Matt Trowbridge: Masters fans take to scrambling Benjamin

Matt Trowbridge

Brad Benjamin hit his drive so far left into the trees on No. 9 Thursday that he decided to stay left.

His plan was to hit his iron down the edge of the No. 1 fairway and have it hook into the No. 9 green at Augusta National. But his path was blocked by thousands of fans watching Phil Mickelson tee off on No. 1, who spilled over to the No. 9 green.

“You see people right by the green,” said Benjamin, an amateur from Rockford, Ill. “You look and know, ‘If I miss this shot, I’m going to hit somebody.’ There’s nothing you can do though.”

Benjamin nailed a fan. Course marshals had to clear out two rows of fans in folding chairs to make way for Benjamin’s ensuing chip. He tried to locate the fan and apologize before eventually making bogey.

“But it’s not like Mickelson, where I can give someone a Rolex,” Benjamin said. “All I can do is just try to say sorry and move on. They understand.”

Benjamin found the crowd again on No. 15, when his 4-iron from 200 yards out bounced off a woman in the greenside stands. Benjamin took a drop, chipped to 8 feet and nearly made birdie.

“That’s a hole I’ve never been that close to,” Benjamin said. “My caddy thought the wind was in the opposite direction. I’ve just never been in that spot before, so I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to be short (in the water). We were a split second from laying up, but you can’t lay up this close. I told myself at the start of the week I’ve got to lay up on the par-5s, but that was sort of a green-light special.”

Benjamin made himself known to Masters fans even when he wasn’t conking them on the head. He played one of the most entertaining opening-round 73s imaginable by an unknown amateur.

Here are some sights and sounds head from the crowd:

On No. 2, Benjamin earned his first mini-roar when he hit a wedge to 6 inches for birdie. “That’s that Public Links champ, Benjamin,” one course marshal said to another. “The kid stiffed one,” a fan told his friend.

Benjamin then three-putted from 18 feet on the next hole and hit into a green-side bunker on No. 4. “All of a sudden it goes from good to not-so-good,” a fan said – just before it turned good again with what Benjamin called “a 1-in-10” sand save.

He earned his biggest applause of all with an uphill chip from the woods to 4 feet on a green that sloped away on No. 6. “How about that scramble? Is that kid fighting, or what?” a fan said.

On 10, a 494-yard par-4, Benjamin hit a 5-iron to 4 feet for birdie. “The amateur got one back,” a fan said. “That’s pretty cool.”

On 11, a 505-yard par-4, Benjamin threaded an iron between six trees to 70 yards out, chipped to 7 feet and saved par. On 13, he was even farther into the woods but again saved par. “He’s in the trees a lot, isn’t he?” a fan said. “It doesn’t bother him, though,” answered his friend.

By now, the 25 or so Rockford fans following the usually arrow-straight Benjamin began to expect routine bogey-defying escapes. He missed the fairway by 25 yards on No. 14 but threaded a low iron under the trees to within 70 yards. “It’s a better story when he’s in the pine needles,” his aunt Vicki Benjamin said before Benjamin saved par again, this time with a 20-foot putt. “Anyone can hit it in the fairway.”

Benjamin seemed to catch a break with another errant tee shot on 18. It stopped halfway between two pine trees. “I think I could make that shot,” said his dad, Steve Benjamin. But his approach caught some leaves and stopped in front of a greenside bunker. Benjamin’s chip barely cleared the bunker and stopped three feet past the pin.

“All that chipping around our house as a little boy,” said his mom, Donna Benjamin. “You just saw it.”

We all did. On golf’s biggest stage, the Illinois golfer put on a great show. And he shot 73 when he would have settled for 75.

“I would take that waking up this morning for sure,” Benjamin said. “You just want to keep yourself in it, make it fun for tomorrow and hope to do the same.”

Matt Trowbridge can be reached at 815-987-1383