Milford’s Ben James impresses in first PGA Tour appearance, relishes the opportunity

CROMWELL — There was some disappointment in Ben James’ voice following his second round at the Travelers Championship.

The opportunity to make a cut in his first PGA Tour event was a realistic possibility for the recent Hamden Hall Country Day graduate. James, 19, made six birdies on the day, which included holing out from the greenside bunker on the par-3 16th.

James ended up shooting a 1-under-par 69 on Friday, finishing a few strokes over the cut line.

“Yeah, I thought I was going to do it,” James said. “After birdieing 1, which was my 10th hole, I was thinking right there I could get another chance, and then after I made back-to-back birdies on 5 and 6, and then had a really horrible break on 7 and made two fine pars coming in, but it’s golf.”

James received a sponsor’s exemption from the Travelers Championship to play in the event. Travelers has a long history of giving top-flight amateurs exemptions to turn pro at its event each year. James will begin his freshman year at the University of Virginia in a couple of months.

But James is a special case. He rose to the No. 1 spot in the nation among junior golfers. He qualified to play for both the 2019 U.S. Junior Presidents Cup and the 2021 U.S. Junior Ryder Cup. Earlier this month, he had a 10-foot birdie putt in a sudden-death playoff to qualify for the U.S. Open. He missed it and missed out on his first major championship.

The call came the next morning from Travelers tournament director Nathan Grube, offering the sponsor’s exemption.

“Ben is an incredibly talented young man with a bright future. We were thrilled to have him here this year,” Grube said.

Family, friends, former teammates, classmates and staff at Hamden Hall, including Keith Kaliszewski, his golf coach at Hamden Hall, were in the gallery. So was Great River GC teaching pro Tom Rosati, who has helped coach James since before he was a teenager, and Bill Wallis, the head pro at New Haven Country Club, where James played his home golf matches at Hamden Hall.

“It was phenomenal having all the crowds out there supporting me. Really special, and just so blessed to have the opportunity to be here and be playing the game I love,” James said. “My family doesn’t come out to too many because they’re not really from here. So it’s really special having them around and having their support. I mean, it’s so cool.”

James’ 36-hole total was the same as a former Masters and Travelers champion (Jordan Spieth), better than Rickie Fowler and Joaquin Niemann (both at 143) and Jason Day (145), in addition to his playing partners, Seth Reeves and Justin Lower.

James’ future is bright — with some security behind him. Athletes of all ages can now get into the NIL game: Name, Image and Likeness. James signed on with GSE Worldwide just two days ago, according to associate agent Zack Allen.

GSE Worldwide can get James apparel deals while he plays national amateur events this summer, like the Western Amateur in Chicago or the North-South at Pinehurst, North Carolina. In fact, GSE Worldwide has already worked out an NIL deal with James and Transcend Capital Advisors, which is an independent investment advisor.

“Now kids have the opportunity to have sponsors and backing so families are not running themselves broke paying for their kids’ golf,” Allen said. “Now we have the opportunity to provide him with deals and partners who are hopefully here for the long term and want to be there for him throughout his career. We want to build those relationships now. I’m really glad the NCAA did this. The kids deserve it, the families deserve it. I’m blessed and thankful that he chose us as the ones to represent him.”

James cannot wear anything but Virginia apparel during the college tournaments.

“He’s just a great humble kid who puts his head down and goes about his business,” Allen said. “He comes from a good family and has a work ethic unlike someone I’ve ever seen on that level.”

Longtime PGA Tour pro J.J. Henry spent some time with James early in the week. The Fairfield native is impressed by the youngster.

“He is a hell of a player,” Henry said. “That’s pretty impressive. Shooting two pretty respectable scores. That’s a wonderful deal. I like to think that for over two decades, I’ve kind of carried the Connecticut flag. Maybe it’s his turn to pass the torch. He seems like a fun kid to be around and a really good ambassador for the game and for the state of Connecticut. Any way I can help him, I look forward to doing it.”

Now everyone gets a chance to see how James will fare against the world’s best amateurs. He does have one more stop in state: at the Connecticut Open in late July. It is being held at New Haven CC.

The memories of his first two rounds in a PGA Tour event will remain — and serve as motivation to get there one day to stay.

“We got treated like tour players and it’s higher than what my expectations were. It’s awesome,” James said.

joseph.morelli@hearstmediact.com; @nhrJoeMorelli