Benjamin scrambles to solid 73 at Masters

Matt Trowbridge

Playing partners Bernard Langer and Scott Verplank almost reached the par-5 second hole in two, but they chipped long and made par.

Brad Benjamin laid up more than 100 yards away and hit a wedge to within 6 inches for birdie.

“When you are under pressure, I have found that if you play conservative and keep the ball in play, you put yourself in decent spots right off the bat,” Benjamin said Thursday.

That was the plan anyway. But that plan was gone by the fourth hole in the first Masters round by the Rockford golfer. Benjamin put himself in one indecent spot after another, deep in the pine needles at Augusta National, but pulled off a long series of escapes to shoot a solid 1-over-par 73.

“I just couldn’t get the ball off the tee, and usually that’s my strength,” Benjamin said.

The 23-year-old Guilford graduate is normally a tee-to-green metronome, but that game deserted him on the biggest stage of his life.

So Benjamin brought a new game, showing his scrambling side for the first time.

He hit his tee shot deep into the woods on six of his final 13 holes, and saved par five times. His only bogey in that stretch came after he hit so far left on No. 9 that he played up the No. 1 fairway – and still almost made par after hitting a fan with his approach shot. The second time he hit a fan – on No. 15 – he almost made birdie.

“That was stressful,” Benjamin said. “I wouldn’t want to do that again. That’s just the most stressful 73 you’d ever want to shoot.

“You want to get the ball on the green and take chances at a birdie and not put so much pressure on your game.”

The pressure started on No. 4.

Benjamin had just followed his birdie on 2 with a three-putt bogey from 18 feet on No. 3. Now he hit his tee shot on the 240-yard par-3 into the left bunker. But he blasted out to three feet for par.

“I told my caddy walking off the green, that’s a 1-in-10 up-and-down,” Benjamin said.

Two holes later, he made an even better par save. Benjamin hit his tee shot deep into the pine straw on No. 6, a 180-yard par-3, and faced an uphill chip to a green that sloped away. He chipped to four feet for another par.

“That’s got to be one of the top 10 up-and-downs in my life,” Benjamin said. “Anybody will tell you, on that hole, that’s where you don’t want to be. That one was special.”

So was his eight-footer for par on No. 11, a hole Benjamin has called the toughest he ever saw in his life. And a 20-foot save on 14. “That was huge,” Benjamin said. And 18 was even better. Benjamin faced a 40-yard chip, but only about a 3-foot landing zone if he wanted the ball to stop anywhere near the pin. He stiffed it to 3 feet for par.

“I wish I could have seen it on TV,” Benjamin said. “That shot was a little lucky. That’s exactly what I was trying to do with it, but I was erring on the long side. It just happened to turn out perfect.”

Benjamin has a theory to why his scrambles so often turned out perfect. He put additional pressure on himself when he lined up for a birdie putt on No. 8 and saw that his ball had moved a fraction of an inch. No one else saw it, but Benjamin called over a rules official to levy a possible penalty. The official said there was no penalty because Benjamin had not touched the green with his putter.

“Maybe that’s why some good breaks came the rest of the round,” Benjamin said.

Or maybe it was just Benjamin’s sterling short game.

“I don’t like leaning on it,” Benjamin said, “but I definitely have confidence in my short game.”

Matt Trowbridge can be reached at 815-987-1383