When former North Carolina State University men’s golf coach Richard Sykes stumbled upon Benjamin Shipp six years ago at a junior tournament in Wilmington, N.C., he felt like he had discovered an unblemished Pro V1 in thick fescue.
Sykes came to the tournament to recruit someone else but immediately became enamored with Shipp. The youngster drove the ball with power and displayed a deft touch around the greens on his way to shooting 65, the kind of round that typically attracts a swarm of college coaches.
The only curiosity that subdued the interest around Shipp was the way he constantly fidgeted, blinking rapidly and twitching his face as he spoke. His tics weren’t like the idiosyncratic movements of the club-twirling Keegan Bradley. They were involuntary. Shipp has Tourette syndrome, a nervous system disorder with which he was diagnosed at age 15.
“It didn’t seem to bother his golf game, so it didn’t bother me,” Sykes said. “Once he committed to us, I didn’t want anybody to know about him to be honest. We knew he was being overlooked. I thought he was one of the best players I have seen, and he’s proven to be that.”
Shipp’s college recruitment process included offers from Illinois and Virginia Tech, but the bulk of the interest in him came from schools near his hometown of Duluth, Ga. By the time Shipp went to play for Sykes at N.C. State, any school in the country would have wanted him – he had blossomed into the No. 1 junior in the country and was the Georgia high school player of the year in consecutive seasons.
Given his talent and credentials entering college, it’s been no surprise that Shipp now is putting a bow on one of the best careers in Wolfpack history. He ranks fourth in career stroke average and will begin his last semester with a legitimate opportunity to break the single-season stroke-average record that 2009 NCAA individual champion Matt Hill holds. Shipp was a first-team All-ACC selection last year and finished in the top 25 in nearly every event of his junior season, collecting two victories along the way.
“When I look at my career and put it in perspective, a strength of mine has always been consistency,” Shipp said. “Usually even when I am off, I have been able to keep it respectable. But I believe in my talents and I know this is where I belong.”
If his performance last month is any indication, he is in for a stirring senior finale. Shipp is fresh off of the biggest victory of his life at the South Beach International Amateur, where he defeated Garett Reband in a playoff. It propelled him to No. 70 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, the highest position he had held. Perhaps the only other accomplishment that might compare was when Shipp went around Pinehurst No. 2 with a 5-under-par 65 during the 2018 North & South Amateur, matching Martin Kaymer’s score in the first two rounds of his U.S. Open victory at Pinehurst in 2014.
Those might be the facts and figures behind Benjamin Shipp the golfer, but they tell only a fraction of his story. It’s one thing to excel in golf while your body has the unsettling sensation of Tourette’s, but it’s another thing entirely to take a proactive role in explaining the condition to others. During his freshman year at N.C. State, Shipp was among a group of student-athletes asked to share something about themselves. He chose to talk about Tourette’s.
“I had to learn that the best thing to do was to ask him about Tourette’s. That is what creates a safe, caring environment for him. Like most things in life, you’re better to be open and honest.” -N.C. State men’s golf coach Press McPhaul
“I try to make it clear to everyone that it’s not something I’m private about,” Shipp said. “It’s not something I don’t like talking about. On the contrary, I enjoy telling people about it because it gives them a better understanding. Of all the disorders out there, it’s very new. Scientists don’t even have it nailed down yet.”
While educating others, Shipp has fostered a unique relationship with his current head coach, Press McPhaul. McPhaul recently nominated Shipp for the David Toms Overcoming Adversity Award that is given to a college player each year. But in the past three years, the relationship has evolved for the coach from a place of awkward tension to one of empathy.
“When I first met Ben, I thought the kind thing to do would be to talk to him like nothing was happening,” McPhaul said. “If he was having a tic or making a noise or a gesture, I thought I should plow ahead and act like nothing was happening. And what he coached me to see over time is that that response creates questions in his mind about what people think of him. It creates self-doubt.
“I had to learn that the best thing to do was to ask him about Tourette’s. That is what creates a safe, caring environment for him. Like most things in life, you’re better to be open and honest.”
The courage Shipp has developed and shown has made him an inspiration not just to his coach and teammates, but also to a youngster he met by chance.
Two seasons ago, Shipp helped N.C. State to its best NCAA Championship finish in more than a decade at Karsten Creek, Oklahoma State University’s home course. While he was competing there, Shipp met 12-year-old Layne Ailshie, a young golfer who also has Tourette’s. When Ailshie and her mother noticed Shipp’s eccentricities, they approached him to learn more about how he coped with the disorder.
“They were just kind of in shock that I was able to play at this level,” Shipp said. “Ever since then, we have kept in contact and texted back and forth. It’s been pretty awesome. It’s exactly why I want to pursue a professional career. Obviously I want to win a lot of tournaments and that motivates me because I am a competitive person, but ultimately I want to develop my platform to make a difference with whoever struggles with those type of obstacles.”
Shipp hopes the future is full of more encounters with golfers trying to overcome challenges. His post-graduation plans are to compete as an amateur throughout the summer (last Wednesday he rose to No. 69 in the most recent WAGR release), before attempting Korn Ferry Tour Q-School in the fall.
Regardless of what happens in his professional career, Shipp’s legacy at N.C. State will endure well beyond this year. McPhaul’s guiding principle for his program is to leave it better than you found it. In his eyes, nobody has exemplified that like Shipp has.
“He’s going to get recorded in the record book with numbers like fourth all-time scoring average and stuff like winning tournaments,” McPhaul said. “But his real legacy is going to be a guy that saw the next challenge as an opportunity and hung in there and fought. That’s going to be harder to trace over time. He’ll be remembered as a great player, but he’s a lot more than that to me and his teammates.”
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