Leader Blues

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

SPORTS>>BENTON WINS JUNIOR MATCH PLAY

By KELLY FENTON
Leader sports editor

Nick Benton had nearly pulled off the miraculous comeback at the Bruce Jenkins Memorial a week earlier, storming back from five shots down to come within a missed birdie putt of forcing a playoff with winner Austen Moix.

The Cabot senior entered the following week’s Arkansas State Golf Association Boys Junior Match Play with confidence and fire after playing well but coming up short against Moix, and wasted little time in serving notice that he would be a serious threat to defend his 2007 Match Play title.

Though exempt from having to qualify, Benton fired an opening-round 65 and won his first match at Foxwood Country Club 5 and 4 on June 16.

Benton, the ASGA Junior Player of the Year in 2007, followed that up with 6 and 5 and 5-4 cruises into the quarterfinals. There, he met his first real test, surviving with a narrow 2-up win over Richard Zimmerman. Later that day, Benton found himself in a heated battle with Sylvan Hills’ Nick Zimmerman, again barely surviving in a 2 and 1 victory to reach the finals against 15-year-old Matthew Mabrey of Little Rock.

Not since Doug Ward in 1973 and 1974 had anyone won back-to-back junior match play titles. That Benton was there with a chance to end a 34-year drought of repeat winners was an unlikely prospect three weeks earlier, when his game was in the doldrums.

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

The title match on the morning of June 19 was a back-and-forth affair with Benton losing the first hole to a birdie and the third hole to a par. But his own birdie on two and his par on four evened the match, which was how it would remain until Benton bogeyed the eighth to trail briefly once more.

But Mabrey found trouble on the ninth while Benton two-putted for a match-evening par. Benton then seized control on the back nine, nipping a hard-pan wedge to 10 feet for a birdie and a lead he’d never relinquish, though Mabrey proved one tough customer the rest of the way.

Benton’s par on the par-3 11th extended his lead to two, but he suffered a bogey on the par-3 14th and Mabrey had drawn to within one, still with four holes left. When Mabrey lipped out a par putt on the 15th, Benton had some breathing room, but it was the 16th hole that would prove pivotal.

Down two, Mabrey clipped an approach to within three feet while Benton found himself behind the green with a delicate downhill chip. It appeared as though Benton would be carrying a precarious one-shot lead into the final two holes.

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

Which is precisely what happened. After Mabrey tapped in his birdie put, Benton was dormie, meaning he held a two-shot lead with two holes to go and could only lose in extra holes.

But this one would not only not go to extra holes, it wouldn’t reach the 18th. Benton knocked his approach to four feet on 17 and when Mabrey missed his 25-foot birdie putt, he conceded and Benton had indeed won back-to-back junior Match Play championships.

Benton was being followed that day by UALR golf coach Wyn Norwood, who later landed the Cabot senior.