Texas tough: Sam Bennett overcomes bizarro penalty as Team USA dominates the Spirit International

Texas tough: Sam Bennett overcomes bizarro penalty as Team USA dominates the Spirit International

TRINITY, Texas – When Sam Bennett dug into his golf bag on the first hole of the final round of the Spirit International Amateur Championship, he pulled out a Ping 58-degree wedge that didn’t belong to him.

“I was like, ‘Oh, crap!” he recalled.

That 15th club in the bag, which belonged to teammate Rachel Heck, cost him two strokes for the rules violation. It could’ve rattled the Texas A&M senior, but not Bennett. He’s Texas tough and he’s won enough tournaments already in his young career to know that while he’d dug himself a bigger deficit, he had 17 holes to go and he just had to be patient.

“I knew the Golfing gods would come back and help me,” he said. “I told myself, ‘Let’s just get back to even (for the round) by five.’ I made birdies at Nos. 2 and 5 and then it was just game on.”

Indeed, it was. Bennett rallied to shoot 3-under par 69 for a 72-hole total of 6-under 210 and win gold as the men’s individual champion, bettering Sweden’s Hugo Townsend, a senior at Boise State, by two strokes. Canada’s Johnny Travale (UCF), who held the 36-hole lead, shot 75 and won bronze at 3-under 213.

“I’ve been close this fall in some tournament, coming down the stretch having a chance, and just couldn’t finish it off,” Bennett said. “It feels good to be back on top again.”

The two-stroke penalty, however, proved more costly to the American side in the men’s team event as Team Sweden edged out the American team of Bennett and James Piot by one shot at 3-under 429, as Piot struggled over the final two rounds. He shared a piece of 12th place individually at 4-over 220. Of Sweden’s gold medal, team captain Katerina Vangdal said, “It is a tough course. It is challenging. Every day, we told them, your score is good. Today, they’ll realize they did a good job out there.”

Texas tough: Sam Bennett overcomes bizarro penalty as Team USA dominates the Spirit International

Silver medalists Team USA (left) gold medalists Team Sweden (center) and Team Canada (right) with The Spirit flame burning bright behind them. (Hugh Hargrave)

Paced by the two top amateurs in the Women’s World Amateur Golf Rankings, Team USA ran away with the overall Team Championship to win gold medals. Piot said the women were going to have to carry the Americans to victory and they did just that. Rose Zhang shot a bogey-free 69 and Heck caught fire on the back nine, playing the five holes beginning at No. 13 in 5-under, including rolling in a 25-foot eagle putt from the fringe at 17, and posting 67.

With a three-day total of 11-under-par 620, the U.S. Team won by 21 strokes. Canada took the silver medal at 7-under 641. Sweden took the bronze at 6-under 642. France, the defending champions from 2019, placed fourth at 2-under 646. In all, Team USA won four gold medals and one silver in the biennial team event that consists of five concurrent competitions over 54 holes of stroke play.

“I was proud of the way the kids rallied,” U.S. Captain Stacy Lewis said. “I’m thankful that they came and for their fight when it’s a time they could be taking time off. I really appreciated what they did this week.”

World No. 1 and Stanford standout Rose Zhang took the gold medal in the Women’s Individual competition, her fourth individual title this fall. For the week, Zhang finished at 10-under 206, three shots clear of second place.

“It’s such an honor to play with my teammates and represent the United States,” Zhang said. “This week was just phenomenal. Stacy is such an inspiration to young golfers like us out there. She’s been through so much, and I’ve learned so much from her. Having her with us this week was special.”

Texas tough: Sam Bennett overcomes bizarro penalty as Team USA dominates the Spirit International

Mexico’s Isabella Fierro, an Oklahoma State junior and the 48th-ranked amateur in the world, won the silver medal, closing with 67-69 in the final two rounds and posted 7-under 209 for the championship. Fierro was particularly impressive on the back nine at Whispering Pines, much of which skirts the scenic shores of Lake Livingston. She was 10-under par with no bogeys on the stretch of holes for the three-day tournament. Canada’s Savannah Grewal took home the bronze, while Heck finished tied for fifth place at 2-under 214 in the women’s individual competition.

Zhang went home with three gold medals in all as she and Heck teamed to win the women’s team competition, shooting 12-under 420. Team Switzerland (-5) grabbed silver and Team France took the bronze.

Canada’s Noemie Pare’ made a hole-in-one on the par-3, 135-yard eighth hole in the final round. The former Barry University standout put a three-quarter swing on her 8-iron, and her shot headed straight at the flagstick. Her ball landed about 15 feet short of the hole, bounced twice, and rolled right in as if it was a putt for her third career ace.

“It had a good line,” she said. “It was a little thin, but it worked perfectly. It went in, then I was looking for my partner for a big hug.”

But no one put together a more impressive round than Bennett, who overcame the early penalty for the extra club with a gritty performance in front of family – mother, brother and grand parents – and friends, although he conceded most of them had left early on Saturday to watch the Texas A&M football game against Auburn. It was a comeback for the ages.

“On the first day, it was cold, and I couldn’t get comfortable out there,” said Bennett, the sixth-ranked golfer in the Men’s World Amateur Golf Ranking. “My swing didn’t feel good. I worked on a few things after the round. Hit a few putts. The last 36 holes, I felt like I was going to be tough to beat.”

And just to be sure he doesn’t forget to count his clubs again, Grandpa Butch promised to help out.

“Every time you play from now on,” he said, “I’m going to text you, 14!”