FLORENCE The large, black-and-gunmetal-gray trophy, topped by a sculpture of a young player in full follow-through, sits atop a glass shelf in the Florence Country Club pro shop, above a display of golf apparel. Beneath its inscription — “Grant Bennett Junior Boys Invitational” — is one small metal plaque honoring Will Murphy as the 2010 winner.
One might assume the junior tournament is something new; in fact, the Grant Bennett Invitational will be played June 9-10 for the 59th consecutive year (the original trophy, its nameplates full, resides in storage). A few steps from the display, the Dr. Paul Davis Junior Locker Room has 20 assigned lockers for players as young as James Potter, who recently earned his space at age 9.
“(Youngsters) have to demonstrate good behavior on the golf course, take a rules test and a hitting test,” said Kristin Bell, Florence’s assistant pro for 13 years. “Then they can make tee times for themselves, with their parents’ permission.”
Fifteen lockers are occupied.
No question, junior golf is a big deal in South Carolina. More than a dozen PGA and Nationwide Tour players including 2009 U.S. Open Champion Lucas Glover, Jonathan Byrd and Dustin Johnson earned their stripes in SCJGA events.
But nowhere do junior golf’s roots run deeper than here.
Steve Behr, Florence’s head pro — his son, Stephen Jr., won the 2010 S.C. Junior and will play at Clemson next year — arrived in 1996 and “stepped into the Florence Country Club junior tradition,” he said. He ticks off names of past juniors, among them brothers Baker and McCuen Elmore, whose games he helped hone.
Then Behr laughs, and admits in that regard, he’s a newcomer.
Starting 60 years ago, when the man whose name adorns that trophy arrived from New Bern, N.C., to become Florence’s head pro, junior golf has been part of the landscape. Under Bennett, who died in 2005 at age 85, this town and this club became synonymous with squads of fuzzy-cheeked players who dominated the state, the Southeast and the nation.
Florence Country Club, built in 1924 by an unknown architect and rebuilt in 1986 by Greenville’s John LaFoy, remains an “old school” course. With cozy, tree-lined corridors and manageable length (6,429 yards), it challenges young and old alike with its devilishly contoured, slick A-1 bentgrass greens.
“The greens — when they’re firm — and the rough are its defenses,” Behr said. That’s true at the 142-yard par-3 fourth hole, where the green undulates severely from left to right; the 399-yard par-4 15th, with its elevated putting surface and disasters left and long; and especially at the 513-yard par-5 18th hole, where the back-to-front-sloping green looks almost like a fortress, towering above the fairway and well-guarded by deep bunkers.
It’s a course that, in the 1950s, was a perfect incubator for junior golf. And Bennett was the mother hen.
Florence businessman John Orr, 70, was one of the first players influenced by Bennett, starting at age 11. Orr, classmate Donald Greiner and one-year-younger Billy Womack and Buddy Baker began the tradition of Bennett-coached golf teams for then-McClenaghan High that, from 1956-70, lost one match and claimed six S.C. High School titles.
Florence’s kids also succeeded individually. “Walter Lawson was the first to qualify for the U.S. Junior,” Orr said. “Back then, the USGA would allocate spots (at local qualifying sites) based on entries, and Grant got everyone at the club to send in money so we’d get more spots — usually four.”
From 1956-58, Orr (aged 15-17) and Baker each earned three trips to the national junior championship on their home course, while Womack made it twice. In 1958, those three went to St. Paul, Minn., where Orr reached the third round, Womack the semis and Baker won the title.
“Grant said he couldn’t afford to go with us,” Orr said, “but he said, ‘If two of y’all make the finals, I’ll be there.’ They played the semis and finals the same day then, and that morning when Buddy and Billy got to the first tee, Grant was there.”
David Bennett, who along with younger brother, Gary, also played for those teams, remembers their father driving players “everywhere all summer in his car, to every single junior tournament in the Carolinas, even to Chattanooga,” where Florence claimed six consecutive Southeastern Interscholastic titles.
“When Daddy got to Florence, he also worked out a deal with the club so other kids were able to play whose families couldn’t afford to be members,” Bennett said. “He had junior programs in the summer, we’d play all week long, and the Saturday clinics would be packed.”
The result was a flood of talented, dedicated players, Orr said. “Grant created an environment where we wanted to play, and if it rained, we were in the pro shop talking about etiquette.” When a junior was able to defeat Bennett in a match, he earned a dozen Titleist golf balls. “That was a badge of honor,” Orr said.
Because of Bennett’s work with the USGA, Florence Country Club hosted the U.S. Junior Boys in 1963. But for Bennett, every junior event was a big deal.
“Daddy would be the starter on the first tee, and he had a box of cards with each player’s name and every tournament he’d won,” David Bennett said. “You’d get there and he’d announce, ‘Now on the tee,’ give his name and his wins. The kids loved that.”
In 1964, after 13 years, Bennett left Florence Country Club, winding up in Columbia. Without him, Orr said, junior golf continued to be supported but lacked the huge success.
Then in 2003, the club began a different tradition of jumpstarting careers. For seven years, Florence was one of 12 first-stage sites for the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament.
“We had people from South Carolina who work for the Tour,” Behr said, mentioning Jim Duncan and Dillard Pruitt. “We approached Steve Carmen, who runs the Q-schools, and he liked the idea.”
The yearly event brought in revenue for the club — $40,000 for six days — but as important became a memory for players, especially those from South Carolina, en route to professional careers.
Among those who began their Q-school journeys were former Clemson players D.J. Trahan, Tommy Biershenk and Ben Duncan, USC All-American Mark Anderson, Furman’s Matt Davidson, Wofford’s Will McGirt, and a 30-ish dreamer from Bishopville known now as Tommy “Two Gloves” Gainey.
In 2009, Behr and others again saw Gainey, by then playing on the PGA Tour, trekking Florence’s fairways — as a caddie. The rising star had volunteered to tote the bag for a friend trying to make it, too.
But even that, Behr said, isn’t his oddest Q-school story. That “honor” goes to Sergei Pidukov of Bentonville, Ark., who three years ago, despite requirements of verification of a player’s skills, showed up and played four rounds, finishing 102 over par, 60 shots worse than the next-worst performer.
“It was bizarre,” Behr said, grinning. “Our members enjoyed following those who came through, and they had a blast with Sergei. It got written up in Golf World, Golfweek.
“The thing is, the guy brought his wife, never considered withdrawing, and afterward told us it was the best experience of his life. He was honking his horn and waving as he drove off the last day.”
Grant Bennett and his juniors, you suspect, would not have been amused.