GREENSBORO, NORTH CAROLINA | Ben Kohles’ excellent adventure began with a check mark in a box.
Kohles, a three-time NCAA All-American and two-time ACC player of the year at Virginia, had planned to spend this summer completing his amateur career, capping it with a final run at the U.S. Amateur championship before getting on with his life as a professional golfer.
But when Peter Uihlein passed on his spot reserved for college All-Americans in the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Invitational last month in Columbus, Ohio, Kohles sent a letter asking if he could replace Uihlein in the Web.com tour event.
Granted entry, Kohles had to decide whether he was playing as an amateur or professional. That’s when he checked ‘professional’ on the entry form.
“My mind was made up. Once I knew I was in, there was no doubt I was going to turn pro,” Kohles said.
That’s when a Disney movie broke out.
Kohles won the Web.com event in Columbus, making a birdie on the final hole to force a playoff, then draining a 22-foot birdie putt on the first extra hole to claim the trophy, the $144,000 winner’s check and, soon, a spot on the PGA Tour.
Just 22 years old, built like a 4-iron and still living with his parents in Cary, N.C., Kohles became the first player in Web.com Tour history to win his first professional start.
Kohles was just getting started.
A week later, he won again, capturing the Cox Classic in Omaha, Neb., with a performance that had everything but fireworks. Trailing by two strokes entering the final round, Kohles shot 62 that Sunday, rolling in a long birdie putt on the last green as if it were an encore.
Two weeks. Two wins. More than $200,000.
More importantly, a guaranteed spot on the PGA Tour in 2013.
“That’s a little surreal,” Kohles said. “I’ve thought a little bit about it. It’s obviously a dream come true. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. For it to happen this fast is really rushing it.”
The beneficiary of a sponsor exemption into the Wyndham Championship by virtue of his sudden success and his North Carolina ties, Kohles got the first taste of his future at Sedgefield Country Club where there were courtesy cars and players he recognized from television rather than from his college career.
Seeing Sergio Garcia from a distance was “pretty cool,” Kohles admitted, and he hoped to meet Bill Haas, who is represented by the same management agency that now handles him.
Kohles struggled at Sedgefield, playing his first 11 holes 5-over par in the opening round. He kept grinding and eventually made four late birdies that salvaged a 72 that wasn’t going to get him to the weekend but could have been worse. He has a simple golf swing, youthful power and the potential to add more when his 165-pound body adds more muscle.
He can putt, too. Virginia golf coach Bowen Sargent said he doesn’t know of anyone that can out-putt Kohles when he gets it rolling and, coupled with a fierce competitive streak, Kohles has the necessary attributes to succeed in a tough world. At Virginia, Kohles won seven tournaments and had a school-record 23 top-10 finishes.
Kohles didn’t start playing golf until he was 13 and was 15 before he played his first tournament.
“I always had an idea he would make it but there are no guarantees in this game. But I’m a little surprised he made it as quickly as he did,” Sargent said.
Standing outside the Sedgefield clubhouse after playing with Kohles, Erik Compton liked what he’d seen beyond the golf.
“The thing I was impressed with the most was his attitude. He’s a really nice kid,” Compton said.
With a PGA Tour card locked up, Compton counseled Kohles to get as much experience as he can and play well early next year to ease the transition to the big tour.
“When you have success that early, he knows you have to have some things go your way to win. The fact he has his card locked up, it’s anyone’s game from there,” Compton said.
He has a buddy from UNC Greensboro caddying for him and he’s plotting a new schedule, all while trying to keep everything that’s happened in order.
“I still feel pretty much the same. I just go out and try to my best,” Kohles said.
Before going to Columbus, Kohles had discussed turning pro with his father, Kevin, and he’d consulted with Sargent at Virginia. The timing felt right.
“We talked it over but there’s not a right or wrong way with it. It’s about when you feel ready,” Sargent said.
“I tell guys all the time there’s a lot of – you don’t want to call it luck – good timing in this game. He found himself on the good side of that.”
And Ben Kohles’ excellent adventure was underway.