Moments before Ben Kohles drilled his first tee shot in a February playoff at the John Burns Intercollegiate tournament in Hawaii, Virginia men's golf coach Bowen Sargent pulled Kohles aside to wish him luck.
His back on fire like never before due to small fractures in his lower lumbar, Kohles' conversation with his coach was one Sargent had come to expect. Kohles made no mention of his back. Instead, he gritted his teeth and offered a bold prediction prior to the playoff at Turtle Bay Resort.
Kohles held to his word, topping California's Max Homa and Texas A&M's John Hurley. Sargent greeted Kohles on the green when the playoff concluded.
"As soon as he wins the thing, I went up to congratulate him and he was like, 'Where do we play next week?' " Sargent said. "That's all he wanted to know. That's just the way he is. He's very humble. I've never heard him brag. He just wants to compete."
Sargent's assessment of his star golfer only tells half the story about Kohles' competitive streak. Kohles, who Monday was selected the Atlantic Coast Conference's player of the year for a second consecutive year, has a hard time being second-best … period.
Stories are told about the time he went on an on-campus basketball court and chucked in six straight 3-point shots — all from mid-court. In March, he went out and bowled a 240 on his second game of the evening — this from a kid that has bowled maybe four times all year.
"I don't really like to lose at anything" Kohles said. "You can expect to win every tournament, but you've got to be realistic. I mean, unless you're Tiger Woods in his prime, you're not going to win every tournament."
Kohles will lead U.Va. next Friday in an NCAA regional that will take place over the weekend at Virginia Tech's River Course. U.Va. is the No. 4 seed, while Tech is the No. 7 seed. The top five teams from the 13-team regional will advance to the NCAA championships May 31-June 5 in Stillwater, Okla.
Kohles joked with Sargent that maybe he should hang up the golf bag and join the Professional Bowlers Association. Kohles, a Dallas native who grew up in Cary, N.C., may indeed have a future on a professional tour, and it will involve his golf clubs.
This year, he leads U.Va. with a per-round stroke average of 71.6, scoring par or better in 21 of 35 rounds. He has placed in the top 10 at tournaments eight times, adding another first place finish in October at the Gary Koch Invitational in Tampa, Fla., to his victory in Hawaii.
Last year, Kohles became the first U.Va. golfer to earn ACC player of the year honors since 1996, when Simon Cooke earned the distinction. Kohles is the fifth player in ACC history to win player of the year at least twice, joining Duke's Ryan Blaum (2005 and '06), Wake Forest's Bill Haas ('03 and '04) and Georgia Tech's Bryce Molder (1999-2001) and David Duval ('92 and '93).
Not bad company for Kohles, who did it this year with a balky back that has troubled him since mid-winter. The culprit? Nothing but good, old-fashioned growing pains. His growth rate resulted in tiny fractures in his lower back — injuries that should become less and less of a factor the older he gets.
"It's just a little annoying, but I've just been doing exercises and stretches and stuff since February," said Kohles, a junior who is 6-foot-1 and only 165 pounds, but that includes 20 pounds he has gained since coming to Charlottesville. "It's feeling fine. I just go out there, try not to think about it and play golf."
Considering he has only played golf competitively since he was 15, Kohles still has a lot of development to do on the course. He's not an extraordinarily long hitter off the tee, but his strength comes in his putting and his ability to hit greens in regulation.
"He has a tremendous golf IQ," Sargent said. "He knows what shots he can hit and which shots he can't. That's probably the greatest mark of a really good player. Not everybody is Phil Mickelson and has the ability to hit every single shot, but you see guys like Ben that play to their strengths and avoid their weaknesses."
Golfer Kohles makes most of competitive streak for U.Va.
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