On his way to membership in multiple halls of fame, teaching professional Grant Bennett turned Florence Country Club into the Mecca of junior golf in the 1950s and ’60s. No facility could match the parade of champions who learned the game there and piled up records to envy.
South Carolina’s golf community knows the names: U.S. junior champion Buddy Baker, Billy Womack, Jack Lewis Jr. and Randy and Russell Glover, to name a few.
All these years later, thanks to efforts by Ben Zeigler and John Orr, Florence CC is striving to regain its lofty station in junior golf. The combination of head pro Steve Behr and teaching pro Paul Woodbury, along with the membership’s backing, the club’s program for youngsters is flourishing. The rejuvenated Grant Bennett Florence Junior Invitational tournament represents the cherry atop the banana split.
The combination of focusing on the Bennett legacy and the South Carolina Junior Golf Association’s taking over the operation makes the tournament a must-play on the top juniors’ calendars. Overwhelming demand forced SCJGA head Chris Miller to turn down 49 entries for this year’s event.
“They’re trying to recapture the magic that Grant Bennett created, and they’re going gangbusters,” said Happ Lathrop, executive director of the South Carolina Golf Association and a driving force behind junior golf’s growth in the state. “They’re looking to build a teaching facility and a junior clubhouse. The possibilities are enormous in terms of helping golf grow among younger players.”
Before the state organization became involved four years ago, the tournament struggled to attract a quality field. Upon a recommendation from Fort Jackson GC and SCGA board member Jeff Connell, Zeigler came to Lathrop for direction.
Told the SCGA’s involvement would require raising funds, Zeigler replied, “That won’t be a problem,” and the tournament netted more than $30,000 the first year. This year’s program contains a lengthy list of sponsors – both corporate and individuals such as PGA Tour pro Tommy Gainey and wife Erin.
“Honoring former champions is important for a couple of reasons,” Lathrop said. “First, the young players learn about the legacy of Mr. Bennett. Second, they get to meet and hear from players who had some outstanding accomplishments in golf.”
The tournament honored Columbian Bobby Foster, the 1963 champion, this year. He followed Baker, Randy Glover and Lewis to be saluted for their successes.
“Some other clubs are doing what Florence is in focusing on junior golf, and that’s great to see,” Lathrop said. “Greenville Country Club has a program growing and the Country Club of Spartanburg just hired a junior-specific professional. Of course, everywhere (Hall of Fame pro) Jackie Seawell has been really worked on junior golf development.”
One young player bolted from the Wednesday afternoon reception to honor Foster saying, “I’ve got to go practice some more.”
He found the practice tee full of players with dreams of following Foster or Lewis or even U.S. Open champions Dustin Johnson and Lucas Glover, the latter’s credentials include winning the 1994 Grant Bennett Florence Junior Invitational.
“That’s a great sight,” said Lathrop, taking in the scene that included players both in the tournament field and those who hope to be there one day. “It’s spreading.”
Jacob Bridgeman (Inman) eagled the par-5 18th hole twice, the first time to pull even and the second time on the third playoff hole to edge Grant Sellers (McBee) for the title in the Grant Bennett Florence Junior Invitational. The pair tied at 135, two strokes better than Jack Parrott (Columbia) and Nick Willis (Cowpens). … Walter and Walt Todd (Laurens) won their second SCGA Dudley-Sullivan Father-Son Championship, edging Rusty and Brooks Massey (Lexington) by two strokes at Green Valley CC in Greenville. … Winners in the Golfweek Amateur Golf Tour tourney at Windermere: Paul Ponder (championship flight), Jason Breedlove (A flight), Chris Moore (B flight), Bryan Wilkerson (C flight) and Jimmy Mathias (D flight). Players compete in flights according to handicaps. To participate, call John Livoti (864-982-0876). … Connor Bruns (Duncan/Furman) defeated Johnson Holliday (Aynor/USC Aiken) 4 and 2 to win the SCGA’s South Carolina Match-Play title at Bear Creek GC on Hilton Head Island. … USC and Clemson players continue to reap All-America honors, including USC women Katelyn Dambaugh and Sarah Schmelzel, USC men Matt Nesmith and Will Starke, and Clemson men Stephen Behr and Austin Langdale. … It’s not how, but how many, which is a round-about way to report this correspondent made one of the less artistic holes-in-one on record on No. 7 at Florence CC.