Inspired by loss, Sam Bennett, college golf’s top senior, is playing with a purpose

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Sam Bennett’s start to the 2021-22 college season showcased what happens when you take an already impressive golf game and you add consistency and patience. The Texas A&M senior shot par-or-better in all nine of his stroke-play rounds, posted two top-three finishes and is No. 1 in the PGA Tour University ranking entering the winter break after holding the top spot for the last six weeks of the fall. (For good measure, he also claimed medalist honors at the Spirit International Amateur despite being involved in a rather unusual rules mishap) But his performances proved there’s more to the 21-year-old than just a shiny résumé.

Bennett, who missed only two putts from inside five feet the entire semester, contends his record stems from a shift in his mental game. The previous spring, he racked up three individual wins, one of which led to a sponsor’s exemption into the 2021 Valero Texas Open. Those moments carried over to the fall and allowed Bennett to feel more comfortable under pressure.

“Really what’s helped is just being more mature, knowing how to handle myself and my emotions on the course,” Bennett said in his smooth Texas drawl. “I’ve learned over time from winning and staying in the lead, going into the final day with the lead, or even coming from behind. You don’t really have to do anything special. You just have to plot your way around the course and stay patient.”

According to Aggie men’s coach Brian Kortan, the strength of Bennett’s game is rooted in his fierce love for competition. The native of Madisonville, Texas, a small town 40 miles northeast of College Station, has a homegrown swing honed playing on a run-down nine-hole course called Fannin Oaks, which Bennett describes as making a cow pasture look nice. With a small yet athletic build, he trained himself to make his misses minimal.

His fire, however, comes from somewhere else.

“He’s wired a little differently than most players I’ve ever been around,” Kortan said. “The calmness he receives in competition—things are going a mile a minute around him, but he has an ability to just kind of give himself to that competition.”

Bennett’s ability to perform under pressure was tested at last month’s Golf Club of Georgia Collegiate, the final event of the Aggies’ fall season. Two weeks prior, the PGA Tour announced that the top-ranked player in the PGA Tour U. standings (which ranks graduating seniors) at the end of the fall would earn a sponsor’s exemption into the 2022 Slync.io Dubai Desert Classic on the European Tour. Bennett was the only player in the top five with a tournament left, so he knew exactly what he had to do to take his season one step further.

“Dubai was on my mind a lot,” Bennett said. “I’ve been across the pond one time. I’ve never even thought about going to the Middle East.” Smart play ultimately allowed Bennett to secure a third-place finish in Georgia, capping the fall season and booking the overseas trip.

Bennett’s mental toughness shines through on the course, but the reality is that he’s exhausted his resolve elsewhere over the past six months. In June, shortly after the end of his junior season, Bennett lost his father, Mark, to a seven-year battle with Early-Onset Alzheimer’s. By Sam’s senior year of high school, his father hardly knew who he and his older brothers were.

It’s difficult for Bennett to remember what his father was like before he lost the ability to communicate about a year ago; videos help him recall healthier days. But Bennett holds on dearly to the last five words of advice he received from his father: “Don’t wait to do something.”

The phrase is tattooed on Bennett’s left forearm in his father’s handwriting, and he looks down at it every day.

In the months following his tragic loss, Bennett struggled to experience joy on the course. Disappointing rounds combined with persistent grief were frustrating. “It was just a shot in the foot,” he admitted. But over time, Bennett slowly rebuilt his confidence and looked at his father’s passing in a new light.

“Back when he was sick, he never really got to watch me really play any good golf. Now I know he’s up in heaven, smiling down and watching everything I do,” Bennett said. “He never really cared what I shot or what place I finished, but just kind of being a gentleman on the course and respecting my fellow competitors. He’d be more happy with that than all these accomplishments I’ve been getting.”

Coveted sponsor’s exemptions and a shelf full of trophies are part of Bennett’s life as a competitor now. But behind it all is a different story: a small-town kid who plays with some serious heart.

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