CROMWELL, Conn. — There are very few people who take the golf world by storm almost overnight, but Ben Kohles went from being unheralded to locking up his PGA Tour card last summer in a span of just 10 days.
All at the tender age of 22.
Kohles, who was weeks removed from college graduation (he was an All-American at Virginia), didn’t even have a bank account when he turned pro last July on a whim, and he had never received a paycheck in his life.
So when he won his professional debut, at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Invitational in Columbus, Ohio, Kohles had the $144,000 winner’s check mailed to his house.
Not bad for his first payday.
He followed that with another win on the Web.com Tour the next week, and pocketed $117,000 more. While the cash was great, the primary perk was even better: Those two victories guaranteed that Kohles would be spending the 2013 season on the PGA Tour.
From college-graduate amateur to PGA Tour rookie in a matter of months. It’s tough to wrap one’s head around, even for a psychology major like Kohles.
“It’s been a great experience,” Kohles said Friday, managing a smile despite missing the 36-hole cut at the Travelers Championship by one stroke after shooting a second-round 67. “It was pretty surreal. I’ve always dreamed since I started playing golf to be playing out here, but to do it that quick . . . I’m really thankful.”
Kohles owes part of his professional success, strangely, to Massachusetts native Peter Uihlein. Kohles got his spot in the Columbus event last summer only when Uihlein withdrew. If that hadn’t happened, Kohles wouldn’t have turned pro so soon, and probably would not have received a start in either of the two Web.com events that he won.
But he did, and took full advantage. Sometimes, an opportunity is all anyone needs.
“It’s a numbers game,” said Jim Herman, who finished 25th last season on the Web.com money list, earning his PGA Tour card by less than $1,000. “If you put up the numbers, you belong. It was pretty cool to see.
“Any time you can win out there, you feel pretty good, you feel like you’re pretty close to your goal of getting your card, and then to back it up right away with another win obviously sews it up. It usually doesn’t happen that way for rookies, so obviously he’s a great talent.”
Kohles was actually late to the sport, not playing until he was 15. But he learned quickly, winning at every level: junior, high school, amateur, college.
Still, the swiftness of what transpired last summer surprised even him.
“My mind-set was to go in and have fun,” said Kohles. “It’s my first pro event, I didn’t really have any expectations. I played good every day, so I wanted to see what’s the best we could do. Turns out that I won the thing, then won the next week. It was a good way to start out.”
Kohles eventually finished eighth on the Web.com money list, in only 10 tournaments. He prepped for his first year on the PGA Tour by moving to Sea Island, Ga., where his teacher is based, and picking the minds of the other tour players who live there.
“Don’t change your game,” Kohles said. “You come out here and you’ve got clubs [available] from every company, all the newest stuff, whatever you want. You can tweak things, but you’ve had success before without all this stuff, so why really change it?”
The success rate of Web.com players finishing in the top 125 and keeping their PGA Tour cards the next year isn’t great, but Kohles doesn’t want to just keep his card. His goals for 2013 go much higher than that.
“I’ve won at every level I’ve played at, so that was a big goal of mine, to get a win this year,” Kohles said. “Keeping my card is kind of a goal, but I don’t want to set the bar right there. I want to try to win and get into the Tour Championship. That’s a pretty decent goal to have.”
He hasn’t won yet, but came close at the Tampa Bay Championship, finishing in a tie for seventh, his best showing so far in 18 starts. He has made nine cuts, missed nine cuts, and with $378,491 is 124th on the money list. He’s a rookie, discovering what PGA Tour life is like: Play well and the possibilities are plentiful. Play poorly and you’ll quickly be calling another tour home.
Kohles gave himself looks at three birdies on his final three holes at TPC River Highlands on Friday, needing at least one to fall to make the cut. None fell.
“There’s plenty for me to build on,” he said. “Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, unless you’re those guys, you’re not going to make every cut. I played good today, shot 3 under with a double. Just put myself a little too far out of it yesterday.
“Almost every year, I’ve been able to keep getting better. That’s something I take pride in, and hopefully I can continue that.
“These are the best players in the world, so it’s a little tougher than coming straight out of college. I’ve definitely gotten a lot more comfortable as the year’s gone on. I’m learning.”