Leader Blues

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

SPORTS>> Cabot duo looking to break through

By JASON KING
Leader sportswriter

Morning qualifying at Foxwood Golf Club on Monday was a stroll in the park for Nicklaus Benton, literally.

Benton, of Cabot, is the defending champion of this week’s Arkansas State Golf Association Boys Junior Match Play tournament, and was exempt from qualifying for the event. That exemption proved to be rewarding in afternoon match play, when Benton opened with an easy 7 and 6 victory.

His close second-place finish at last week’s Bruce Jenkins Memorial was still fresh on his mind, and Benton gave early notice at Foxwood that he was intent on getting the job done this week.

Meanwhile, his younger Panther golf teammate, Hunter Smith, made the most of his qualifying round, shooting a hole-in-one at the 11th hole to qualify in the top half of the field with a round of 75.

Smith used his 3-iron on the 210-yard, par 3. Smith went on to win his first two match play matches, and was two up after nine holes on Jenkins Memorial winner Austin Moix as the Leader went to press late Tuesday afternoon.

Benton won his first match on Tuesday morning and was four up in his afternoon match.

Benton’s Cabot High School coach Ronny Tollett is hardly surprised by his early success.

“Nicklaus has always had that thought process of doing the right thing,” Tollett said. “He’s just an all-American type of kid. He always sets a good example. He’s not a big voice, but he has always been concerned with what’s best for the entire team, and not just himself.”

Tollett is also proud of Smith’s accomplishments early on, but expressed concern that too many might be expecting too much from him too soon.

“One thing that happens in golf, is that growing 1/32 of an inch can change your swing dramatically,” Tollett explained. “It’s hard to make a prediction. I assume he will get bigger and stronger, and you have to stay with your game to adapt to your growth.

“He has a good work ethic, and his goals are his own. I think we have some other kids that are capable of those kinds of accomplishments — his just came early.”

His summer is starting out on a strong note, but accolades and trophies are nothing new for the 17-year-old Benton. He was the 2007 Arkansas State Golf Association player of the year, along with being the medalist at the 7A state golf tournament. He has made All Conference three times from his freshman to junior years, and has earned All State honors the past two years.

Benton plans on playing in all of the ASGA events this summer, and is considering a couple of national tournaments, including the Ping Phoenix junior national tournament in Arizona, and the Bass Pro junior tourney in Missouri.

Benton may be the elder statesman of the duo, but the15-year-old Smith has actually been playing longer. Benton did not pick up the clubs seriously until age 12, but for Smith, it’s always been serious.

Last year’s 7A state runner up to Benton, Smith was also an All State selection, and has been winning tournaments across the state since the age of eight. He says he has been playing since the age of three, which put him at a big advantage when he started playing competitively.

In fact, he entered five tournaments his first year, and won them all. He has won close to 30 tournaments to date, but is not worried about having too much hardware at this point. He has not yet chosen a college, but does want to play for a Division I program.

There is already college interest for Benton from a number of programs across the state, but he is not saying if he is leaning toward a decision just yet.

“There’s a lot of factors that go into it,” Benton said. “It’s the school mainly — what they can offer course-wise. I would like to go to a school that has good facilities also. That can help make you a better player. UALR would be a good college to go to.

They have Chenal and Pleasant Valley and those places, but I also wouldn’t mind going out of state. That would be pretty sweet too.”

Smith was not thinking about the future on Monday. He was still thinking about the thrill of a hole-in-one in such a competitive setting, and was anxious to take to the greens again that afternoon.

“I didn’t even know it rolled in until I went up there,” Smith said. “Everyone was really surprised.”

Last year at the 7A state tournament, the Panthers posted a good enough team score to actually win, but they had failed to qualify as a team at the conference tournament. Benton thinks it’s unlikely for that scenario to play out again.

“I think we have the best team since I’ve been here,” he said. “We have five solid players. We can all shoot around even par, so I think we can take a shot at the state title this year.”