Milford golfer Ben James, 19, set to make his PGA Tour debut at Travelers


Don James bought a brand new 2006 Honda Ridgeline. He still has it. There are 430,000 miles on the odometer.

“It’s still my main car, imagine that?” he said. “I bought it around the time Ben started. I just won’t part with it. For several reasons: A. It still works fine; B. I can’t afford a new one at current prices.

“It holds so many memories of driving to golf tournaments.”

Stories of junior golf tournaments, from all over, go up in the shotgun with those 430,000 miles. It’s been a long journey, but as Ben James from Milford makes his Travelers Championship debut this week, his biography will also show he’s 19 and just days away from graduating from the Hamden Hall Country Day School. The University of Virginia is waiting for you.

“I’m excited about my debut (at a PGA Tour event),” Ben said.

“He’s thrilled,” Don said.

Golf is golf, but in Connecticut, the Travelers are our state’s premier sporting event.

“It’s going to be awesome,” Ben said. “I’m going to have a lot of support there. There will be quite a large crowd following me. It should be a great experience to see where my game stacks up against the best.

James started swinging a club soon after he started walking. He played competitively when he was 4 years old. He hit 90 at the Great River Golf Club in Milford when he was 6 and 80 three years later. In 2013, Ben won the US Kids Golf World Championship in the 10-year-old group.

His status continued to blossom. He was selected for the US Junior Presidents Cup, the US Junior Ryder Cup. He won many junior tournaments. He also performed at all of his school events throughout his senior year. He didn’t care much about anyone.

“Our philosophy has been to play locally and then branch out,” Don said.

So it’s fitting to see him as both the reigning New Haven Register Player of the Year and the highest-ranked junior golfer in the United States, according to the American Junior Golf Association.

Travelers has a long history of investing sponsorship exemptions in young talent. Webb Simpson, Rickie Fowler, Patrick Cantlay, Jon Rahm, Bryson DeChambeau, Matthew Wolff, Collin Morikawa and Viktor Hovland… the reward is players returning to TPC River Highlands after becoming big names.

“The Travelers have always done a great job,” Don said, “and this year an outstanding job of going local for the young players.”

James is joined by Chris Gotterup from New Jersey and Michael Thorbjornsen from Massachusetts.

History of traveler exemptions?

“Obviously I know Patrick Cantlay,” Ben said.

At 19 in the 2011 Travelers, Cantlay posted the lowest round ever by an amateur on the PGA Tour.

Don laughs.

“The problem is that Patrick Cantlay shot a 60,” he said.

The plan is to return Saturday night from his first appearance at Sunnehanna Amateur in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Ben will take it easy on Sunday.

He will be at TPC River Highlands on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in preparation for the Travelers first round. He hopes to play Tuesday with his PGA Tour friend Lanto Griffin – “great guy, really nice and really good,” said James. He will practice or play in the Celebrity Pro-Am on Wednesday. Peter Tomlinson will caddy for him.

“I’ll go through my three practice rounds and I’ll be more than fine,” James said. “Prepare well. Get a good plan. Ride well. We will be called upon.

How many times has he played at TPC River Highlands?

“Not a lot,” James said. “Not as much as you think. The last time was probably when I was 10, 11. I go there pretty much blind. I also hit him 100 yards further than I had hit him when I was 10.

He did the Birdies for Charity for three years. He was able to play with Patrick Reed, in his debut, and Tom Pernice.

“It was a dream come true for him,” Don said. “He also made the Connecticut PGA Section up there.”

Ben watched on TV as Jordan Spieth won the 2017 Travelers with the shocking bunker shot and last year in what he called “the super long playoffs”. It was.

“My mom has pictures of us there when I was young,” Ben said. “It will be quite special to play instead of watch.”

James, an A student, invited some of his teachers to Voyageurs. People the family met and befriended at junior events come out. Some of Don’s high school friends will be there. Ben’s high school friends arrive. Guys at the golf club who’ve known Ben since he was little. Friends, family – yes, there should be a loyal contingent.

“Someone I haven’t seen in 10 years will probably come,” Don said. “That’s the most fun part. Our friends, our family, our supporters. That’s the #1 thing. People would lend us a house or have a friend we could stay with. So many people have helped us along the way.

“They see it now. This is really what is happening. It’s really materializing.

After Travelers, James has the North & South Amateur, Trans Mississippi Amateur, Western Amateur and hopefully will qualify for the US Amateur. And then off to college. He expects to be in Charlottesville around August 20.

While in sixth grade at East Shore Middle School, he made a verbal commitment to UConn. In time, that would change for Virginia, but he allows it.

“I’m a UConn college basketball fan,” he said. “I like UConn basketball more than UVa basketball.”

When he made his unofficial visit as a sixth-grader, James walked the full length of the Gampel Pavilion basketball court on his hands. He participated in parkour, a training program where athletes get from point A to point B as smoothly as possible.

“I can still walk on my hands,” Ben said, “but maybe I can do half the court. I’m a foot taller.

A former assistant golf coach at Sacred Heart University, Don sells health insurance and owns a small agency. It has a number of Liberty Tax Service offices. Health insurance is busy from November to January. Tax season is busy from January to April. This allowed Don to work with Ben during the warmer months.

Asked to describe his role, Don replied: “I don’t mean coach. We are at a level where a coach cannot follow Ben everywhere. I sort of see what’s wrong from a different perspective than what he thinks is wrong. So after meeting someone like (the instructors) Tom Rosati or Todd Anderson, I can kind of deliver my observation.

“When they give him proper instructions, now I’ve learned and I can see what he’s doing. It’s hard for a golf swing to see what you’re doing yourself, isn’t it? So they diagnose it. They fix it. I sort of reconfirm it.

Don has been doing it for 15 years. He must have learned something.

“My dad was great,” Ben said. “You have to be pretty perfect with him. It certainly helped me. His work ethic, definitely. He works harder than anyone. It rubbed off on me. That’s half the battle.

As the miles passed, Don said, much of the conversation revolved around working harder and smarter. Like parkour, the best way to get from point A to point B.

“Some people have incredible talent,” Don said. “I didn’t think Ben had ‘super’ talent. There’s nothing he’s done better than everyone else. It’s not like s “Hit him further, he was this outstanding putter, great chipper. I think Ben does the whole range well and he works hard at those things.

“He is able to repeat and follow instructions well. So he can fix things. We can self-correct. I think that’s Ben’s greatest attribute. When things go wrong, we fix it quickly and it is able to adapt.

Don said the two aren’t necessarily addicts to sports or golf stats. Ben will be watching highlights, but he’s not glued to the TV every Sunday afternoon. They are more of a process junkie.

“Ben would rather play than watch, Don said. “We love the process. I think that’s what’s good about us. We like to go from A to B.

“Our journey is to get to the PGA Tour. There were so many steps along the way. Now we’re getting into the amateur/pro world alliance. We want to be the best. It’s a process. From good tournaments, dissection lessons, instruction. It takes a team of people. Stay on our path. It worked for us.

The 2006 Honda Ridgeline, Don said, is no longer allowed to leave the state. He had problems with it once and doesn’t want to take any chances. Long trips require a rental car. River Highlands is just 40 miles from Milford, and is the state’s premier sporting event.

“Oh, it’ll be at the Voyageurs,” Don James said.

His son too.

[email protected]; @jeffjacobs123


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