my life really.”
When Bennett made his surprising decision last spring to defer his No. 1 status in PGA Tour University and return for a fifth year starting this fall, Kortan was his sounding board. With a win and seven top-10s, including at the NCAA Championship, Bennett earned first-team All-America honors for the second straight season, yet he knew he still wasn’t ready to make the leap to play for money.
“He wanted to graduate, wanted to be more mature so that he could handle the stage that he was going to move on to, and genuinely he wanted to play as a Texas Aggie for another year because he knows when he leaves it’s all about him,” Kortan said. “He doesn’t have a buddy to pick him up. He’ll be in the world where your buddies are going to wish you played better, but everybody else is going to wish you played worse so they can beat you.”
Everyone tried to beat Bennett at Ridgewood, but all failed. Feeling more confident and positive these days, Bennett called himself “the dog in this race” after topping three-time Walker Cupper Stewart Hagestad in the quarterfinals, and to his credit, he backed it up after that.
Bennett took a 3-up lead at Sunday’s lunch break, the first 18 capped by a stuffed approach by Bennett, and appeared to be on his way to a rout early in the afternoon. But when Carr drained a 65-footer for birdie from off the front of the green at the par-4 fifth and then chipped in for birdie a hole later, Bennett had suddenly lost a big chunk of his momentum. And the massively pro-Carr crowd was buzzing.
“It made me nervous,” said Bennett, who had his 5-up lead shrink back to 3 up. “I got pretty tight when that started happening.”
Added Carr: “I was in a really bad place mentally before No. 5, and just hearing everybody pulling for me, it just gives you so much confidence. ... At that point, I knew I was back in the match.”
Yet, Bennett didn’t break, even after he sent his second shot at the par-5 13th hole out of bounds (luckily for Bennett, Carr followed him, and the hole was tied). Bennett knows, as Kortan preaches, that pressure is earned, and he’s learned to feed off those crucial moments. So, when Carr made big putts at Nos. 14 and 17 to send the match to No. 18, Bennett channeled his inner dog and bit down hard.
“He just stayed so poised,” Carr said of Bennett. “I think that’s the best way to describe Sam; he’s a very confident player, and he’ll tell you. I like that.”
Bennett called that final approach his most nervous shot of the day, and right before, he glanced down at his tattoo for a little inspiration. He found himself doing that a few times late on Sunday, and it made him smile.
“I know the golfing gods and him were working in my favor,” Bennett said.
Added Kortan: “I know the road he’s been down, and I know some of the things he’s gone through. To see the kid mature and battle through those things and kind of come out the other end … it’s pretty cool to see.”
Bennett is the first U.S. Amateur champion in Texas A&M history and the first winner from the state of Texas since Kelly Kraft in 2011. He’ll also enter his extra season with the Aggies on the highest of notes as he aims to reclaim his top spot in PGA Tour U and secure Korn Ferry Tour status for next summer. Ascending to world No. 1 in the amateur rankings is within reach as well.
Not that Bennett’s happiness depends on any of that. While his father’s last words are inked on his arm, every day he heeds another piece of advice from his dad.
“Be a gentleman,” Bennett said. “My dad, he didn’t care what I shot, just that I respected the game. I know he was watching out there, and he would think that this was the coolest thing ever.”
More so because after his winning par was conceded, Bennett embraced an emotional Carr, who had suffered a similar loss three years ago when his father, David, died unexpectedly at age 52, one year younger than Mark Bennett at the time of his passing.
As tears streamed down Carr’s face, Bennett and his opponent exchanged a few heartfelt words.
“He told me, ‘I know your dad is super proud of you,’ and I was like, ‘Same to you. I have the upmost respect for you, and good luck in the future,’” Bennett recalled. “It was a pretty cool moment. Other than my teammates, if I wouldn’t have won the U.S. Amateur, he would’ve been the guy that I’d wanted to win it.”
But instead it was Bennett, the 22-year-old from small-town Madisonville, who had overcome unthinkable heartache and an unbelievably tough road to be the last man standing inside amateur golf’s premier championship arena.
Like the tattoo on his arm, Bennett’s name would be forever etched on the Havemeyer.