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NCAA Championships

Slow-play penalty costs Virginia star his shot at national title

May 28, 2024
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Ben James hits a shot in the fourth round of stroke play.

C. Morgan Engel

CARLSBAD, Calif. — With a chance to force a playoff for the NCAA Division I men’s golf title on Memorial Day, Virginia sophomore Ben James watched his 15-foot birdie putt break hard left in front of the cup on the 18th hole of Omni La Costa Resort & Spa’s North Course. James would say later it wasn’t the best read. “Terrible putt,” he said.

That, however, is not the lost stroke that James, the fifth-ranked amateur in the world, will most remember from finishing in a six-way tie for second, one shot behind champion Hiroshi Tai of Georgia Tech. Most painful was the first round on Friday when James said that he and one of his playing partners, Baard Skogen of Texas Tech, were assessed one-stroke penalties for slow play. James said each received their penalty on the par-4 17th hole.

According to James, the third player in the group, Ben Lorenz of Oklahoma, did not receive a penalty.

With the added shot, James scored one-over-par 73, and then followed up with 71-69 to get into contention going into the final round, in which he scored 73 and came up one shot short.

“It’s a crazy game,” James told Golf Digest on Monday evening. “One shot. It’s the rules, but it sucks. It’s stings. There’s such a fine line in golf.”

James said the warning for slow play came on the 14th hole—in the aftermath of his trio scoring five over par at the par-4 13th. Both James, who hit his drive out of bounds, and Skogen suffered double bogeys and Lorenz a bogey. “A lot of unfortuante events," James said. "... We weren’t trying to slow up play. We were just trying to play our best golf.”

After the first round, James, the winner of the 2023 Phil Mickelson Award as the nation's top freshman, said he spoke to NCAA officials for 30 minutes to explain the situation from his viewpoint. “I knew the result wasn't going to change,” he said, “but I wanted to get everything out. And I think that was important. … It made me feel better giving my two cents.”

Considering the scores that James posted over the next two days, he was able to leave the issue behind.

“I played great. I had so much fun today,” James said. “It was so cool having all the people out there, and it felt like a tour event. I was smilling a lot and trying to enjoy in the best I can.”

James will get more opportunities in the tournament, with No. 3 seed Virginia taking on No. 6 Auburn in the match-play quarterfinals on Tuesday morning.