Sam Bennett (USGA/Kathryn Riley)
If Sam Bennett goes on to win the 122nd U.S. Amateur Championship at The Ridgewood Country Club, nobody can say he didn’t earn it. The No. 3 player in the World Amateur Golf Ranking®/WAGR® has gone through a gauntlet of highly touted opponents to reach the quarterfinals.
On Thursday, the rising fifth-year senior at Texas A&M took out co-medalist and world No. 27 Fred Biondi and No. 10 David Puig to reach his first quarterfinal in three starts in America’s oldest amateur competition.
It won’t get any easier on Friday as Bennett, 22, of Madisonville, Texas, will take on two-time U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Stewart Hagestad, 31, of Newport Beach, Calif., who is No. 9 in the WAGR.
“If you get this far in match play, you've got to play good golf to beat anybody,” said Bennett of his draw. “That's what I did.”
Bennett and Hagestad are joined in the final eight by Nicholas Gross, 15, of Downingtown, Pa.; University of North Carolina rising senior Dylan Menante, 21, of Carlsbad, Calif.; NCAA Division III All-American Alex Price, 21, of Hillsboro, Va.; Pepperdine fifth-year senior Derek Hitchner, 22, of Minneapolis, Minn.; Georgia Southern rising senior Ben Carr, 22, of Columbus, Ga.; and San Diego State rising sophomore Shea Lague, 18, of Jamul, Calif.
Gross, a rising junior at Downingtown West High School who turns 16 on Aug. 24, is the youngest to advance this far in the championship since C.T. Pan, also 15, of Chinese Taipei, in 2007. Before that, one has to go back to 1916 when Bob Jones advanced to the quarters as a 14-year-old at Merion.
Both Gross and Hitchner were among the 11 survivors from Wednesday’s 15-man playoff to determine the final spots in the draw, while Lague rallied from 1 down with one to play to eliminate the last remaining medalist, Townsend, from the four who topped the leader board following stroke play. The medalist has not won this championship since 2004 (Ryan Moore), the longest drought among the 10 USGA amateur competitions.
Bennett could have joined the play-for-pay ranks in June after finishing 10th in the NCAA Championships, thanks to a final-round 64, and tying for 47th in the U.S. Open. But this past spring, he removed his name from PGA Tour University, a ranking system that awards the top five collegiate seniors spots on the Korn Ferry Tour.
He wanted to come back for a COVID year at Texas A&M and have one final crack at hoisting the Havemeyer Trophy. Instead of entering a lot of top summer amateur events, he chose to stay in Texas and play recreationally with his buddies.
Despite a difficult draw, he’s three wins away from that goal. On Thursday, he defeated Biondi, a rising University of Florida senior, 6 and 5, and then took out Arizona State rising senior David Puig, of Spain, 4 and 2. On Wednesday, he needed 19 holes to beat 2021 U.S. Amateur semifinalist Nick Gabrelcik, the world No. 13 from the University of North Florida who was the 2020-21 Phil Mickelson Award winner for being the nation’s top freshman.
Bennett’s win over Biondi avenged a 3-and-1 loss earlier this summer to the Brazilian in the Sunday singles session of the Palmer Cup in Switzerland.
“I feel like I was really prepared for this week,” said Bennett, who was 10 under par over his 29 holes played on Thursday. “I didn't play any tournaments, just Palmer Cup [in July], made the cut at the U.S. Open, and I've been playing with my buddies and just having fun and making a bunch of birdies back at my home course (in College Station, Texas). I feel like I was really prepared coming into this week and well rested.”
Hagestad, the oldest remaining player, produced an impressive 6-and-4 win over University of Virginia incoming freshman Ben James (No. 45 in WAGR) in the Round of 32, then defeated world No. 41 Hayden Hopewell, of Australia, 2 and 1. This will be his second appearance in the final eight after losing to eventual champion Tyler Strafaci at Bandon Dunes in 2020. It’s his 13th start in the championship, by far the most among the 312-player starting field.
“None of them are [easy],” said Hagestad, a three-time USA Walker Cupper who also defeated world No. 7 Sam Bairstow on Wednesday. “All the kids are good.”
Gross, a past Drive, Chip & Putt national age-group finalist who lost in the Round of 32 in last month’s U.S. Junior Amateur, won four holes in a five-hole stretch from No. 10 to oust incoming Arizona State freshman Luke Potter, 4 and 3, a run that included consecutive birdies on Nos. 12 and 13.
Menante, who transferred to North Carolina from Pepperdine, where he helped the Waves win the 2021 NCAA title, has enjoyed a solid summer that included a title defense in the Northeast Amateur at Wannamoisett Country Club in Rumford, R.I. He holed a 12-foot birdie putt on No. 18 to eliminate Maxwell Moldovan, 1 up, in a Round-of-16 match in which neither player owned more than a one-hole lead.
On the other end of the WAGR spectrum is Price, from Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va. The No. 1,212 player is likely the first current NCAA Division III golfer to ever make the U.S. Amateur quarterfinals. He continued his Cinderella run by taking out 2021 USA Walker Cupper and world No. 20 Ricky Castillo, of Yorba Linda, Calif., 3 and 2. The left-hander played the final seven holes of the match in 4 under par, with the usual match-play concessions. Earlier on Thursday, he outlasted Georgia Tech standout Christo Lamprecht, of South Africa, 1 up.
Friday’s quarterfinal matches are scheduled to begin at 9:30 a.m. EDT. Peacock and Golf Channel will have live coverage from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. EDT.
by David Shefter, USGA