Ben Griffin more than a natural talent for UNC men's golf

ben_griffin

Ben Griffin, a junior on the North Carolina men's golf team, set the single-season scoring season in his first year at UNC. But he's more than just a natural talent.

He was 12 years old and the Griffins were in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, the same place Ben had made his first birdie a few years earlier. Ben and his father, Cowan, teed off from the second-to-back tees for yet another round together — this one at Beachwood Golf Club.

At the turn, Ben — now a junior on the North Carolina men’s golf team — held a small lead. But as the pair kept going, it became clear this round was special.

“I was just playing golf and he was kind of stressing,” Ben said. “He didn’t want to lose to a 12-year-old from the same tees.”

By the time it was over, Ben remembers, he had shot a 72. His dad ended with a 78.

But losing to his son took the sting out of Cowan’s defeat.

“It was one of those days where I just let my hair down,” he said, “and damn if he didn’t beat the dickens out of me.”

For Ben, there wasn’t one moment where it became clear he would walk off the 18th hole with a better score that day — it just sort of happened.

Much like his golf career.

***

There’s a picture of towhead 11-month-old Ben mid-swing on the driving range. It’s unclear if his miniature driver is better served for hitting a ball or keeping him upright, but one thing is certain: He was born to be a golfer.

Cowan and Erika Griffin never forced their son to play golf. He messed around with other sports, playing everything from basketball to tennis, but golf had a way of roping him back in.

“I think growing up with my dad playing a lot of golf inspired me,” Ben said. “I kind of wanted to be like my dad, I guess you could say.”

After Ben’s first competitive victory in the Chapel Hill Country Club’s 11- and 12 year-old division, Cowan noticed a growing passion in his son.

“I don’t think that he really started getting excited about golf until somewhere in middle school,” he said. “He had good hands and he had a vision of where he could move the ball around on a golf course. It ended up being a lot of fun for him.”

At Chapel Hill’s Culbreth Middle School, Ben was disappointed to learn there was no golf team. So he started one with a few friends and led the team to the state championship, where Culbreth finished runner-up.

Ben continued to challenge himself, and he continued to excel — winning the 4A North Carolina High School Championship in his first year at East Chapel Hill High School. And by his sophomore year, he had options up and down the East Coast.

“I won two U.S. Kid’s World Championships when I was 14 and 15,” he said. “So I was like, ‘Well, I’m playing somewhere.’”

As for where that would be, the decision wasn’t too difficult for the Chapel Hill native and son of two UNC graduates. Cowan never pushed Ben into anything he didn’t want to do, but he didn’t hide his North Carolina roots.

“I wanted him to be a Tar Heel,” he said. “I nudged him to be a Tar Heel, and then he was fortunate enough to be offered a scholarship to the University of North Carolina.”

He couldn’t say no.

***

In his first year with UNC, Ben exceeded expectations. He posted a stroke average of 71.06 — the best in school history since stats were first recorded in 1979 — and his play earned him All-ACC First Team honors and All-America honorable mention.

But after a self-described “sophomore slump,” Ben was at a crossroads. His strong short game had always buoyed him, but something felt off.

“It wasn’t the type of golf that I wanted to play,” he said. ”I wanted to play with less stress where I could just swing freely, and that’s why I made the change.”

The change was an overhaul of his grip. What used to be a tight, controlled grip became looser, allowing him to strike the ball more freely.

Ben didn’t play in any tournaments for six weeks over the summer, adjusting to his new grip. For someone who had played nearly every day for a decade, this shift in approach wasn’t easy.

“For a month, there were days where I’d practice for an hour and get wrist pains from the changing hand motions,” he said. “So I had to take time off.”

Cowan had been nudging his son to adjust his grip for years, and he was happy to see Ben step away from the game.

“This young man’s been playing seven days a week for 10 years,” Cowan said. “He’s got callouses on top of callouses. For him to take that kind of break was the first in his life.”

Ben’s teammate and close friend, fellow junior Will Register, felt his absence over the course of the summer. But he said it had a positive effect.

“It was probably needed,” Will said. “And the results have paid off because he worked really hard on it and he’s made a lot of improvements.”

It showed when Ben qualified for the U.S. Amateur Championship, tying for 11th in stroke play. Though still adjusting to his new style, the bright lights and television coverage of the high-profile event didn’t faze him.

“Yeah, there’s pressure, but there’s pressure every tournament you play in,” Ben said. “Why is it any different that it’s at a bigger stage? It’s just golf. You just gotta play it.”

***

Once a week, Ben and Cowan meet at Breadmen’s in Chapel Hill. Sitting underneath walls adorned with pictures tracking Ben’s career since middle school, their discussions briefly touch on golf but also bounce between academics, business and life.

These weekly breakfasts offer a chance for father and son to catch up, but they also illustrate what Cowan thinks is Ben’s greatest feature: his discipline.

“I doubt there’s a majority of college students that want to reach out to have breakfast with their parents,” Cowan said. “And breakfast meaning 8 o’clock in the morning or 9 o’clock in the morning.”

As Ben’s roommate, Will has a front-row seat to his teammate’s attitude and discipline. And for two decades, Cowan has seen how driven his son is. It’s an attribute that has and will continue to serve Ben well, both in the upcoming ACC Championships in Clinton, S.C., and when he tries to go pro after graduation.

“That says a lot about him; he works hard,” Cowan said. “If he’s got a job to do — if he’s got to be at practice, he’s there an hour early and he stays an hour late. If he’s got class, he’s on time, he’s there.”

For a natural like Ben, it’s all he’s ever known. And so far, the work has paid off.

sports@dailytarheel.com

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