By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — When his schedule permits, former University of Virginia golfer Ben Kohles has some shopping to do.
“I’ve wanted an iPad for a while, so that’s probably not too big of a deal any more,” Kohles said Monday.
Then he laughed, aware of the magnitude of his understatement.
Kohles, who graduated from UVa in May with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, can suddenly afford a lot of things that a week ago might not have his fit his budget. On Sunday, in Columbus, Ohio, Kohles sank a 22-foot birdie putt on the first playoff hole to win the Web.com Tour’s Nationwide Children’s Hospital Invitational.
A professional golfer for less than a week, Kohles found himself accepting a $144,000 first-place check, the second-largest on the PGA Tour’s developmental tour. He’s the first player to win a Web.com Tour event in his pro debut.
The victory assured Kohles spots in the remaining Web.com Tour tournaments this year and in all of the tour’s events in 2013, too. More significant, it put him in 13th place on the Web.com Tour’s money list for 2012. The top 25 finishers will earn PGA Tour cards for 2013.
“I’m still kind of in shock,” Kohles said Monday evening from the airport in Minneapolis, where he was waiting for his flight to Omaha, Neb., site of the Cox Classic, which begins Thursday.
Not long into a phone interview with VirginiaSports.com, Kohles excused himself for a moment.
“Someone just stopped me and said congrats,” Kohles said when he came back on the line. “That was pretty cool. I wonder how many more times that’ll happen. It’s been quite a ride. I’m trying to let it all sink in.”
A two-time ACC player of the year, Kohles competed as an amateur at the Porter Cup, which ended July 21 in Lewiston, N.Y. Kohles tied for 18th at the Porter Cup, then traveled to Columbus, where he was one of 12 college All-Americans to receive an exemption into the Web.com tournament.
Kohles led after 54 holes in Columbus but had to birdie two of the final three holes in regulation Sunday to force a playoff with Luke Guthrie, an All-American at Illinois this year.
The Golf Channel televised the tournament, and Kohles’ parents, on a long-planned family vacation, anxiously followed the action Sunday. The playoff began on the 439-yard 18th. Guthrie finished the hole first, settling for a par, and so Kohles knew what was at stake when, after conferring with his caddie, childhood friend Will Almand, he lined up his birdie putt.
“Obviously I was a little nervous, for sure,” Kohles said. “But I got the read from my caddie and picked a line and tried to hit it on the right line, and it went in. I heard a quote one time, I don’t remember who said it, but they said, ‘Just because you’re nervous or just because your hands are shaking or whatever on the final hole, doesn’t mean you’re going to hit a bad putt.’ And ever since then I’ve really taken that to heart.
“The last few times I’ve won, I’ve really thought about that. Obviously you’re nervous. Everyone is. No one’s not going to be nervous. But that doesn’t mean you can’t hit a good putt.”
UVa coach Bowen Sargent offered some perspective on Kohles’ feat.
“It would be probably similar to a guy getting called up to the major leagues and hitting a grand slam walk-off home run in his first at-bat,” Sargent said.
What makes Kohles’ accomplishment even more remarkable is that late last fall his golf career appeared to be in jeopardy. Lower-back problems had hindered Kohles for most of 2011, and by “November he couldn’t even walk,” Sargent recalled.
“He pulled out in the fall, in our second-to-last tournament. The kid literally could not walk. He looked like a 100-year-old man walking.”
For about three months, Sargent said, Kohles didn’t touch a golf club. “All he did was work out every day,” Sargent said.
Kohles focused on strengthening his core muscles, and his regimen produced the desired results. Kohles rejoined the Cavaliers in the spring, and “I’ve been feling really, really, really good this entire year,” he said.
The 6-2, 170-pound Kohles is from Cary, N.C., but the ACC schools in his home state did not actively recruit him. He ultimately chose UVa over East Carolina. During his illustrious career at Virginia, Kohles won a school-record seven tournament titles.
“I don’t know about his ceiling [as a pro golfer],” Sargent said. “That’s a hard thing to say. But the kid has proven everybody wrong his whole life, and this week was just another example.
“I always told people that I thought he would be a player that would excel on the Web.com Tour. I didn’t know he’d do it in his first tournament … Usually you kind of have to pay your dues a little bit, which obviously he didn’t do.”
Kohles has long dreamed of playing on the PGA Tour, and his victory Sunday moved him one step closer to joining former Cavaliers James Driscoll and Steve Marino on professional golf’s premier tour. His challenge now is to play more of the golf that put him in this enviable position.
“Obviously I’m on a pretty big emotional high right now,” Kohles said, “but I’ve got to just calm myself down, and my caddie and I gotta go out this week and try to win this next one. That’s the goal.”