Leader Blues

Friday, June 20, 2008

SPORTS>> There’s no match for Benton again

By KELLY FENTON
Leader sports editor

The last time anyone did what Nicklaus Benton did on Thursday morning, Richard Nixon was president and gas was 50 cents a gallon.

Benton, the senior-to-be golf sensation from Cabot, became the first golfer since Doug Ward in 1973-74 to win back-to-back ASGA Junior Match Play championships when he beat up-and-comer Matt Mabrey 3 and 1 at Foxwood Country Club.

“I had glanced at the trophy, but I didn’t really take that into account,” Benton said of becoming the first repeat winner in 34 years. “Now that I realize it, it means a lot.”

Three weeks ago, Benton probably wasn’t too excited about his chances of a repeat performance. His game was out of whack, his wedge game was struggling and his balance was off.

But coach R.D. Roulston went to work on him and tweaked a few things. It worked.

“My tempo was way off,” Benton admitted. “Mr. R.D. got my balance going and my weight transfer going and it finally started to kick in.”

Benton was solid tee to green on Thursday, making three bogeys, but five birdies over 16 holes. He had a 4-footer for another on 17 when Mabrey conceded.

His final birdie of the day — on 16 — was the most dramatic, even though it took most of the rest of the drama out of the match. Two up with three to go, Benton appeared to be in trouble just off the back of the green while Mabrey had a 3-footer for birdie. A win for Mabrey on the hole would have narrowed Benton’s lead to one with two holes left.

“I told my brother (caddy Colby Benton) right before I hit it, ‘Colby, I’m going to land it just short of the green and it’s going to roll up and go it,” Benton said.

Which is precisely what happened. Benton began raising his wedge skyward as the ball tracked toward the cup and in.

That put the match at dormie, meaning Mabrey would have had to win the final two holes to send it to a playoff. But Benton took no chances, lofting a soft wedge to within four feet of the hole on 17. When Mabrey’s 25-foot putt for birdie missed, he conceded the hole and the match.

It was Benton’s 14th round in 16 days, but fatigue never seemed to be a factor. Asked if, like Tiger Woods, he planned on taking a little time off, Benton laughed.

“I’ve got some work to do to catch up to Tiger,” said the 2007 ASGA Junior Player of the Year. “But, no, I want to keep going. It’s a lot of golf, but I enjoy it.”

Mabrey, a 15-year-old who plays for Little Rock Catholic, birdied the first hole to take a 1-up lead, but Benton evened it with a birdie of his own on two.

He missed a short par putt on three to fall behind again, but Mabrey returned the favor with a short miss on four, and the match remained even until a rare bad chip on eight led to Benton’s second bogey of the day as he went one down again.
But the match swung over the next three holes, thanks to a pair of wayward shots by Mabrey and a magnificent approach by Benton. Mabrey tried to cut too much off the sharp dogleg right ninth hole and left his tee shot in the woods. He had to play out into the fairway on his second and left his third shot some 15 feet away.

Meanwhile, Benton had about the same length for birdie. Mabrey bogeyed and the match was even heading to the back nine.
Benton hit the shot of the day on 10 after his drive landed on the hardpan near the cart path along the right side of the fairway. He picked it clean and knocked a wedge stiff, finishing it off with a 10-foot birdie to claim a 1-up lead.

“That stuff is like rock,” Benton said of the hardpan lie. “It’s pretty much like hitting off a cart path. I just choked down on a wedge and got a good bounce.”

Mabrey then sprayed his tee shot on the par 3 11th into the greenside hazard and took double-bogey to fall into a 2-down hole.

Both players birdied the par-5, 12th and Mabrey had a good chance to cut the lead to one on 13. But he missed a 6-footer.

Benton’s bogey on 14 did tighten the match, but Mabrey lipped out a par putt on 15 to extend Benton’s lead to 2 up with three to go.

Benton had a small gallery following him, which included his mother Shelley, sister Kaylee, girlfriend Ashley Bartels and Roulston. His father, Jack, last year’s ASGA Men’s Player of the Year, was away on business so Shelley spent the morning texting him updates of the match.

“I wish my dad could have been here,” Benton said in the post-match ceremony. “He always wanted me to play golf. I also want to thank coach Roulston for a couple of swing changes he made.”

Benton, who was also being followed by Arkansas-Little Rock golf coach Wyn Norwood, said the only complaint he had about his game was his iron play, which he labeled, “pathetic.”

“But match play is all about putting,” he said. “Today, my putter kind of kicked in, and it didn’t really in the first couple of matches. My chipping and putting were as good it’s been ever. Normally, my weakness is my short game.”