At first glance, freshman golfer Ben James might seem like the average player who spends his weekend afternoons with friends trying to earn his first hole-in-one. Even though he’s still seeking this elusive achievement, James has spent his first year at Virginia succeeding in just about every other way, more resembling a PGA Tour professional than a 19-year-old college student. However, James has been ahead of the curve for a while.
James originally committed to the University of Connecticut when he was 11, but later realized his potential to compete in a Power Five conference and decommitted. He committed to the University of Virginia as a freshman in high school, citing interest in Virginia’s academics and strong coaching staff. Although he was four years older than when he made his first commitment, it was still a nerve-wracking time for him and his family — there were a lot of unknowns, James said.
“It's a risk for both parties, myself and the coach, because — you don't know if I could play pretty well, or I could play really bad,” James said. “I struggled my freshman and sophomore year, but I ended up playing really well my junior and senior year. So it kind of kind of worked out for both of us.”
When James signed his letter of intent to play for Virginia in 2021, he was the No. 2 junior in the American Junior Golf Association rankings, prompting excitement for Coach Bowen Sargent.
“Recruiting on the surface is a lot like first dates — everyone is on good behavior,” Sargent said. “But everybody who came up to me [at a tournament during a visit] said what a good kid he is, how humble he is, willing to help people out. That all is a big part of it. It’s not just about golf.”
James had more to accomplish before heading south to Charlottesville to join Sargent and the rest of the team. Last summer, James received a sponsor’s exemption to play in the Travelers Championship. Each year the tournament director invites top-ranked amateurs to play in the event and turn professional. Although James had not begun his college career, by then he was the No. 1 ranked junior golfer — he had just barely missed his chance to qualify for the U.S. Open.
“I wanted to be out there all day,” James said. “I mean, when do you get to hit balls on the range around all these top Tour pros, interact with them, hit in front of crowds? You’re in the spotlight, so why wouldn’t you want to be out there?”
Although James did not make the cut after the first 36 holes in the Travelers Championship, he headed to Virginia with confidence following this experience. Having now been on Grounds for almost a full year, James has created great relationships with both his coaches and teammates, allowing his humble confidence to grow.
“Coach Sargent and Coach Groves have been awesome,” James said. “I mean, we have all the tools here to be successful. [Coach Sargent] just kind of really structures our practices which is important to me.”
Having grown up in Milford, Conn., James began playing golf in much different weather than most professional players. Jordan Spieth from Texas, Brooks Koepka from Florida and most other Tour players from warm cities grew up being able to play outside all year round. James thinks his background prepared him and made the adjustment to college golf that much smoother.
“I hate the cold,” James said. “Even though I am from Connecticut. But I think obviously playing in tough and windy conditions kind of taught me how to scramble and taught me how to show grit out there.”
At Virginia, he has demonstrated this grit. James has led the team to success in several tournaments. Currently ranked 16th in the nation’s college golfers, with an average of 69.52 strokes per round, the Cavaliers are able to rely on James’ consistency in high-pressure tournaments. Having medaled in four tournaments so far this season, it’s clear that James’ hard work is paying off.
“You know golf is golf, no matter what level you play,” James said. “I kept riding the momentum in the fall and am playing pretty well in the spring as well. So I can't complain.”
James gives a lot of credit to the chemistry of the team and the fun that they have on the course. James has been friends with junior Chris Fosdick for over a decade due to their shared Connecticut roots. James was also reunited with freshman Bryan Lee, after seeing each other almost every week playing in junior events.
“Our chemistry is so good,” James said. “We're all there for each other, love each other, and I think that just that makes us play better.”
The regular season ended April 11 with a tournament at Birdwood Golf Course, hosted by the Cavaliers, where they finished in second place. James finished the tournament tied for first place and was thrilled that his family was able to come and watch him play, which they often cannot do since they live so far away.
The next step for James and the Cavaliers is the NCAA tournament, with regionals beginning May 15. Fans should keep an eye out for the freshman phenom to crack the leaderboards. James has just finished an incredible regular season with four first-place finishes, but he is confident in the team’s overall ability to work together and perform well.
“We're gonna be working hard, we all want it really bad,” James said. “I think it's just about playing for each other and we just have to kind of go out there and fight every shot. I mean, that's all it really is, just not giving up… That's the key on a team sport.”