Sam Bennett. Dylan Buell
Sam Bennett didn’t quite finish off his collegiate career the way he would have liked, but three days later he adeptly transitioned to professional status and showed some of the game that made him a sensation at this year’s Masters.
The reigning US Amateur champion opened the Memorial Tournament with a solid one-under 71 on Thursday on a sunny and warm day when Muirfield Village Golf Club had some fire in it. After saving bogey on his opening hole, the 23-year-old Texan navigated the Jack Nicklaus-designed test like … well, a pro. He was ready.
“I was locked in. I played the Masters. I made the cut at the US Open last year. I played Arnold Palmer, Valero, a tournament in Dubai. So I kind of know what it’s like a little bit out here and what it takes to be successful,” said Bennett, who stayed for a fifth year at Texas A&M but carded a five-over 75 in his final college round at the NCAA Championship Monday at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Arizona. The Aggies ended up 13th and did not advance to the matchplay portion of the championship eventually captured by Florida.
Exempt into the Memorial field by virtue of his US Amateur victory, Bennett said he didn’t feel any different playing as a professional as he did as an amateur. “I can get paid now for good finishes,” he said with a grin. “It’s been a long time coming. I had a great amateur career and was happy to get started with my professional debut here at Memorial.”
He weathered an ominous beginning, skulling a shot out of a greenside bunker at the par-4 10th hole that could have spelled early disaster. But he pitched from 27 yards to 13 feet and sank the bogey putt. A five-footer for birdie at the par-5 11th settled him down, and he mixed in three more birdies against two bogeys to break par on a set-up that reigning Masters champion Jon Rahm said was very much similar to a US Open in difficulty.
“I made a few good sand saves out of the bunker and I just played the par 5s good,” Bennet said. “Then when I got out of position, I just took my bogey and moved on.”
Bennett has good vibes in central Ohio, having qualified in the area for last year’s US Open at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, where he ended up T-49. Then came the Masters. After missing the cut at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, the two-time All-American was impressive at Augusta National Golf Club. He opened with a pair of 68s and stood third behind Rahm and Brooks Koepka through 36 holes. His eight-under 136 total was one stroke shy of Ken Venturi’s amateur record set in 1956.
He went on to tie for 16th with rounds of 74-76, playing 30 holes on Sunday, to finish as low amateur. Admittedly exhausted, he flew home to a celebratory reception and then cheered on his teammates in the Aggies Invitational.
He finished out his college career focused on helping his team, but he also admits chomping at the bit to take the next step in the game. “Yeah, I was itching,” he said. “But I knew what was at stake. I came back for my fifth year, and I wanted to respect my team, respect my decision. So they’re first and foremost. And tour golf’s always going to be there for me. I wanted to have one last run at a national championship with my team.”
But now he is on another run. He will play in next week’s RBC Canadian Open and then tee it up at the US Open at Los Angeles Country Club as he makes the transition to the pro game and makes some lifestyle adjustments to help create a path to success.
“I just, just quit living like a college kid. I’ll probably start with that,” Bennett said. “Just doing the right things. Being smart. Making right decisions. My good golf, I just know that I have a really unique game and unique swing, I just got to own it and play my game and it will be just fine. … This is right where I want to be, right where I’ve always wanted to do and I’m looking to seize the opportunity.”
Meanwhile, by finishing fifth in the PGA Tour University standings, Bennett earned fully exempt Korn Ferry Tour membership and he is exempt into PGA Tour Q-School final qualifying.
The Masters, he said, was a proper way to prepare for the challenges ahead. He put a good foot forward amid a field loaded with the top players in the $20 million designated event.
“It was good. It’s tough out here. You got to keep it in play. I did a pretty good job of that,” he said, assessing his performance. “This was a good start … a good start to my debut.”