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

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Ben James will make his PGA Tour debut at the Travelers. “It’s going to be great,” he said. “I’m going to have a lot of support out there. There’s going to be a pretty big crowd following me. It should be a great experience to see where my game tests against the best.”

Ben James will make his PGA Tour debut at the Travelers. “It’s going to be great,” he said. “I’m going to have a lot of support out there. There’s going to be a pretty big crowd following me. It should be a great experience to see where my game tests against the best.”

CSGA

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

“It’s still my primary car, imagine that?” he said. “I bought it about the time Ben started. I just won’t part with it. For a few reasons: A. It’s still running great; B. I can’t afford a new one with the prices they’re at right now.

“It has so many memories in it driving to golf tournaments.”

Stories from junior golf tournaments, far and wide, ride shotgun with those 430,000 miles. The journey has been a long one, yet as Ben James of Milford tees off this week at the Travelers Championship, his bio also will show he is 19 and only days removed from graduating from Hamden Hall Country Day School. The University of Virginia awaits.

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

“He’s elated,” Don said.

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

“It’s going to be great,” Ben said. “I’m going to have a lot of support out there. There’s going to be a pretty big crowd following me. It should be a great experience to see where my game tests against the best.”

James started swinging a club not long after he started walking. He played competitively when he was 4. He broke 90 at Great River Golf Club in Milford when he was 6 and broke 80 three years later. In 2013, Ben won the U.S. Kids Golf World Championship in the 10-year-old group.

His status continued to blossom. He was selected to the U.S. Junior Presidents Cup, the U.S. Junior Ryder Cup. He has won numerous junior tournaments. He also played in all his school events through his senior year. He didn’t big-time anyone.

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

So it is fitting to see him as both the reigning New Haven Register Player of the Year and the top-ranked junior golfer in the U.S, according to the American Junior Golf Association.

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

“Travelers has always done a great job,” Don said, “and this year an exceptional job of going local for young players.”

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

Travelers’ history of exemptions?

“Obviously, I’m aware of Patrick Cantlay,” Ben said.

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

Don laughs.

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

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

He will be at TPC River Highlands on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday in preparation for the Travelers’ first round. He is hopeful of playing Tuesday with his PGA Tour friend Lanto Griffin — “great guy, really personable and really good,” James said. He’ll either practice or play in the Celebrity Pro-Am on Wednesday. Peter Tomlinson will caddie for him.

“I’ll get in my three practice rounds and I’ll be more than fine,” James said. “Prepare well. Get a good plan. Roll it well. We’ll be dialed.”

How many times has he played TPC River Highlands?

“Not a lot,” James said. “Not as many as you guys would think. The last time was probably when I was 10, 11. I’m pretty much going in there blind. I also hit it 100 yards farther than I hit it when I was 10.”

He did the Birdies for Charity for three years. He got to play with Patrick Reed, when he first started, and Tom Pernice.

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

Ben watched on TV as Jordan Spieth won the 2017 Travelers with the earth-shattering bunker shot and last year in what he called “the super-long playoff.” That it was.

“My mom has pictures of us there from when I was young,” Ben said. “It’ll be pretty special playing instead of watching.”

James, an A student, has invited some of his teachers to the Travelers. Folks the family met and befriended at junior events are coming out. Some of Don’s high school friends will be there. Ben’s high school buddies are coming. Guys from the golf club who have known Ben since he was little. Friends, family — yeah, there should be a staunch contingent.

“Someone I haven’t seen in 10 years will probably come up,” Don said. “That’s the fun part of this. Our friends, our family, our supporters. That’s the No. 1 thing. People would loan us a house, or a have a friend we could stay with. So many people have helped us along the way.

“They’re seeing it now. This really is happening. It’s really materializing.”

After Travelers, James has the North & South Amateur, the Trans Mississippi Amateur, Western Amateur and, hopefully, will qualify for the U.S. Amateur. And then it’s off to college. He expects to be in Charlottesville around Aug. 20.

While he was in the sixth grade at East Shore Middle School, he made a verbal commitment to UConn. In time that would change to Virginia, but he does allow this.

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

When he made his unofficial visit as that sixth-grader, James walked the full length of the Gampel Pavilion basketball court on his hands. He was involved in parkour, a training regimen where athletes get from point A to point B in the most fluid ways possible.

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

Formerly assistant golf coach at Sacred Heart University, Don sells health insurance and has a small agency. He owns a number of Liberty Tax Service offices. Health insurance is busy November to January. Tax season is busy January to April. This has freed Don up to work with Ben in the warm months.

Asked to describe his role, Don said: “I don’t want to say coach. We’re at a level where a coach can’t follow Ben all around. I kind of see what’s going wrong from a different perspective than what he thinks is going wrong. So after we go to someone like (instructors) Tom Rosati or Todd Anderson, I can kind of deliver my observation.

“When they give him proper instruction, now I’ve learned and I can see what he’s doing. It’s hard on a golf swing to see what you’re doing yourself, right? So they diagnose it. They fix it. I kind of reconfirm it.”

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

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

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

“Some people have amazing talent,” Don said “I didn’t think Ben had ‘super’ talent. There’s nothing he did better than everybody else. Not like he hit it farther, was this exceptional putter, great chipper. I think Ben does the whole gamut well and he works hard at those things.

“He’s able to repeat and take instruction well. So he can fix things. We can self-correct. I think that’s Ben’s biggest attribute. When it goes wrong, we fix it fast and he is able to adjust.”

Don said the two aren’t necessarily sports or golf stats junkies. Ben will watch highlights, but he isn’t glued to the television every Sunday afternoon. Rather, they are process junkies.

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

“Our journey is to get to the PGA Tour. There were so many steps along the way. Now we’re embarking on the amateur/professional world combination. We want to be the best. It’s a process. Right tournaments, dissecting courses, getting instruction. It takes a team of people. Stick to our path. It has worked for us.”

The 2006 Honda Ridgeline, Don said, is no longer allowed to leave the state. He had trouble once with it and doesn’t want to take the risk. Longer trips call for a rental car. River Highlands is only 40 miles from Milford, and this is the state’s great sporting event.

“Oh, it will be at the Travelers,” Don James said.

So will his son.

jeff.jacobs@hearstmediact.com; @jeffjacobs123