PARAMUS, N.J. – As Ben Carr stood on the first tee Saturday afternoon at The Ridgewood Country Club, moments from teeing off in his U.S. Amateur semifinal match opposite Derek Hitchner, he reached into the right pocket of his khaki shorts.
His pulse quickened as he then checked his left pocket.
His heart sank.
For the past few years, Carr hasn’t marked a putt without his special ball marker, which he began using shortly after his father, David, died unexpectedly in March 2019 at age 52. The nine-sided, bronze coin is emblazoned with, “4MF,” which stands for, “For my father.” It also includes several stars to pay homage to his dad’s nickname from his baseball days, “Star Carr.”
Carr swore he had slipped the marker into his pocket before Saturday’s nearly two-hour weather delay. But suddenly, it had disappeared.
“There was nothing in my left pocket; nothing, I swear,” Carr explained. “I have a small pocket. There's no extra pocket there or anything. Nothing there.
“So, I'm pretty rattled because I have to use this other ball marker.”
After 15 holes using the replacement marker he received at the Western Amateur, Carr was 3 up on Hitchner and reading his potentially match-winning birdie putt when he glanced down at his left thigh. A familiar shape was showing through his pocket.
“I was like, ‘What the hell, like how is that possible?’” Carr recalled, still in disbelief.
A hole later, Carr marked a lengthy birdie putt with his rediscovered marker before lagging close for a conceded par. When Hitchner couldn’t get his 15-footer for birdie to drop, Carr had secured the 3-and-2 victory.
“Very emotional … oh, man,” Carr told Golf Channel’s Smylie Kaufman in his post-match interview before getting choked up eventually breaking down.
The tear-jerking win punched Carr’s ticket to Sunday’s 36-hole final, where the Georgia Southern senior will meet fellow 22-year-old Sam Bennett, perhaps the only other player in the match-play bracket who can fully empathize with Carr’s grief.
Last summer, Bennett lost his father, Mark, after a seven-year battle with early onset Alzheimer’s. Bennett, a fifth-year senior at Texas A&M, carries a reminder of his dad with him, too, only Bennett can’t lose this: a tattoo on the inside of his left forearm that features the last words written by Mark Bennett before he lost the ability to communicate.
“Don’t wait to do something,” the ink reads.
Bennett has heeded that advice this week, jumping on four of his five match-play opponents first, including Menante, who only added to Bennett’s difficult road to the final. Bennett, the third-ranked amateur in the world, defeated, per the World Amateur Golf Ranking, world Nos. 13, 27, 10 and 9 before taking down the eighth-ranked Menante, 1 up.
The average rank of the players he’s beaten is 13.4, compared to 1,301.6 for Carr, who stands No. 70.
Not that Bennett’s been intimidated. In fact, he caused a stir on Friday by saying, “I feel like I’m the dog in this race right now,” following his quarterfinal win over Stewart Hagestad.
“It definitely added a little bit of pressure,” Bennett said of the comment, “but it was fun that I was able to back it up.”
Bennett never trailed against fellow alpha Menante, though he did surrender a 2-up lead with five holes to play after bogeying No. 14 and watching Menante birdie the short par-3 15th hole for the fifth time in six attempts.
But then Bennett clutched up. After muscling his approach onto the green from the thick rough and tying No. 16, he drove his ball behind a giant oak tree at the par-5 17th hole. Faced with a difficult shot up against the trunk, Bennett hooked his next shot into a fairway bunker. It was there, from 179 yards, that he lifted a 7-iron over the lip and to 12 feet, setting up a lead-taking birdie – and big fist pump – and shocking Menante, who sent his straightforward pitch 15 feet past flag and missed his putt.
After finding a crucial fairway at the par-4 finishing hole, Bennett turned to caddie and college coach, Brian Kortan, and said, “One more good swing.”
The twirl showed everybody what Bennett thought of his approach into the last. He hit another 7-iron, this time from 183 yards out, that ended up 10 feet from the hole and essentially put Menante away for good, even if the North Carolina senior still had a chance to chip in for birdie – which he failed to do – after badly fanning his drive into the right trees.
“I gave it a little extra there,” Bennett said. “I was kind of feeling it.”
The same could be said for Carr, who fell 1 down to Hitchner after plugging a wedge shot into the back bunker at the par-5 third hole. But he came alive on the back nine, taking his first lead after 11 holes and then converting birdie putts at Nos. 13 and 14 to build what ended up being an insurmountable advantage.
Following Carr was a gallery that included his mother, Leila; his younger brother, Sackett, a sophomore student at Georgia; a few of his teammates and his college coach, Carter Collins; and three of his father’s best friends, whom he refers to as Lumpy, Charlie and T.C.
So, when Carr drained a 50-foot birdie bomb from the front of the green at the difficult 14th hole, he was met with the loudest roar he says he’s ever heard on a golf course. He contributed to it, celebrating with a booming yell and vicious fist pump.
“I wish I could feel that forever,” Carr said of those exhilarating few seconds.
Said Leila Carr: “We’re just so proud of him because this is a big dream of his.”
As her son struggled to answer Kaufman’s post-match question, Leila Carr not only found herself in tears, too, but also looking up toward the sky. A bright rainbow had appeared, just like it had a couple days earlier on Ben’s first playoff hole against Nathan Franks in the Round of 16.
Carr birdied that hole to advance, and now the arch of colors had returned to illuminate another winning moment.
“His father has always been with him on the golf course,” Leila Carr said. “Ben knows that his father is here, and he shows him signs, and it’s obvious to everybody that he’s here pulling for him and lifting him up. Ben feels it, we feel it. It’s special for him, and it’s special for all of us.”
While there is still a Havemeyer Trophy to play for, Saturday’s triumphs provided Carr and Bennett invitations into two major championships next year, the Masters and the U.S. Open. Bennett made the cut at this year’s U.S. Open, his major debut. Carr has never teed it up in a professional event, let alone a major, though he does have fond memories of watching the Masters with his dad.
Carr is a self-proclaimed Rory McIlroy superfan, and he recalls being 11 years old and witnessing McIlroy’s heartbreaking collapse at the 2011 Masters with his dad and brother.
“I remember bursting into tears,” Carr said. “But my dad helped me understand that there wasn’t a reason to be losing my mind over this situation.”
No matter Sunday’s result, Carr won’t be upset. In his mind, he's already won:
The signs from above.
The support he’s been given.
The fact that he’s drawn Bennett in the final.
The two might not have known each other’s story before Saturday evening, but they will already be bonded by the time they stick their tees in the ground on the opening box Sunday morning at 8 a.m. ET.
“I have a lot of respect for Ben already, and I don’t even know the guy,” Bennett said. “I know how hard it was for me losing my dad. … You know, it’s tough mentally, and I can’t imagine the stuff Ben had to deal with and what he went through. To be in that situation with him tomorrow and sharing that, it’s going to be pretty cool.”
Added Carr: “I hope his dad and my dad are watching together.”