U.S. SENIOR AMATEUR
Golf Reignites Benton’s Competitive Fire August 25, 2019 | Durham, N.C. By Stuart Hall

Jeff Benton is enjoying competing in a USGA championship for the first time instead of watching his kids play in one. (USGA/Chris Keane)

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Jeff Benton has been a competitive sort for as long as he can remember. In high school, back in Arkansas, he was a two-sport all-state athlete. At the University of Central Arkansas, he pitched and played shortstop.

Competition, though, took a hiatus as real-world life – career and family responsibilities – demanded a higher priority. A void existed.

“I needed to do something to compete again,” said Benton, 55, of Litchfield Park, Ariz., “Golf was just there.”

Benton went about learning the proper grip and basics from his uncle, Richard McCauley, who was an All-American golfer at the University of Arkansas and played briefly on the PGA Tour. “I took it from there,” said Benton, who studied footage of 18-time major champion Jack Nicklaus and poured through golf books and magazines.

Benton quickly transformed himself into a low-handicap player. He began competing in local and state tournaments, but Benton always had his eye on something bigger.

“This was always a goal,” said Benton, who opened the 65th U.S. Senior Amateur Championship at Old Chatham Golf Club with a 1-over-par 73 on Saturday and positioned himself nicely to make match play. “This was always a goal. I couldn’t wait to turn 55 – I hated getting older, but I couldn’t wait to turn 55.”

While Benton is making his first competitive start in a USGA championship, this is not his initial foray inside the ropes. Last year, he caddied for his daughter, Kaylee, in the 2018 U.S. Women’s Open at Shoal Creek. Kaylee Benton, who starred at Arkansas, also advanced to the semifinals of the U.S. Women’s Amateur later in the summer with her mom on the bag before turning professional. On Saturday, Kaylee missed the cut at the LPGA Tour’s Stage I Qualifying Tournament in Rancho Mirage, Calif., by a stroke.

“Caddieing for Kaylee last year at the Women’s Open was the pinnacle,” he said. “It was awesome. She struck it well, played great and had a good attitude, but had some tough breaks and missed the cut. 

“What I remember the most is that she played a practice round with [2010 U.S. Women’s Open champion] Paula Creamer and Brittany Lincicome and saw a lot of great players on the range. She’s got a unique swing, a move kind of like Sergio, and I haven’t let anybody mess with her swing. It’s just natural.” 

The competitive gene runs throughout the Benton clan as Kaylee’s two brothers Nicklaus and Colby also competed in USGA championships. Jim Benton, Jeff’s grandfather, was an All-American wide receiver for Arkansas who later was a first-round NFL draft choice, playing on two NFL championship teams – the 1943 Chicago Bears and 1945 Cleveland Rams. Similar to Jeff, Jim took up golf later in life. “He would walk nine holes every morning … it was something he looked forward to and it gave him some purpose,” said Jeff Benton of his grandfather, who died at age 84 in 2001.

Now that he and his wife, Shelley, are empty nesters, Benton, a district manager for Barnes & Noble, Inc., has been able to focus more on his game. If awards and titles serve as a barometer, then it appears Benton is dialed in nicely.

Benton, who was the 2007 Arkansas Mid-Senior Player of the Year, was Arizona’s Masters and Senior Player of the Year, respectively, in 2017 and 2018. He has been the Arizona Senior Stroke Play runner-up each of the past four years, losing by a stroke each time. He was also the Arizona Northern Amateur champion in 2017 and 2018.

“Three years ago is when I really started to diagnose my game and what was I messing up on in tournaments,” said Benton. “I would have a good round going, then something would happen and I would just come off the rails. So I think understanding my body in tournament play has been a key. You’re not going to get any better if you don’t understand that.

“My swing has been grooved for a while, so it’s just more the mental aspect and the scoring elements of the game -- tightening up the short game, making more putts, working on that [shot] 50 yards and in.”

Benton has no intention of this week being his last U.S. Senior Amateur appearance either.

“Even at 55, the more you compete, the better you get,” said Benton, knowing that reaching at least the quarterfinals earns an exemption into the 2020 championship. “I want to play in this every year, so hopefully I do decent this year and get to come back next year.”

Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA digital channels.

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