By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — One swing was all it took. Bowen Sargent saw Ben Kohles strike the ball at a tournament in Greensboro, N.C., and the UVa men’s golf coach was smitten.
“I don’t know what it was,” Sargent recalled this week in his University Hall office. “It was like finding your wife, I guess. I said, ‘I’ve got to have him.’ Luckily nobody else found him.”
Kohles, a UVa junior, is from Cary, N.C., not far from NC State or Duke or Wake Forest or North Carolina. Yet those ACC schools did not pursue him. He ultimately chose UVa over East Carolina, a decision from which Sargent’s program has benefited enormously.
“He’s our best player,” Sargent said. “There’s no doubt, we go as he goes.”
As a sophomore, Kohles was named co-ACC player of the year, making him the first Cavalier to win the award since 1996.
He’s been dealing with a lower-back injury this year, and his daily routine now includes stretching and strengthening exercises.
“Once I get through the opening holes, it loosens up a bit,” Kohles said Wednesday at Birdwood Golf Course.
Kohles doesn’t like to talk publicly about the injury. It may bother him more than he lets on, but he has continued to lead the 22nd-ranked Cavaliers.
“He’s had a hell of a year,” Sargent said.
Kohles, a psychology major, is coming off an eighth-place finish at the ACC tournament in New London, N.C. After opening with a 75 in challenging conditions — “We played in a monsoon for 10 to 12 holes,” said Kohles — he fired a 70 in the second round.
He closed with a 68 to help the Wahoos place fourth. They’ve finished in the ACC tournament’s top four in consecutive years for the first time since 1996 and ’97.
The ‘Hoos close the regular season Saturday when they host the 24th annual Cavalier Classic, a 36-hole tournament at Birdwood. UVa is the defending champion. Joining Virginia in the field are Coastal Carolina, Delaware, George Mason, James Madison, Longwood, Maryland and Seton Hall, as well as several golfers from Liberty and Richmond.
“It’s nice for the kids,” Sargent said. “A lot of the parents are going to be here. It’s a nice end to the year.”
Kohles has long been part of successful teams. He helped lead Green Hope High School to 4-A state titles in 2006 and ’07. Not bad for a guy who didn’t start playing competitive golf until he was 15.
“I was kind of a late bloomer,” Kohles said. “I didn’t even try out for the team my freshman year.”
Kohles didn’t “have a real stellar junior golf career,” Sargent said, but he did enough to pique the Cavaliers’ interest.
“You’re always looking for kids with potential,” Sargent said. “The average rookie on [the PGA] tour is 28, 29. There’s a lot of room to develop. I saw Ben, and he had a nice swing, and I knew he was a good kid from a good family, and he had a really good swing teacher.”
Kohles is not a long hitter, but he’s “straight,” Sargent said, “and a great putter.” Kohles also has qualities that aren’t easily taught.
“He’s extremely focused,” Sargent said, “and he’s one of the best competitors I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t matter what you’re playing. He’s got to win it.”
The rest of the team likes to kid Kohles about his good fortune. “Every time he buys a lottery ticket, he wins money,” Sargent said.
“Not every time,” Kohles said, then added with a smile, “I have won a few.”