Sam Bennett is one of those great athletes who excels at just about anything he tries. At Madisonville (Texas) High School, he not only was a standout golfer, but a district champion in tennis, an all-district performer in basketball and a defensive MVP as a baseball shortstop.
Too bad he never ran track, because at this week’s 122nd U.S. Amateur Championship at The Ridgewood Country Club, the 22-year-old fifth-year Texas A&M senior is demonstrating a penchant for hurdling top-rated foes.
The latest illustration came in Friday’s quarterfinals when Bennett, the No. 3 player in the World Amateur Golf Ranking®/WAGR®, upended world No. 9 and two-time U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Stewart Hagestad, 31, of Newport Beach, Calif., 3 and 2. Bennett, the 2022 Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, has dispatched four foes this week, none ranked lower than No. 27 in the world.
That trend will continue on Saturday when he squares off against No. 8 Dylan Menante, 21, of Carlsbad, Calif. Menante, who led Pepperdine to the 2021 NCAA title before transferring to the University of North Carolina this summer, knocked out Nicholas Gross, 15, of Downingtown, Pa., 4 and 3.
“They're great players, but I'm a better player,” said Bennett. “No. 3 in the rankings, and I feel like I'm the best player. I'm the dog in this race. I've been playing the best golf leading up to here. Yesterday I was 10 under through 29. Today I didn't quite have it, but I got the job done. I’ve got Menante tomorrow. Obviously, he's playing good, another tough opponent. I think it's going to be a good match.”
Georgia Southern fifth-year senior Ben Carr, 22, of Columbus, Ga., will face Pepperdine fifth-year senior Derek Hitchner, 22, of Minneapolis, Minn., in Saturday’s second semifinal. Carr defeated the championship’s Cinderella story, Christopher Newport University senior Alex Price, of Hillsboro, Va., 2 and 1. Hitchner eliminated San Diego State sophomore Shea Lague, 18, of Jamul, Calif., 3 and 2.
Price, at No. 1,212 in the WAGR, was bidding to be the lowest-ranked player to win the U.S. Amateur since the USGA began recognizing the ranking system in 2012, and the second lefty since Phil Mickelson in 1990.
Hagestad and Bennett came into their encounter a combined 21 under par, with the usual concessions for match play, and they delivered on the expectations of 2022 U.S. Open competitors by combining for nine birdies, with six registered by Bennett, who tied for 49th at The Country Club. Hagestad, who finished 64th in the U.S. Open, was bidding to be the first mid-amateur in 29 years (John Harris) to win the U.S. Amateur and the first in his demographic to make a semifinal since 2005 (Austin Eaton III).
But after the reigning U.S. Mid-Amateur champ took an early 1-up lead with a par on No. 4, he didn’t win another hole. Bennett’s 10-foot birdie on the par-3 sixth tied the match and he went ahead for good with a winning bogey on the 474-yard eighth, which played as the second-hardest hole in stroke play.
A winning par on No. 11 and a 15-foot birdie on No. 14 were enough to send Bennett into the semifinals.
“He's just really, really good at golf,” said a gracious Hagestad, a three-time USA Walker Cupper who has reached the quarterfinals twice in 13 U.S. Amateur starts. “He's got a lot of self-belief and I think he's got a good mentality for match play… and ready to go all 12 rounds from the first tee on.”
Menante, who repeated as Northeast Amateur champion in June at Wannamoisett Country Club in Rumford, R.I. with a nine-stroke victory, birdied four consecutive holes from No. 5 to end Gross’ run. The championship’s youngest player was also the third-youngest to reach the final eight in history behind Bob Jones (1916) and C.T. Pan (2007). Gross, who turns 16 on Aug. 24, had bolted out to an early 2-up lead, but Menante’s five wins over a six-hole stretch put the Southern Californian in the driver’s seat.
Hitchner, the 2021 Minnesota State Amateur champion who is No. 51 in the WAGR, was born in Summit, N.J., about 30 minutes from Ridgewood. While he trailed for the first time this week when he lost the fourth hole, he broke open a tight match with birdies on Nos. 7, 9 and 11 to take a 3-up advantage. Lague, who failed to qualify for match play in last month’s U.S. Junior Amateur, cut into the deficit with a birdie on the par-5 13th, but when Hitchner hit the flagstick with his tee shot on the 135-yard par-3 15th to set up a winning birdie, the match was essentially over.
Carr, meanwhile, is hoping to become the first current or former Georgia Southern player to win the U.S. Amateur since alum Stewart “Buddy” Alexander captured the 1986 title at Shoal Creek. The No. 70 player in the WAGR saw a 4-up lead against Price trimmed to one hole when the Virginia left-hander won Nos. 12, 14 and 15. Carr then steadied himself and closed out the match with a conceded birdie on 17.
Saturday’s semifinal matches are scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. and 2:20 p.m. EDT, with Sunday’s 36-hole championship match set for 8 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Golf Channel has exclusive coverage of the semifinals beginning at 3 p.m. EDT. Spectators wishing to attend can purchase tickets here.
“This is my first time making match play in [the U.S. Amateur], so really nice to make it and keep going. My match-play game is really good in Nationals (NCAA Championships), so it's cool to keep advancing and pushing forward.” – Dylan Menante
“Trying to win golf tournaments, trying to win matches, that's why we do what we do. It's fun. You've got to enjoy it. You've got to embrace it. That's what I try to tell our guys on the team is you've got to want to be there. If you get nervous, so what, that's why we do it. You should enjoy the moment.” – Sam Bennett on the atmosphere
“I had the time of my life here. It's my first Am, and it was a hell of a ride. I played against some of the top ams in the world, and I was able to get into the quarterfinals, which eight people get to do out of 312, so it's pretty special, something I'll remember forever.” 15-year-old Nicholas Gross on run to the final eight
“I think seeding is irrelevant, just with how bunched the scoring was [in stroke play]. Everyone was playing well to get to this position. Obviously, there are many players that are extremely, extremely good. Whoever is on their game at this point is good enough to win, and I feel like I'm hopefully part of that.” – Derek Hitchner on reaching the semis as the No. 59 seed
“He's helped me a ton. Anything that goes with being a good caddie, he's got it. He keeps me grounded. He's a great green reader, good with numbers, good decision maker, and we just had so much fun out there. Two guys from Alabama and Georgia, just up here in New Jersey, almost like a foreign country, just having a good time on the golf course.” – Ben Carr on his caddie and Alabama native Willy Wilcox
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.