After time away from golf, Ben Griffin finding his game in time for Rex Hospital Open

Sitting in a drawer at Ben Griffin’s parents’ home in Chapel Hill is a golf ball he had signed by Carl Pettersson at the Rex Hospital Open more than a dozen years ago.

Griffin, a solid junior golfer, had aspirations of playing professionally, though the closest he could get at the time was a spot in the gallery to watch up-and-comers on the Korn Ferry Tour, the primary feeder program for the PGA Tour.

Pettersson, an N.C. State grad, was hardly an up-and-comer. A five-time winner on the PGA Tour, including the 2006 Memorial, he was a big draw to the Rex at the time. His presence, along with many other current, former — and future — PGA Tour stars over the years, help make the Rex one of the region’s top sporting draws each summer. TOP ARTICLES Entering next season, NC State basketball coach Kevin Keatts expects to have critics Griffin slowly made the transition from awestruck onlooker, to invited exempted player, to among those contending for the crown. The latter is where he sits in 2022, a full member of the Korn Ferry Tour and currently ninth in points through 12 events as they take a swing through Chicago before landing in Raleigh next week.

“Back when I had conditional status in 2019, when I was playing the Rex then, it was more like I was soaking in the experience and really thinking it’s cool to be playing on this stage,” Griffin said. “Now, it’s more like I belong. I feel like I can do just as well as anyone out there.” Griffin truly believes that now. But not long ago, he wasn’t so sure.

STEPPING AWAY FROM THE GAME

Griffin was always somewhat of a local prodigy. As a high school freshman, he provided one of the more memorable finishes in North Carolina state tournament history when he chipped in on the second playoff hole at Pinehurst No. 6 to win the crown.

“I had a lot of highlights in my career, in the early stages of high school,” Griffin said. “It’s been a really cool journey.”

His journey took him from East Chapel Hill High School, to UNC, where he earned All-America Honorable Mentions in 2015 and 2017, All-America Scholar laurels in 2017 and 2018, and All-ACC plaudits in 2015 and 2018.

He won three individual titles at North Carolina and broke the program record for career scoring average (72.02), a record once held by Davis Love III. 

But he struggled, initially. It was hard to make things work financially; the grind was real. Still, with the Rex in his backyard, organizers saw fit to offer him an exemption into the field.

“Back in 2019, Brian (Krusoe, the tournament director) and the tournament staff extended me an exemption into the tournament as a conditional member of the tour, and it was extremely meaningful for me to get that in 2019. I was able to make the cut and earned a little bit of points that allowed me to reshuffle for the rest of the year.”

The following year, though, the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Sports shut down. And when some did return, events at the lower levels of every sport were slower to recover, making it that much more difficult for players to continue.

“It was kind of a tough journey for a lot of professional golfers throughout COVID,”

Griffin said. “If you weren’t really competing on the Korn Ferry Tour or the PGA Tour, there were kind of limited opportunities. I was kind of struggling a little bit financially and was starting to experience a little bit of burnout. … I was playing fine golf, but I wasn’t really seeing the hard work pay off, and it was hard for me to survive financially, struggling to pay rent. I didn’t want to ask people for money, didn’t want to ask my parents for money, so it was one of those things, I had to kind of step away.” Griffin went to work for a mortgage broker in the Triangle, taking a break from the sport he loved to recharge his batteries. At the time, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to keep playing. His break lasted about half a year.

BACK ON TRACK

“As I stepped away, some really cool people and close friends stepped in to help me financially to help me get back to golf,” Griffin said. “I took a few months at work really thinking about things, and eventually this past fall I made the decision to come back and try to qualify for the Korn Ferry Tour. That experience for me, stepping away from the game really kind of helped me reset mentally, and get my focus back on playing closer to how I was in junior golf.”

His time off did him some good. Since rejoining the Korn Ferry Tour last fall, Griffin has played some of the best golf of his career. He finished second in back-to-back events in February, has four top-10 finishes and seven top-25s, having earned more than $174,000 this season. His 728 points is ninth-best this season. Griffin played in Georgia this past weekend, and is headed to Chicago this week before returning “home,” to Raleigh. “I’ve been playing a full season, so I’ve been going pretty much from week to week, trying to stay competitive and stay sharp,”

Griffin said. “I feel like a lot of my work is kind of almost already done. I feel like I have a game plan for that golf course. I’m more trying to stay sharp with my game and have a good week in Chicago then transition into Raleigh and just practice a little bit and rest up. … I’ll probably play nine holes on Tuesday, nine holes in the pro-am on Wednesday, then tee it up on Thursday.” No longer needing an exemption to play in the Rex in 2022, Griffin’s got his sights set a bit higher.

“I’m still chasing that win down,” Griffin said. “Maybe it’ll come in Raleigh for our hometown event. That’d be really cool.”

Published at: https://www.newsobserver.com/sports/golf/article261709927.html#storylink=cpy