In the summer of 2012, Ben Kohles, a recent University of Virginia grad, thought he would wait to turn pro until after the U.S. Amateur. But at the last minute, he fell from 49th in the world amateur rankings to 51st, and he lost his spot.
Plan B: Write a letter to the tournament director of the Web.com Tour event in Columbus, Ohio, to gain a spot in that field the same week. Then the funny, career-altering part: Kohles won the event, making him the first player to win in his debut appearance on pro golf’s top minor league tour.
That got him into the next Web.com Tour event — and he won that, too. Suddenly, he was guaranteed a job for the next two years, because at the very least, those wins gave him automatic entry into Web.com Tour events for two seasons.
“I was probably going to play on the mini-tours and try to go through [qualifying] school,” Kohles said. “To kind of get that in the first week right out of the gate and [know] I had a spot to play the next two years definitely took a lot of pressure off.”
Which brings Kohles to Congressional Country Club, where he opened his first AT&T National Thursday with a 2-under-par 69 that left him just three shots off the lead held by Roberto Castro.
In some ways, Kohles’s Thursday — in which he made three bogeys in a four-hole stretch on the front side before rebounding with four birdies in five holes — fits in with his rookie season. At 23, he hasn’t played Congressional before this week, just as he hasn’t played almost any of the PGA Tour venues.
“It takes a while to figure out where everything is, how everything works out here,” he said.
Not to mention playing. Though he tied for seventh at the Tampa Bay Championship earlier in the year, he has but one top-10 finish and arrived at the AT&T National having missed six cuts in his past eight events. The 69, then, was a welcome reminder of how he got here.
Though the 489-yard 11th played, statistically, as the toughest hole in the first round, players spent more time discussing the par-5 ninth, which played from the back tee at 636 yards. Because the rough is thick, missing the fairway off the tee meant most players couldn’t reach the green in three — a recipe for bogey or worse.
“It’s a par 51 / 2,” Brandt Snedeker said. But Snedeker managed to figure it out a bit differently. He hooked his drive so far left that he decided to play up the adjacent fourth fairway. His second shot landed on one of the tee boxes there, and he figured he had 180 yards to the green. He hit a high 6-iron onto the green and drained a 55-footer for birdie.
“That was kind of stealing a couple there,” he said after his 69. . . .
Nick Watney was responsible for the shot of the day, a wedge from 148 yards that he holed out for eagle on No. 4.