AUGUSTA, Ga. — Shortly before midnight Thursday, Sam Bennett was lying in bed scrolling on his phone, reading direct messages, replying here and there, pretty much like any other college student in America right now.
Here’s the difference: Sam Bennett was scrolling in Augusta, Georgia, coming off one brilliant round of 68 in the Masters and just hours away from shooting the same score again.
“I was looking at what everybody had to say and replying to some people and I was like, I really need to get some sleep,” he said Friday, “so I turned [notifications] off and put my phone away.”
It’s not supposed to be this easy. (“Easy” being a relative term.) Twenty-three-year-old college students aren’t supposed to roll up to Augusta National and post twin 68s, one stroke off the all-time amateur record. And yet Bennett, the reigning U.S. Amateur champion and a fifth-year senior at Texas A&M (“I’m not worried about school right now,” he allowed) has spent the first two days of the Masters treating sanctified Augusta National like a dusty Texas muni. As a result, after two rounds he sits in third place, four strokes behind Brooks Koepka’s phenomenal 12-under.
Bennett, a languid Texan with a touch of manicured stubble and boundless acres of confidence, is about to step into the brightest spotlight in golf: a late tee time on the weekend at Augusta. He thinks he’s ready for this moment. He might even actually be ready for it. But as he readies for the most important rounds of his life, his heart and soul are on the line, too.
Less than two years ago, Sam lost his father, Mark, to early onset Alzheimer’s, a cruel, progressive and incurable disease that vaporized Mark’s memories and left him seeing his family as strangers. About a year before he died, Mark, in a moment of clarity, grasped Sam, looked into his eyes, and delivered a message:
“Don’t wait to do something.”
Sam’s mother, Stacy, managed to help Mark write the words down on a sheet of paper, and Sam carried that paper in his car with him for many months. Then he decided he wanted a more permanent memento, and stopped into a tattoo parlor. Now the words are inscribed on his left forearm, and Sam sees them every time he grips a golf club.
“Don’t wait to do something” is a powerful message, an inspirational message. The words that have guided Bennett through the darkest days of the last few years. And as his fame has grown, so too have the requests to retell the heartbreaking story behind the message.
Imagine if you had to relive the most painful moments of your life, again and again. Imagine if strangers asked you, over and over, to tear open old scars, to reduce your agony to a quick bit of social media content. Anyone who could keep from swinging on someone deserves respect; Bennett deserves much more than that.
Bennett is handling the constant inquiries as well as anyone could possibly expect, but everyone has limits. Prior to the Masters, Bennett told reporters he was done talking about his father. When asked about his father again Thursday, he replied simply, “I think I’ve talked about that enough.”
But then came that second 68, and a whole new wave of media attention — an appearance on ESPN with Scott Van Pelt, an invitation onto the stage of the vast, ornate, 200-seat media room. And each time, he had to face the same questions — about his father’s death, about processing loss, about the final words his father ever wrote.
To his immense credit, Bennett has handled the new rounds of the same questions with grace. He’s told, once again, the story behind the tattoo. He’s answered the questions of whether his father would be proud of him, or what his father would say to him, as well as he possibly can, given the spiritual, emotional and theological leaps he has to make to do so.
“It’s a great story, you know, I hear it every day, but I want to try and move on from this,” he said after his round. “I want to start talking about golf … I’m more than what’s happened to me and what I’ve been through.”
So let’s talk about golf, then. Bennett is on a historic heater. He’s not nearly as obsessed with history as longtime Augusta National aficionados; he barely even knows who Bobby Jones is, even though he’s playing at the man’s club, and he knows almost nothing about Ken Venturi, even though he’s one stroke shy of Venturi’s 36-hole amateur record at Augusta. (“That’s neat,” he allowed.)
To be clear, Bennett doesn’t need to know any of the names of long-gone players. Golf’s obsession with its own history pulls focus away from its future, and Bennett is most definitely golf’s future. Depending on how the second round ends up after it resumes from a weather suspension Friday, he might end up paired with Koepka, the current leader. Asked why he thinks he can beat a four-time major winner and become the first amateur to win the Masters, Bennett didn’t hesitate with a response:
“Because I know that my good golf is good enough.”
That’s beautiful. Not “I’m hoping to play well” or “Brooks deserves respect” or any fake-modest junk, just straight-up I can beat him. Now, maybe this bit of bulletin-board material will fire up the beast, and Koepka will demolish Bennett head to head. But Bennett’s going in strong, and if he falls, he’s going down swinging.
Either way, he’ll be a must-watch this weekend, and just maybe for a long time to come.