Sam Bennett continues to navigate tough U.S. Amateur path, and now he draws Stewart Hagestad

Sam Bennett continues to navigate tough U.S. Amateur path, and now he draws Stewart Hagestad
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PARAMUS, N.J. – No one can say Sam Bennett hasn’t been tested.

Through three matches of this 122nd U.S. Amateur at The Ridgewood Country Club, Bennett has easily had the most difficult path to the quarterfinals. He opened with a 1-up victory over Nick Gabrelcik, the 13th-ranked player in the World Amateur Golf Ranking. He then took down No. 27 Fred Biondi, 6 and 5, on Thursday morning before coming out in the afternoon and dispatching No. 10 David Puig, 4 and 2.

Not that Bennett, the Texas A&M senior who is ranked third himself, cares.

“I mean, it’s whatever,” Bennett said. “If you get this far in match play, you’ve got to play good golf to beat anybody. That’s what I did.”

Now, Bennett draws yet another stout opponent, and his toughest one yet: No. 9 Stewart Hagestad, a two-time U.S. Mid-Amateur champion and three-time Walker Cupper.

The 31-year-old Hagestad’s road hasn’t been cake. He’s beaten No. 7 Sam Bairstow, No. 45 Ben James and most recently No. 41 Hayden Hopewell. But when you make eight birdies and an eagle in 14 holes like Hagestad did Thursday morning against James, you can beat anybody.

Hagestad may need to replicate that performance if he’s to advance past Bennett, who had 11 birdies in 29 holes on Thursday, and reach the semifinals for the first time in 13 tries at this championship.

“I told [Sam] at the U.S. Open that what I really liked about him is he’s got a lot of piss and vinegar in him,” Hagestad said. “I don’t think we’ll talk very much, but I respect the hell out of him. He’s really, really good.”

Bennett was more tightlipped when asked if he knows much about the decorated Hagestad, who is trying to become the first mid-amateur to win the Havemeyer Trophy since John Harris in 1993.

“Yeah, I’ve heard a few things,” Bennett said with a wry smile.

The winner of Bennett-Hagestad will face either Dylan Menante, the fast-playing, former Pepperdine star who this summer transferred to North Carolina, or Nicholas Gross, a promising 15-year-old who is the second youngest U.S. Amateur quarterfinalist since a 14-year-old Bobby Jones in 1916. That first match begins Friday at 9:30 a.m. ET.

On the bottom half of the bracket, Alex Price, who plays at Christopher Newport University in Virginia and is likely the first active D-III player to make the quarters, is in line to make more history. At No. 1,212 in the world, he’d be the worst-ranked U.S. Amateur champion ever.

Price, the ultimate underdog, birdied four of the first five holes on the back nine to put away No. 20 Ricky Castillo, 3 and 2. He gets Ben Carr on Friday. Carr, a senior at Georgia Southern, has former PGA Tour player Willy Wilcox on his bag.

Match scoring from the U.S. Amateur

The last quarterfinal will pit San Diego State’s Shea Lague, who eliminated the last remaining co-medalist Hugo Townsend in 19 holes, against Pepperdine’s Derek Hitchner, who has his head coach Michael Beard as his caddie and was one of 11 players – Gross is another – to get into match play via Wednesday’ 15-man playoff.

“With how many players there are and with how kind of bunched the scoring was, I think it’s maybe reasonable to expect that someone would emerge from the playoff and kind of keep playing well just because to get into that position you had to play pretty well,” Hitchner said. “I just tried to look at it that way and just have confidence in what I was doing and try to carry that forward.”

Bennett also has his college coach, Brian Kortan, looping. Kortan and the Aggies received great news last season when Bennett deferred his status as the No. 1 player in PGA Tour University to return to school for a fifth year. This summer, Bennett played just a couple of tournaments, making the cut at the U.S. Open and playing in the Arnold Palmer Cup in Switzerland. Instead, he spent most of his time at Traditions Club in College Station, Texas, taking in casual rounds with his non-golf team buddies.

“This is my fourth go-around,” Bennett said of summer golf. “There’s no need to go travel around the world and waste time and play [lots of] amateur tournaments. … I feel like I was really prepared for this week. I played a lot of golf. I didn’t play any tournaments, and I’ve been playing with my buddies and just having fun and making a bunch of birdies back at my home course.”

The birdies have continued to fall for Bennett this week. Same for Hagestad. But then again, there’s always room for the unexpected, the Cinderella story. Especially in this format, anyone can beat anyone, regardless of ranking.

And at this point, all paths are tough.

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