Club-twirling, self-assured Sam Bennett seizing his moment at Augusta

Club-twirling, self-assured Sam Bennett seizing his moment at Augusta

AUGUSTA, Ga. — “I wish I could get this on camera!”

Stacy Bennett made a woosh sound as if she was doing just that. In the foreground of her sightline sat Amen Corner, and just a few yards from where her feet were stood her son, Sam, on the 12th tee box ready to flight a ball into the most famous green in America.

“It’s all surreal,” Stacy told ESPN. “I know that’s a cliché, but it’s been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

The 23-year-old amateur with a slight frame and a vicious swing from Madisonville, Texas has turned his invitation into a showcase, his opportunity into history. Bennett, who won the U.S. Amateur last year to enter into the Masters, followed up a bogey-free opening round of 68 with another 4-under 68 on Friday to head into the weekend as not just the low amateur, but in sole possession of third place and four shots behind the leader Brooks Koepka.

As Bennett played his round Friday, the gallery that followed him added patrons by the hole. Rumors of what Bennett was doing spread through the grounds. Still, in a crowd it was easy to spot Bennett’s support group. Most were wearing Texas A&M gear and colors, cheering loudly with every drive, every approach and every putt. Others had driven 13 hours overnight to come watch him after their flight was canceled, and they couldn’t believe their eyes.

“Phone been’ blowing up!” Stacy said. “I had over 70 messages when I went back yesterday.”

The messages are unlikely to stop.

“It’s what we talked about as kids,” Sam’s older brother Marcus said before he watched Bennett drain a birdie putt on hole No. 14. “We wanted to come to Augusta National to watch, but now he’s not just here and he’s not just playing, but he’s at the top of the leaderboard.”

Marcus and Stacy, alongside the rest of their crew, followed every shot with eagerness. In the face of only being able to watch Sam from afar, fist pumps and loud cheers were their love language. The patrons soon started doing the same, yelling loudly when Bennett crushed drives with his unorthodox swing, or when he would sink birdies. He has only taken one formal golf lesson in his life, but Bennett’s performance Friday turned Augusta into his home game.

“I love being able to hit shots, and [hear] the crowd of the people,” Bennett said. “I used that to my advantage. I felt comfortable out there.”

All day long, patrons walked up to Stacy, who wore a name tag, to congratulate her on her son, ask questions about his age, his game and especially his story. “It’s bittersweet,” she told one patron. As Ryan Lavner chronicled in a recent Golf Channel story, Bennett’s story is marked by his father’s death from Alzheimer’s two years ago.

“It’s been hard,” Stacy said, adding that Sam and her husband Mark were extremely close. “Golf has helped. I stayed teaching because that helped me and golf helped Sam. I can teach and he can golf and we can lean on that.”

On his left arm, Bennett sports a tattoo in his dad’s handwriting that reads “Don’t wait to do something,” a phrase his father told him before he died.

“I see it every time I’m gripping the club,” Bennett said. “I thrive on it. I use it for some motivation. I know how happy he would be seeing me out here at Augusta National doing what I’m doing.”

“The kid’s been through a lot,” Marcus said. “But even if he may be having a tough time outside the ropes. When he’s inside the ropes he’s good. He’s so strong between the ears.”

Bennett’s game has thrust his story into a bigger — perhaps the biggest — spotlight. And while he isn’t blind to the fact that his loss makes his story one that people gravitate to, he is ready to enter the next stage of his career.

“I want to try and move on from this,” Bennett said. “It’s a good story, great, incredible, but I want to start talking about golf, and you know, I’m more than what’s happened to me and what I’ve been through.”

So, let’s talk about golf. The way his caddie and Texas A&M coach Brian Kortan describes it, Bennett has been “tidy,” avoiding big mistakes and playing smart golf. Marcus pointed out that they expected him to have to use his mid and long irons, which have been dialed. He’s also missed only two fairways through two days and carded only one bogey. There’s no great mystery to why he sits where he does heading into Saturday, no questions as to why he’s quickly become a crowd favorite.

This — an amateur playing like this — doesn’t happen often. It isn’t supposed to. And yet, here we are.

On nine, Bennett aimed right at the flag and landed it as if he had walked up to the hole and placed it with his hand. The subsequent club twirl, for which he became famous for at the U.S. Amateur made his teammates cheer in unison. The tap-in birdie took Bennett to 2-under and left patrons in awe.

“That was crazy,” one said.

“I’ve never seen an amateur play like this,” said another.

“Did you see that club twirl?”

Bennett earned some more notoriety when he club-twirled his way to the U.S. Amateur victory and earned a reputation as a fearless player who fed off any slight or doubt. This week, he admitted he felt like he was being slightly overlooked in a talented field of amateurs.

“I don’t hit it far like [Gordon] Sargent. I don’t have 190 ball speed,” Bennett said. “I don’t have a pretty swing like some of the other amateurs. It’s golf, not a golf swing. I’ve done the right things this week. I was prepared. I was more experienced than the other guys, and yeah, here I sit with a chance to go on the weekend and do something special.”

It’s not just the club twirls. Bennett exudes a focused approach that translates to how he is thriving in a pressurized environment. He doesn’t lack confidence but instead is overflowing in self-assuredness. But like any first-timer to come into the gates at Augusta National, Bennett still finds the scoreboards to be big, the crowds to be loud, the aura to be magical. Placing the ball on the tee, however, seems to calm him.

“It takes some guts to be out there,” Collin Morikawa said of Bennett. “Especially by an amateur at Augusta for the first time.”

Marcus has to pinch himself when he thinks of that. Memories of him and Sam putting on practice greens resurface in his mind. Like kids on blacktops shooting NBA Finals-winning jumpers after calling out “3, 2, 1…” those childhood putts between the two of them were always — always — to win the Masters.

“It’s a dream,” Marcus said. “I don’t know if I thought this was possible.”

On Friday, as the ominous gray skies loomed above Augusta, the dream reached its climax. The crowd momentum that had been growing throughout Bennett’s round culminated in a moment that Bennett won’t soon forget. After hitting his approach shot into 18, Bennett made his way up the hill to the green. Claps turned into cheers that devolved into roars. Soon, the patrons were standing from the chairs they’d been glued to all day.

Kortan told him to not forget to salute and tip his hat, so Bennett did. Then, he proceeded to look at the leaderboard multiple times because he likes to know where he stands. He two-putted for par, but the comebacker elicited a fist pump and yet another standing ovation as he walked off the green, sporting a smile wider than Augusta’s widest fairways.

With the weekend comes a tougher challenge filled with rain and some of the best players in the world. Marcus thinks anything is possible. Sam believes he can win.

“I know that my good golf is good enough,” Bennett said.

“The kid has been fighting his whole life,” Kortan, who Bennett described as his second father, said. “Why stop now?’

After Bennett walked into the Augusta clubhouse to record his score Friday, Stacy stood outside and waited nearby. She wiped a tear from her eye. Her son was going to be playing the weekend at the Masters in one of the final groups. There will be plenty of pictures for her to choose from.

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