By Freddy Burdeshaw
If the long-sought “Fountain Of Youth” really exists, it may be at the Canongate golf courses in Fayette and Coweta Counties. 83 year-old Jim Bennett seems to have found what Desoto never found because he plays golf there like a “20-something.”
Bennett’s “personal best” score at Canongate One is 64 which he shot playing in the weekday modified Stableford competition, commonly referred to as “dogfight.” As recently as December 2014, Bennett fired a 6-under par 66 at Canongate One, confounding and amazing his “fellow competitors.”
Golf professional Andy Pittman has played hundreds of times with Bennett and still marvels at his uncanny ability to score. “He is truly remarkable,” said Pittman. “It doesn’t matter what club he is using from what distance because he is just as accurate with all of them. I would match him against any 80-year old golfer in the entire world!”
Pittman told of a stretch in August 2014 when Bennett logged 19 rounds. “None of Bennett’s scores during that period was higher than 69,” said Pittman.”The day after Jim’s 80th birthday party, he and I played and for most of the round I had the lead. I thought I had him beat. But he is so competitive that he birdied the last five holes in a row to win the match!”
“Another time on the back nine of the Lee 18, Jim was five under par for three holes,” said Pittman. “He eagled number 10; he birdied number 11; and he eagled number 12. He never feels pressure and he has no weaknesses as a golfer!”
Bennett credits much of his great play to the short irons especially the wedges. Bennett said, “Wedge play is the name of the game; hitting it close enough to one putt.” But he is also an excellent putter, in spite of sometimes unsteady hands due to Parkinson’s Disease. Bennett can often be seen practice putting on the greens around the clubhouse.
The silver-haired Bennett has lived with wife Janet in Peachtree City since 1978. Although he had taken up the game as an occasional player many years before, he did not begin to play golf seriously until he retired from the FAA in 1984.
Relying on his natural athleticism, Bennett quickly developed into a highly competitive golfer playing mostly at Flat Creek, Braelinn and Canongate One. Practicing a lot was a habit made easier by the fact that since retirement, he has worked part time at all of those Canongate courses. He presently supervises the cart barn at Canongate One in Sharpsburg.
Bennett’s talent on the golf course can be traced back to his youth growing up in the textile mill town of Kannapolis, North Carolina where he was born and raised. Kannapolis lies along U.S. Route 29 in the western part of the state some 12 miles north west of Concord and 21 miles north east of Charlotte. The name of the town is derived from the name of the textile company Cannon Mills Corporation which is located there. Kannapolis is also the hometown of the Dale Earnhardt racing family whom Bennett came to know.
Starting in Kannapolis, Bennett revealed a natural ability for just about any sport he tried, whether it was basketball, baseball, football or horseshoes. As a youngster of 11 and playing pick-up, backyard basketball, he learned a local YMCA membership could be had for only one dollar a year.
The YMCA had a real basketball court, so Bennett convinced his father to let him join. When his basketball talent blossomed, his reputation earned him an invitation to play on the nearby Concord Boys Club team which was part of a sectional league.
Soon, “Jimbo” as he was called as a boy, was setting sectional records in Boys Club tournament basketball. As a 15 year-old shooting guard, he achieved widespread notoriety by scoring 49 points during one tournament. Local newspapers referred to him as a “ball hawk” because he was adept at stealing the ball and racking up points with easy lay-ups.
Bennett also excelled playing fast pitch softball in in the Cannon Mills league beginning at age 13. He was a shortstop on the Jackson Park team. As a batter he successfully hit against even the league’s “star pitcher” Butch Weidenhouse.
Later in high school, playing for the Kannapolis “Little Wonders,” Bennett averaged 17 points a game and was captain of the basketball team. He was named to the All Conference team and was honorable mention All State. He also played wingback on the single wing formation football team because the coach wanted him to get his hands on the ball more, after beginning the season at end.
Upon graduation from high school in 1950, Bennett received an athletic scholarship to Western Carolina Teachers College (now Western Carolina University) in Cullowhee, North Carolina to play both basketball and baseball. Though Bennett was surprised to start as a guard in the first basketball game, he actually started most of the season, feeding an All-American shooter until he was injured, Bennett was to represent the school as a “Catamount” for only one year because in 1951the Korean War was raging and Uncle Sam was drafting young men.
Bennett saw the handwriting on the wall and enlisted into the U.S. Air Force rather than be drafted into the Army. He completed basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, then moved on for advanced training as an air traffic controller at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississipi.
Upon graduation at Keesler, he was assigned to Royal Air Force Fairford at Gloucestershire, England. The Air Force was flying the giant B-36 Peacemaker bombers out of Fairford at the time and Bennett was managing their movements from the tower.
At Fairford, Bennett soon made his mark as a shortstop on the station’s baseball team, which was packed with professional baseball players who were also satisfying their military obligations. Bennett was one of only two members of the team that were not professional baseball players in civilian life.
Even though surrounded by professional players, he more than held his own because sports were always “easy” for him. He went on to be named to tbe “All-Service, All European” team with a batting average of .310. He played well enough to be scouted by what was then the Boston Braves and the Philadelphia Phillies. When his service obligation was over in 1955, he turned down a chance at professional baseball because it meant an initial minor league assignment out west, far away from his native North Carolina.
Instead, he made another attempt at college basketball, back at Western Carolina. However, in his four years away from the game, a new wave of younger players had come along who were using the “innovative” jump shot, whereas Bennett was used to a basic “set shot.” Bennett became discouraged.
His discouragement about basketball faded though when he learned he could parlay his Air Force air traffic control training into a lucrative job with the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) which preceded the FAA. After some orientation training, Bennett went on to “tower” assignments in Sumter South Carolina, Raleigh, and Greensboro.
At Greensboro, he bought a used set of golf clubs for $35.00 and began his journey in golf. He later transferred to Atlanta in 1962, where he finished his career as an FAA Air Traffic Control Supervisor twenty two years later.
Nowadays, Bennett has become somewhat of a ‘living legend” in Canongate lore and shows no signs of slowing down. His many golf buddies and professionals alike are both respectful and envious of his talent. “He is something else,“ said Blake Fulmer, a young Assistant Professional. Fulmer added laughing, “I am sick and tired of getting beat by that old man.”
But golf talent aside, Bennett is also a nice guy willing to help out friends at a moment’s notice. One Canongate member talked about Bennett voluntarily repairing wheelbarrow tires. Another member, John Tkaczuk said, “On more than one occasion he helped wife Lynn with golf lessons, especially when she was just starting out. He could not be a better guy.”
Bennett is known among friends and pros alike to be a fun-loving, nice guy. He is also known to be a demanding task master running the Canongate cart barn. But mostly he will always be known as “one helluva golfer.”