From UNC to pro golf, Griffin willing to be patient, pay his dues

Ben Griffin is like so many young golfers on the Tour.

Started playing golf as soon as he could walk. Won everything as a junior. All-America in college. Confident and ambitious. Wants to be on the PGA Tour as soon as he can.

But Griffin, like many before him, has come to realize few enjoy a rapid ascent in professional golf. It’s all about taking the necessary steps, learning to deal with the grind, with the competition. That’s what Brooks Koepka did and look at him now.

A Chapel Hill native, Griffin is a 23-year-old rookie on the Tour. The Rex Hospital Open is his third event this year for the former North Carolina golfer and his 3-under 68 Thursday -- with a birdie at the 18th hole -- the kind of start he wanted at the Country Club at Wakefield Plantation.

Joseph Bramlett, who played college golf at Stanford, took the first-round lead with a 7-under 64 on a hot, muggy day with temperatures in the 90s.

Griffin, with an afternoon start, had a 4-under 32 on his front nine to move his name up the leader boards. He fell off with bogeys at the 11th and 14th holes, then had the birdie at the 18th, holing a 12-foot putt.

“I just tried to keep the round really simple,” he said. “I kept plugging along, kept it in the right spots. Had two bogeys but they weren’t really bad bogeys. I kind of got some weird bounces on those holes. Overall, it was really solid.”

One of Griffin’s playing partners Thursday was Matt Hill, who won the NCAA individual title in 2009 for N.C. State and was thought to be a can’t-miss type after 10 college victories. Except Hill has mostly missed since having some early success on the Canadian Tour. His pro career has been a struggle and he made his way into the Rex field through Monday qualifying.

Hill, like Griffin, was 2-under through 16 holes. But a triple-bogey 7 at the 17th hole derailed his round and he finished with a 72.

Griffin doesn’t have as much pro golf scar tissue as Hill. After completing his college eligibility with UNC last spring, he joined the Mackenzie Tour-PGA Tour Canada and won his sixth start -- the Staal Foundation Open in Thunder Bay, Ont.

It proved to be an emotional week. Griffin’s father, Cowan, had planned to miss the tournament to attend the funeral of Cowan’s uncle. But after the funeral, he hopped an early flight that Sunday from Raleigh to Minneapolis and then drove seven hours to Thunder Bay.

“He surprised me at the turn,” Ben Griffin said. “I had nine putts on the back nine to shoot 30 and won by one.”

Griffin, who birdied the last three holes for a 64, soon found himself holding the trophy and surrounded by Staals -- Jordan, Eric, Marc and Jared. “A surreal experience,” he called it.

“It was huge for me,” said Griffin, whose winning check was for $36,000. “It meant I moved up the Order of Merit in Canada and kind of secured it to get on this ( tour. It was a breakthrough win.”

Griffin has had a few breakthroughs in golf. He won the 2011 US Kids Golf-Teen World Championship in Pinehurst. As a freshman at East Chapel Hill High, he chipped in to win a playoff for the first of his two state titles. A first-team AJGA Rolex All-America in 2013, he won the Rolex Tournament of Champions.

Griffin said he had some down times in college, saying he had a “sophomore slump.” But he was an All-America at UNC as a junior, he said, and the team successful his senior year as he prepared to make the jump to pro golf.

“It’s definitely been a change,” he said. “You don’t have as much of a support system. Travel is the toughest thing. But I enjoy the challenges. I’ve worked through the process and it’s been a pretty easy transition for me.”

Griffin said he will play in a U.S. Open sectional qualifier on Monday, saying, “I’ll leave right after the round Sunday.”

Meaning he plans on playing all four rounds of the Rex and make his first Tour cut?

“I would hope so.”