Seventy-five players have stories to tell after advancing to the Final Stage of European Tour Qualifying School from four Spanish venues that hosted the Second Qualifying Stage, but none is more heart warming than Bennett’s.
The Englishman finished joint seventh at Las Colinas Golf & Country Club in Alicante. He will now travel to Girona, Spain, at the end of this month for six gruelling rounds to try to get back on the European Tour, 18 years after he first attempted to get his Tour card.
Bennett was conspicuous by his age in Alicante. He was probably 20 years older than most of the players in the field. He can tell them all about how the weight of expectation can drag you down.
The 41-year-old from Aylesbury, England, made a name for himself in the 1994 Open Championship at Turnberry when he took the silver medal as leading amateur. He finished second in the World Amateur Team Championship, individually, that year behind a certain Tiger Woods. R&A Sir Michael Bonallack then hung an albatross around his neck, proclaiming him as a future major star.
While Woods has gone on to win 14 majors, injuries and poor form have conspired to render Bennett’s hopes of a major victor all but hopeless. His trip to Spain was his ninth attempt at getting his Euro Tour card in the last 18 years.
He has tasted some success on European fairways. He’s won seven times on the European Challenge Tour and once on the main tour. Bennett’s one visit to the European Tour winner’s circle occurred in 1999 when he won the Scottish PGA Championship.
His career has been plagued by a series of injuries, including a twisted vertebrae that kept him out for an entire season. Things got so bad that he quit the game three years ago and started caddying. He was bagman for Austria’s Bernd Wiesberger on the Euro Tour for a short spell before switching to the Ladies European Tour for Trish Johnson’s bag.
However, he never gave up on his dream. He started back playing the mini-tours in the UK this year and even qualified for the Open Championship at Royal Lytham. He made the cut and finished T77 to earn £10,000, 10 times more than he’d earned on the UK mini-tours.
Bennett’s wife Angela is a schoolteacher and the main breadwinner. Funds are tight for them and 11-year-old son Tom. Nevertheless, he is determined to get back to the main tour.
“My goal is to get back on the Tour next year,” Bennett said at Royal Lytham. “It gives me a bit of confidence to know I can make the cut under pressure. My Open Championship was to make the cut.”
Bennett entered this year’s Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles as a past champion (the event was previously the Scottish PGA Championship), but missed the cut. However, he proved in Spain that he can play under pressure. Many will be hoping he can go on and get one of the 35 European Tour cards on offer later this month.
Aside from Bennett, Dutchmen Tim Sluiter and Daan Huizing finished first and second at Las Colinas. Scotland’s Wallace Booth, an ex-Augusta State player and 2009 GB&I Walker Cupper, finished joint fifth to advance. Former Arizona State player Scott Pinckney took one of the last spots, finishing 18th to earn his place at Final Stage.
Former Baylor player Jamie McLeary finished first at El Saler. The Scotsman finished 10-under-par for the four rounds, three shots clear of Spain’s Adrien Otaegui. German amateur Moritz Lampert advanced after placing fifth, while French amateur Adrien Saddier placed 7th.
Italy’s Nicolo Ravano took top spot at El Vale to advance. Also heading to Final Stage from that venue are 2009 Walker Cup player Sam Hutsby and former British Boys’ Champion Matthew Nixon. Hutsby placed joint third while Nixon shared eighth spot.
Welshman Liam Bond finished first on 17-under-par at Lumine Golf & Beach Club in Tarragona. Also advancing was highly rated South African Dylan Frittelli. The former Texas player placed fourth. England’s Zane Scotland, who played in the 1999 Open Championship as a 16-year-old, placed 9th to take one of the 18 spots on offer. Former Stanford player Dodge Kemmer also advanced, sneaking inside the top 18 in joint 17th place.
Italy’s Andrea Pavan, a former Texas A&M player misses out on a spot at Final Stage. He was equal 51st at El Saler. England’s Steven Brown, 2011 English Amateur Champion and member of the 2011 GB&I Walker Cup team, also failed to advance. Scotland’s Lloyd Saltman, two-time GB&I Walker Cup player and silver medal winner at the 2005 Open Championship, scored 79, 78 and 78 at El Saler and then withdrew.
Saltman’s brother Elliot, who served a three-month European Tour ban last year for cheating, also failed to advance. He also withdrew after three rounds at Lumine. Former world amateur number one Jamie Moul missed out too, along with former Augusta State player James Heath, Rory McIlroy’s 2007 Walker Cup foursomes partner Jonathan Caldwell and current British Amateur Champion Alan Dunbar.