Former Green Hope golfer on professional fast track
By Stuart Hall
At an early-season practice in 2006, Green Hope High School golf coach David Allen dismissed his players for the evening by suggesting they work on putting at least once a week. A suggested drill was making 100 consecutive 4-footers.
With that advice Ben Kohles sprinted over to Prestonwood Country Club’s practice green. Alone in the diminishing daylight, Kohles began rolling putts.
“I rode by in a cart and asked what he was doing,” Allen recalls. “He said, ‘Working on my 4-footers, coach.’”
Others associated with Kohles’ maturation as a golfer tell similar stories of a player doing whatever is necessary to reach the game’s next rung.
“I told his dad after the first (college) tournament that we had a special kid here and that he had a huge future in front of him,” said Bowen Sargent, the University of Virginia coach who was interested in signing Kohles after seeing him play just two holes at a national junior tournament in June 2007.
Kohles certainly made the golfing world take notice with his professional debut in late July, winning the Web.com Tour’s Nationwide Children’s Hospital Invitational in a playoff.
Kohles, 22, a two-time Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year and three-time All-American with the Cavaliers, had planned on remaining an amateur through the U.S. Amateur Championship in early August. But officials with the Web.com Tour tournament extended him a late sponsor exemption.
“Had I won the U.S. Amateur and gotten into the Masters and U.S. Open, that would have meant staying an amateur for another year and that would have complicated matters,” said Kohles of his decision-making process. “Turning pro just made the most sense.”
Six days after registering as a professional, Kohles defeated Luke Guthrie in a one-hole playoff and became the first player to win a Web.com Tour event in his first professional start. A week later at the Cox Classic in Omaha, Neb., Kohles won a second time, this time erasing a two-stroke deficit with a final-round 62 to win by three strokes.
In a span of 13 days Kohles won two tournaments, shot a combined 36-under-par, earned $261,000 and mathematically earned PGA Tour playing privileges for 2013. A third Web.com win before season’s end would earn him a direct promotion for the remainder of the 2012 PGA Tour season.
“I’ve always been one of those under-the-radar kind of guys, but now I’ve kind of turned that away and in the spotlight a little more, but I’ve had a blast with it all,” Kohles said.
“For Ben it has almost been a straight line from point A to point B,” Allen said. “Normally it’s four steps up and two steps back, two up and one back.”
Kohles could be classified as a latecomer to golf. His family moved to Cary from the Dallas area when he was 10, and joined Prestonwood Country Club, a short bicycle ride from the Kohles’ home.
Introduced to the game by his father, Kevin, Kohles took his first lessons from Prestonwood golf professional Tony Mabini around age 13 and was further immersed because his circle of friends enjoyed playing.
“Because Ben played a lot of team sports, I think part of the attraction to golf was it was something he and his friends could do without a lot of adult involvement,” Kevin Kohles said. “They would all get on their bicycles and meet up at the club. And I’m sure it was just a lot of fun.”
His playing buddies included best friend and current caddy Will Almand (who played at UNC-Greensboro), Lee Bedford (a three-time All-ACC honoree at Wake Forest), Kevin O’Connell (2008 ACC Freshman of the Year at North Carolina) and Michael Cromie (currently playing college golf at Georgia).
That highly competitive culture spilled over when Kohles attended Green Hope, which produced Georgia All-American and current PGA Tour professional Brendon Todd and a program that won five North Carolina state titles in eight years under Allen. Kohles was a member of successive team titles in 2006 and 2007.
“He was not extraordinary in any one thing, but the key was he was not really weak in any one thing,” Allen said of Kohles’ game.
Because Kohles was a late bloomer, his summers were not filled with a schedule of national junior tournaments, just state and regional events. As a result, mid-level Division I programs such as East Carolina, Richmond, UNC Charlotte expressed the most interest in Kohles.
That changed in June 2007 when Sargent attended the American Junior Golf Association’s FootJoy Invitational in Greensboro. Kohles made the field by finishing second at the Carolinas Golf Association qualifying tournament.
Kohles’ collegiate arc was forever changed.
“I had seen his name pop up here and there and he looked like he had shot some OK scores, but I had never seen him play,” Sargent said. “I saw a kid who was a real competitor and a good putter. It’s tough to teach someone to be a good putter, and it’s tough to teach someone to be a competitor. He had them both.”
Kohles was also a perfectionist in a game of imperfections and his on-course psyche was his biggest nemesis.
So while Kolhles’ game matured under Sargent and Sea Island, Ga.-based swing coach Todd Anderson, who he has worked with since a sophomore in high school, his mental game was being rewired with noted sports psychologist Bob Rotella.
Sargent says Kohles, a psychology major, has a high golf IQ and is very capable of disseminating the constant flow of advice that comes his way. That filter serves him well.
In a 51-start collegiate career, Kohles set Virginia team records for wins (seven) and top-10 finishes (23). He also recorded 32 top-15 finishes. His amateur resume also featured wins at the 2008 Carolinas Amateur and June’s Dogwood Invitational in Atlanta.
Kohles has even appeared to overcome injury. In spring 2011, he was diagnosed with Spondylolysis, small micro-fractures that develop in the wings of vertebrae and ultimately limit range of motion. A somewhat common diagnosis among athletes, the main remedy is the strengthening of the core muscular structure, which Kohles addressed with strength and conditioning coach Randy Myers, also based in Sea Island.
“Again, he’s going to do whatever it takes to succeed,” Sargent said.
After such a high-profile professional debut, what’s next? That remains to be determined, but those who know him well advise not putting limitations on expectations.
“I think Ben is enough of a performer that he enjoys the spotlight,” Allen said. “He likes the heat and he thrives in those moments … which we saw in those first two wins. So, no, I don’t think anything he will do in the future will surprise me too much.”