PARAMUS, N.J. — A tough road led to the sweetest finish for Sam Bennett in the U.S. Amateur.
Even with so many top stars who either didn’t qualify or got knocked out in the opening round, Bennett had to face the rest of the best, match after match, to get to the championship match Sunday at Ridgewood Country Club.
The Texas A&M senior finished the job to win the biggest tournament of his life.
Bennett, the No. 3 player in the world amateur ranking, took a 3-up lead at lunch, expanded the lead to 5 holes and then had to hold off Georgia Southern senior Ben Carr, winning 2 up.
“I got off to a hot start, then after lunch, he started dropping in putts and chips from everywhere,” Bennett said. “It made me nervous. I got pretty tight.”
But then, Bennett is used to tough times.
His golf roots start on a hardscrabble 9-hole course in tiny Madisonville, Texas, about 100 miles north of Houston, where his late father showed him how to play. His father saw enough passion that he bought a membership at A&M’s home course, where they went twice a month until Bennett was old enough to drive.
There was plenty of belief at Ridgewood. Bennett knew he faced tough opponents, and he knew he was just as good. And he played like it.
There were a few dodgy moments on the homestretch, and one shot Carr no doubt would love to have back.
Both missed short putts on the 12th hole, and Bennett maintained a 3-up lead going to the long par-5 13th. Even with a big lead, Bennett chose to smash fairway metal, and instead pulled it so far left of the green that it went out of bounds in some hedges.
Carr also went with fairway metal and followed him out of bounds, and they wound up halving the hole with bogeys.
But then right when it looked as though Bennett had it locked up, he three-putted the next hole from 25 feet, missing a 3-footer.
Carr missed birdie chances on the next two holes. On the par-5 17th, Carr had a 15-footer to stay in the match. He made it to win the hole, and Bennett went to the 18th with a 1-up lead.
Carr missed the fairway to the right and went into the collar of rough around the green. Bennett smoked his drive into the fairway, hit to 12 feet, and when Carr didn’t hole his chip, Bennett had two putts to win.
He lagged it to inches and it was over.
“Luckily, I was able to finish it off with a good iron shot,” Bennett said.
Bennett is exempt into the Masters, U.S. Open and Open Championship next year.
“It means everything,” Bennett said about the victory. “It’s a dream come true. … It means a lot to hold that trophy.”
The consolation for Carr is the traditional invitation to the Masters, along with a spot in the U.S. Open next year.
“It’s what you dream of as a kid,” Carr said. “It didn’t work out the way I wanted, but I couldn’t have lost to a better competitor. I played very well this week.”
Bennett’s father, Mark, died last summer. The memory is never too far away. When his father was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, one of the last messages he had for his son while they still could communicate was, “Don’t wait to do something.” Bennett had his father write it out, and he had the message transferred to the inside of his arm as a tattoo. He sees it every time he swings.
In this case, he waited to finish at Texas A&M, to give the U.S. Amateur one last shot. And it paid off in a big way.