Chapel Hill’s Ben Griffin is 5-foot-7 and 125 pounds soaking sweat from a summer afternoon on the golf course. He turned 15 last month and is a freshman at East Chapel Hill High.
He is also the state high school 4A golf champion after winning on the second playoff hole at Pinehurst No. 6 last month. He beat a relative behemoth, a senior from Greenville Rose who is 3 inches and 40 pounds bigger and left the course in shock after the pipsqueak from Chapel Hill beat him by chipping in for a par on the 38th hole of the two-day tournament.
The son of Cowan and Erika Griffin, who own Carolina Realty, Ben is a modest and well-mannered champion. But he swings as hard as Tiger Woods and has a funny little hitch at the top reminiscent of a few pros you’ve never heard of. To say not-so-big Ben goes after the ball is an understatement.He draws the club back a bit more smoothly lately, thanks to tips from Chapel Hill Country Club Head Pro Rick Brannon, but then dips his right shoulder and attacks the ball with a swing speed estimated at 105 miles per hour. For reference, most pros swing at 115 mph.
The results are amazingly consistent for Ben, who has grown five inches since last August and his body now resides somewhere between baby fat and muscle mass. His pediatrician predicts he will eventually be 6-feet tall, about the same height as his father.
Despite the unconventional swing, the result is almost always a sweet shot from the sweet spot on the club face. A clean “thwack” that is music to most golfers’ ears follows, as Ben’s ball leaves the tee or the turf like a Lear Jet turning up its nose. He remembers “swinging as hard as I can” from the first time he held a golf club at 11 months old.
“I like to swing hard, and most of the time I need to because I am playing against bigger guys,” Ben said over a practice round at the country club. “Most of the time, I don’t even watch the guy I am playing with or against in competition, because I don’t want to start thinking I have to hit it as far as he does. ‘Play your own game’ is a cliché, but it’s true in golf. If you can hit the ball, then it’s mostly mental, controlling your emotions. If I make a bad shot, I try to forget about it and concentrate on the next shot or the next hole. Golf is a gentleman’s game, and that helps me in everything I do.”
Ben Griffin played soccer from 4-8 and then baseball from 9-11. He was an occasional golfer back then, playing once or twice a month with his father in Chapel Hill and at Myrtle Beach. In 2004, Cowan entered his son in a 9-hole tournament, and Ben shot a 43 without really knowing what he was doing. But he liked the feeling of being out there competing alone.
“I liked being in control of what I did and not having to depend on teammates to make a play, or letting them down if I made a mistake,” Ben said. “I thought I’d be better off playing an individual sport.”
So, at 11, golf became his game, and soon he was breaking 80 and eventually shooting par. He won his first tournament at 12 by hitting the green with a 5-iron on the last hole and two-putting for the par. It made him feel so good that he knew what he wanted to do from that point on, practice and play every day possible so he could keep improving.
Ben has already fired a 65 from the back tees (7,000 yards) at Chapel Hill, but his low round is a 63 at Carolina Trace. His first hole-in-one came on December 20, 2008 – “a 7 iron from 139 yards on No. 2” – at CHCC. When Ben Griffin rockets a 5-iron from 210 yards on No. 15, and it heads right for the pin, he says “go in” like he means it, because he does.
There are lots of aces in the future of this honor student at East who hopes to get a golf scholarship to college and eventually play professionally. First comes his driver’s license next year, when he’ll be able to go to tournaments on his own and “take the pressure off my parents driving me everywhere so they can work.”
Cowan and Erika watched Ben win the U.S. Kids in Pinehurst last summer, beating 135 other players from around the country in his age group. It was a year after he had finished ninth in the event by starting the last round bogey-double bogey and finishing bogey-double bogey; in between, he made seven birdies to shoot 71. He was determined to qualify again the following year and win it, which he did by shooting three-under par over three days on Pinehurst No. 8.
That propelled him in the Junior Golf Scoreboard rankings to No. 3 in the state, No. 28 in the nation and No. 35 in the world amongst the high school class of 2014. The Tar Heel Youth Golf Association (TYGA) has him ranked No. 1 in North Carolina. Finally, he is old enough to gain an American Junior Golf Association (AJGA) ranking and play in his first North-South Juniors in July from “the tips” of Pinehurst No. 8, 5 and 4.
Thanks to what he did in the high school championship, he won’t be getting any more “who’s that?” looks and snickers when he shows up carrying a golf bag almost as big as he is. Playing as an individual because the East team failed to qualify, Ben found himself one shot behind Greenville’s Andrew Decker, a senior headed to N.C. State on a golf scholarship this fall, after the first round.
Ben shot a 69 and Decker a 68, but after Griffin‘s 35 on the front nine of the second round he held a one-shot lead over Decker. His only bogey of the day on the 18th hole left him in a tie and playoff with his bigger, older and more experienced opponent. They went back to No. 18, a 430-yard par 4 on Pinehurst No. 6. Both made par, when Ben’s birdie putt burned the right side of the hole.
Back to No. 18 again. This time, Decker teed off first and hit his drive into as fairway bunker. Ben bombed his 270 down the right side, but hooked his 6-iron approach into a greenside trap after Decker chunked his second shot into the middle of the fairway and then left himself a 30-foot par putt with another chunk. Ben hit a flyer out of the bunker and it rolled off the back of the green.
Both players were lying three and tiring as the sun was setting behind the pines.
“I had almost the exact line on the first playoff hole, so I knew when my chip hit the green it was going slightly left to right,” Ben said. He landed the ball exactly where he wanted and as it started rolling toward the hole, he raised his club in the air. “I knew it was either going in or hitting the flag.”
It dropped in for a par 4, as friends and family from Chapel Hill whooped it up around the green. Decker was so shaken up that he left his par putt four feet short.
State champion Ben Griffin. Remember the name. The kid’s got game.