Ben Kohles has been the talk of the Web.com Tour the past month.
By Paul Zeise Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A month ago, the mention of the name Ben Kohles would have been met with a resounding "Who?" among those who follow and play professional golf.
But, since turning pro in late July, he has won two of the three Web.com tournaments he has played, shot to third on the tour's money list and is one of the favorites to win the Mylan Classic at Southpointe Golf Club, which starts today and runs through Sunday.
"It has been quite a remarkable ride, but it hasn't been easy -- it has just looked easy," Kohles said with a laugh. "I've been fortunate. I have had some good breaks and I have taken advantage of some opportunities, but I really can't explain how all of this has happened so quickly. It has been amazing."
Kohles was an amateur until a month ago.
But since turning pro just before the Children's Invitational in late July, he won that tournament and the next one a week later, cashed in the third, and just for good measure, competed in the Wyndham of the PGA Tour on a sponsorship exemption and made the cut ahead of a number of established PGA players.
That success has vaulted him to third on the money list ($262,875 in earnings this year) and, with only seven Web.com events remaining after the Mylan Classic, he is virtually a lock to finish in the top 25 on the money list and earn his PGA Tour card for next year.
None of this would have happened for Kohles, who was born in Dallas but now lives in the Charlotte, N.C., area, had it not been for the withdrawal from a tournament last month by amateur Peter Uihlein, which opened a spot for Kohles.
The tournament, the Children's Invitational in Columbus, Ohio, is unique in that it saves 12 spots for the NCAA first-team All-Americans from that year and also the U.S. Amateur champion.
Kohles, who graduated from Virginia in May, was a second-team All-American. He was preparing to play in an amateur event when Uihlein pulled out of the Children's at the last minute.
Kohles got the call and decided that since it was his first professional event, he might as well declare himself a pro. He did just that, checking the box that read "pro" at the registration table on the Tuesday before that tournament began.
It turned out to be a lucrative decision: He shot 12 under for the week and won a playoff to claim the championship and $144,000 in prize money.
"I knew I was going to turn pro anyway, so I figured I might as well do it then while I was thinking about it," Kohles said. "It was just crazy how it all turned out. A lot of guys never get an opportunity to win a tournament, I won the first one I competed in.
"I knew it wasn't always going to be like that, but then ... "
Kohles, who earned the right to compete in every Web.com tournament when he became a tournament champion, played in the Cox Classic in Omaha, Neb., the next week. Despite trailing going into the final day, he shot a career-low 62 to finish 24 under and win a tournament for the second time in as many weeks.
Kohles realized his life would never be the same. He gained instant celebrity status, at least on the Web.com Tour, and that's something he has had to grow comfortable with.
"I don't think I am any different than when I was on the amateur tour or playing in NCAA events," said Kohles, who was named the ACC golfer of the year twice during his college career. "You can look at it in two ways -- there is pressure in being a favorite, but by the same token, since I have already all but locked up my PGA Tour card for next year, I don't have that pressure to try and cash every week like a lot of these guys do.
"I can actually go play golf, work on my game and try to get better and not worry about having to try and finish in a certain spot to earn enough money to finish in the top 25."
Kohles, 22, said he understands how hard it is to earn a PGA Tour card and that many of the players he is competing against on the Web.com tour may never earn one. That's why he doesn't take it for granted and it is why he has a deep appreciation for the grind so many players go through just to try to be in position to get a shot at the PGA Tour.
Kohles, however, is a different breed of young player. He's not a big hitter who will wow crowds with 350-yard drives and long shots with his irons. Rather, his strength is in his short game and with his putter. He believes he is one of the best players on the tour around the green and on the green, and that has been the secret to his success -- scoring when he has had opportunities.
He said that's why he likes his chances to contend for the championship at the Mylan, because Southpointe is more of a "thinking man's golf course," requiring players to make shots and neutralizing most of the advantages of long hitters.
"I really love the quirkiness of this course," Kohles said. "Really a lot of holes where, because of the hills or the slopes, you have to make a perfect shot or you can find trouble. The greens are tough, too, but I have been very consistent with my putter and in an event like this, on a course like this, the short game and putter will really be a key -- you have to put it close in order to score."
Kohles said he plans to play seven of the final eight Web.Com Tour events this year, then next year take a shot at the PGA Tour, although he knows that there will be plenty of bumps in the road between now and then.
That's why he just wants to focus on enjoying the ride and improving each day.
"Like I said, it is never easy," Kohles said. "Even though I've won a few events, I'm just getting started and players much better and much more accomplished than I am have gone through struggles, so I know they are coming. For now, though, I'm just going to ride this and hope it continues because it has certainly been a lot of fun."