PARAMUS, NEW JERSEY | In the shadow of Ridgewood Country Club’s Norman Revival clubhouse, Sam Bennett walks to the first tee with a neatly buttoned-up collared shirt, a pair of skinny joggers and white shoes covered in thick, floppy laces like a mess of spaghetti.
If he showed up to your house as a pest-control technician tasked with coercing a rogue reptile out of your garage, you would have no hesitation. Sporting slivers of facial hair, a polite Southern drawl, a slender frame and a hat that supports an outdoor furniture and storage unit company, Bennett exudes an endless amount of nervous energy. It’s a recurring loop of waggles, realigning his ball marker, and double-checking each minute detail – but it all belies a quiet confidence that has unexpectedly made Bennett the No. 3 player in the World Amateur Golf Ranking.
That undeniable belief and poise starts with a swing constructed in the contorted shape of a Joaquín Niemann or Mito Pereira. It’s a move extracted from the dirt – and dirt is quite literal in this case – of a hardscrabble nine-hole course in Madisonville, Texas, called Oak Ridge Country Club. It’s all that was available in a hometown of fewer than 5,000 residents, a crumb on the map between Houston and Dallas.
The only reason most people stop on I-45 in Madisonville is because they have a Buc-ee’s, a wildly popular gas station and super-sized convenience store that’s developed a cult following in part because of its brisket tacos. So, no, elite amateur golfers are not exactly expected to come from there.
“The course kind of looks like a cow pasture,” Bennett told Global Golf Post. “I mean, it’s just burned fairways and dirt. I’ve never had a lesson to this day, so this is a homemade swing. I like it that way. My swing feels different day by day, but it doesn’t matter. It’s just a feel thing.”
That trust in his intuition has been the theme of Bennett’s sudden rise. He came from an athletic family and always had natural ability, but he wasn’t highly recruited coming out of high school. Texas A&M coach Brian Kortan got to know Bennett from local play as the youngster sometimes would travel 45 minutes to the campus course in College Station so he could play and practice. Kortan immediately appreciated Bennett’s toughness and athleticism, taking note of Bennett playing four sports – basketball, baseball and tennis in addition to golf – in high school.
“One of the first times recruiting him, I see him limping down the fairway wearing a boot on his foot because he sprained his foot playing another sport,” Kortan said. “He was playing a junior golf tournament that day and carrying his clubs, and the bag was bigger than he was. I was like, ‘Man, this might be my kind of guy.’ So he had a lot of fire. There was a lot of grit, a lot of personality.”
Fast-forward nearly a decade later and Bennett is heading into his fifth and final year in Aggieland. His first two seasons were solid as he broke 72 for his season scoring average both years, but he didn’t break out until a sensational junior year during which he notched all-American status and became a bonafide favorite. Bennett is coming off a made cut in the U.S. Open at Brookline earlier this summer and has registered 13 top-10 finishes since the beginning of 2021 – five of those were victories – vaulting him into discussions of reaching the top spot in the WAGR.
This week at the U.S. Amateur, Bennett’s stock has gone up once again. He coasted into match play and then started a run during which he defeated 2021 semifinalist Nick Gabrelcik in 19 holes before rampaging past No. 4 seed Fred Biondi, 6 and 5. He then defeated David Puig, 4 and 2, on Thursday to advance to a quarterfinal match today against Stewart Hagestad.
He hits it low, as many Texans do, and is rarely out of position. His short game is sublime. But more than anything, what stands out is his “yes, sir” charm coupled with a feeling he wants to step on your throat.
“I’ve got a little chip on my shoulder, but I’m good where I’m at,” Bennett said with a grin after beating Gabrelcik.
“I came here wanting to graduate. And, you know, the NIL money is not bad here, also. I’m not ready to be out there (in pro golf).” – Sam Bennett
Bennett will have a lot to play for after returning to school. He also is No. 3 in the preseason PGA Tour University ranking that will go on to award Korn Ferry Tour status after the 2022-23 college season. He could have utilized that avenue a year ago, but after leading those standings for 12 weeks, Bennett took himself out of the running by announcing his return to College Station.
Some in amateur golf were surprised by that decision, but there was little consternation on Bennett’s part.
“I mean, everybody thinks it was hard,” Bennett said. “But I had my mind made up for a little bit. I came here wanting to graduate. And, you know, the NIL money is not bad here, also. I’m not ready to be out there (in pro golf). I need to mature and get better at some things. I wasn’t ready to be out there eight weeks on the road after the NCAAs this year.
“I just didn’t see the point. Tour golf is always gonna be there for me. And I just felt like there’s no rush for me to really get out there. And especially with everything going on now (with LIV Golf and the PGA Tour), I think it was the best decision I could have done.”
And because you have to ask these days, Bennett said LIV hasn’t contacted him.
“I’m really surprised they haven’t asked me,” he said. “All my friends think I’m lying when I tell them that. I mean, I wouldn’t mind talking to them to see what was up. But no, I like the PGA Tour. And I’m thinking PGA Tour U could come out with (exemptions) maybe where the number-one guy gets full PGA Tour status, or even top-five guys get status. Who knows what they’re gonna do?”
— USGA (@USGA) August 18, 2022
But when you talk to Bennett about coming back to school, it’s not just about what is happening on the course or what financial opportunities await. He has been tested with unspeakable adversity off the course, and that greatly contributes to him wanting to take ample time before reaching professional golf.
Shortly after the end of his junior season, Bennett lost his father, Mark, after a brutal, seven-year struggle with early-onset Alzheimer’s. As far back as Bennett’s senior year of high school, his father struggled to remember who his son was. As time went on, any form of communication became increasingly difficult. Mark, previously a good golfer who helped teach the game to Sam and his older brother, Marcus, had been reduced to constant suffering.
His last words of advice to Bennett were poignant: “Don’t wait to do something.” That phrase is now a tattoo on Bennett’s left forearm. The tattoo is written in the handwriting of Mark, who wrestled through his fading cognitive abilities to write the phrase over the course of 15 painstaking minutes. Bennett says it was one of the toughest things his father did during his illness, giving an even deeper meaning to that tattoo.
“It’s like a new pre-shot routine I do now right before where I look at it before I’m about to hit,” Bennett said. “It’s something that will always stick because he means the world to me.”
Bennett understandably went through a heavy grieving process after his father died. The situation often has felt like a distraction from his golf, even though most of the people asking came in with the best of intentions.
“There were times he really got tired of talking about it,” Kortan said. “Because he really was doing a lot of great things on the golf course. He’s a pretty unique story, but you can only talk about something for so long, right? And it’s always going to be part of him and who he is. And he knows that. But his hope is that he can do something really good in his life. And that will define him and not what he has gone through.”
If Bennett can continue the form he has shown this week in New Jersey and go on to gain traction in professional golf, he inevitably will become a fan favorite. He’s straightforward and humble, but with a bit of fire – a small-town kid who doesn’t sit on the range trying to hit TrackMan numbers. Bennett plays the game in the truest sense of the word, and it’s taken incredible strength to do that in the face of tragedy.
He won’t wait to do something, and those are words to remember.
Top: Sam Bennett and his caddie Brian Kortan – Bennett’s coach at Texas A&M – wait on the second tee during the round of 64. Photo: Grant Halverson, USGA
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