Sam Bennett, a small-town amateur with big ideas, shakes up Masters

Sam Bennett tees off on the 16th hole during second round of the 2023 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club, Friday, April 7, 2023, in Augusta, Ga. (Hyosub Shin /

Credit: Hyosub Shin /

Credit: Hyosub Shin /

Sam Bennett tees off on the 16th hole during second round of the 2023 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club, Friday, April 7, 2023, in Augusta, Ga. (Hyosub Shin /

AUGUSTA – Look out, Brooks Koepka. You’ve got Sam Bennett on your heels.

To the wider world, it’s piffle to say a 23-year-old amateur from Madisonville, Tex. – population 4,500, a little break in the mesquite between Houston and Dallas – who’s had one swing lesson and didn’t really care for it, should much bother the big, bad Masters leader.

But this brash whelp has confidence to burn. Just ask him about his ever-evolving expectations. First, he arrived at the Masters as the cute little U.S. Am champion with the heartstring-tugging story. And now, two 68s later, he’s doing things no amateur has done since CBS aired its first black-and-white images of Ken Venturi in 1956. Here sat Bennett Friday at 8 under, four back of Koepka when weather cut short the second round.

“I just wanted to put two good rounds up,” he said of his original hopes. “I knew my golf was good enough to compete out here. I found myself in a situation that now, I’ve got a golf tournament that I can go out and win.”

Such sacrilege, coming from an Am, playing his first Masters. And there’s more.

Asked what makes him think that this weekend he could chase down Koepka – or for that matter any number of others on a Masters leaderboard that is groaning beneath the weight of big names – Bennett didn’t stutter, didn’t blink:

“Because I know that my good golf is good enough.”

Who could really blame Bennett if his ego was running a little in the red Friday? He had just finished playing two rounds with a couple heavy hitters – defending Masters champ and No. 1 in the world Scottie Scheffler and No. 5 Max Homa – and smoked them both. He’s seven up on Scheffler and eight up on Homa. Those two could have teamed up and played their best ball Friday – frowned on by the lords of Augusta – and only tied the young man.

What Bennett knows about Venturi, the gold standard of amateur play in a tournament birthed by uber amateur Bobby Jones, you could fit beneath a hybrid’s head cover. “This is probably going to sound bad but I don’t even know if he’s won any majors or what majors,” he said. “What did he shoot, 66, the lowest round?”

Not bad, exactly so. Back in ‘56 Venturi rode a great opening round all the way to the third-round lead, coming closer than any amateur ever has to winning here. He’d shoot 80 on Sunday to lose by a stroke. This is the kind of company Bennett keeps today. His 36-hole total of 136 is just one back of Venturi’s Masters record. He has become one of only three amateurs to shoot two rounds in the 60s in the same Masters, joining Venturi and 1961 vintage Charles Coe.

On his bag this week of the SEC Player of the Year is his coach at Texas A&M, Brian Kortan. It’s a duo that worked well in capturing the 2022 U.S. Am and is only gaining speed here. There’s no shortage of positive messages filling Bennett’s ears.

“If he plays good golf, he can compete,” Kortan said. “To everybody here it’s like he’s playing unbelievable golf. All he’s trying to do is hit good shots wherever he is.

“You hear Rory McIlroy say tidy all the time. (Bennett) has been really tidy.”

Define tidy as committing but one bogey in his first 36 holes. Not a long hitter – he’s 74th in driving distance in this 86-player field – Bennett tidies up with deft iron play. He’s second to Koepka in average proximity to the hole and takes advantage of that on the green (ranking sixth in average number of putts).

Bennett announced his presence with authority both days. So cowed was he at his Masters debut Thursday that Bennett went out birdie-eagle on his first two holes. He began his second round with another birdie Friday. He does not slowly warm to a moment.

A year ago, Bennett could have neither managed his game nor the enormity of his place on the Masters leaderboard. His father Mark suffered the inevitable defeat to early onset Alzheimer’s in the summer of 2020. The emotional wounds of his death at 52 were a long time healing.

As Mark spiraled into darkness, memories vanishing, he uttered the strangest thing to the youngest of his three sons. The family has no idea where it sprang from: “Don’t wait to do something.”

Startled, Sam asked his mother to help Mark write those words down if he could. Slowly his father did. In the same almost child-like scrawl, they are now tattooed on the inside of Sam’s left forearm.

“I see it every time I’m gripping the club, it’s right there,” Bennett said Friday.

“You know, 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. You know, this week, I’ve used it to just stay focused and really be locked in to that one shot.”

If you’re strong enough and resilient enough, life’s hard, rutted path will get you to where you need to be. Bennett is at the terminus of one such road at just the right time.

“He’s matured a ton the last two years,” Kortan said. “It took a while to get on the other side of (his father’s death). Once he put that in perspective he’s done a great job.”

There’s much else to recommend Bennett as a fan favorite. There’s the look of him, all long, lean limbs and sharp angles, set off by a patch of beard on his chin. Can’t help but notice him.

He’s nobody’s test tube golfer, preaching an instinctive brand of golf, the kind you pick up like a found, blemished ball from some muni course. The swing does not flow. Probably never will. “No, I’ll never get a swing coach. No,” he said.

“I don’t hit it far. ... I don’t have a pretty swing like some of the other amateurs. But it’s golf, not a golf swing,” he said.

Feeling a little discounted throughout his playing days seems to come in handy now. “He’s been fighting his whole life. Why not keep going?” his coach/caddie said.

Don’t wait to do something.

What almost divine guidance now.

Sure there’s a humbling coming Bennett’s way. Maybe very soon. Golf insists upon it.

Seems, though, that Bennett’s reservoir of comfort and confidence might just be deep enough to see him through a weekend.

“The hard work’s done,” Bennett said Friday afternoon. “I made the cut as an amateur. I kind of made my mark. I played steady golf. Now it’s time for me to go out and enjoy, soak it all in, be able to play the weekend at the Masters. I mean, growing up as a kid, if you would have told me that, I would have said you’re probably crazy.

“To be honest, I don’t think I’ll be too nervous out there come the weekend. I’ll just be out there enjoying it, soaking it in. If I play good, I play good. And if I play bad, I go back to my home and school and compete in my home tournament Thursday.”

Scared yet, Brooksie?