Five summers ago, Ryan Kohler bought a $100 set of golf clubs and started playing with his buddies at Walpole's Hooper Golf Club.
A former Keene State pitcher who had graduated that spring, Kohler quickly became hooked and hatched a plan to improve. While living with his parents in Alstead over the winter of 2007-08, he started ordering range balls online and hitting them into a vast, snow-blanketed field adjacent to his folks' home.
Because he couldn't retrieve most of the balls until the snow melted, Kohler kept replenishing his supply. He estimates he ordered 4,000 balls that winter.
“I hit so many balls that my grips had the remnants of my hands on them,” Kohler said. “They were a little covered in blood. I took it a little too far.”
Although he hit many wayward shots into the woods bordering his parents' property, Kohler eventually found a groove. He broke par for the first time in 2008, qualified for the New Hampshire Golf Association State Amateur in 2009 and last year made the State Am semifinals.
Starting tomorrow, this self-taught golfer who now lives in the tiny village of Spofford will make his national debut. Thanks to rounds of 74-68 in a recent qualifier, Kohler earned a U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship berth.
Last Thursday, Kohler traveled to Midway, Utah, to begin preparing for the U.S. Golf Association's national championship for public-course players at Soldier Hollow Golf Course. Two other southwestern New Hampshire golfers — Keene's Chelso Barrett and New Ipswich's Damon Salo — will join Kohler in the Public Links field. Barrett, the 2012 NHGA State Junior champion, earned an exemption with his runner-up finish at the 2011 U.S. Junior Amateur, while Salo, a rising sophomore at Florida's Johnson & Wales University, also qualified.
While Barrett and Salo have honed their games as juniors, the 28-year-old Kohler spent his youth playing baseball. After graduating from Fall Mountain Regional High School in 2002, he pitched four years for the Owls, mostly as a starter. He still considers baseball his favorite sport, and when he's not working as a self-employed graphic designer or playing golf, he moonlights as a member of the Walpole Wild Blue in the Connecticut River Valley Baseball League.
Golf has given Kohler another way to scratch his competitive itch. During Public Links qualifying on a sweltering day at Bretwood's North Course last month, he was 3-over par through nine holes of his morning round but battled back to even before a last-hole double bogey left him “borderline out of it,” as he put it.
After an early bogey in the afternoon, however, Kohler played 5-under par the rest of the way and earned medalist honors, one stroke ahead of Salo, who birdied the last two holes to qualify. Earning a trip to Utah was a surprise, acknowledged Kohler, whose previous tournament highlight was his semifinal run at last year's State Am, where he lost to eventual champion Jim Cilley. “I'm not even sure if qualifying actually crossed my mind,” he said.
Kohler was a little anxious about the trip's cost, he said, but golfers at Hooper and Vermont's Brattleboro Country Club, where Kohler also plays, have stepped up to help. Hooper declared last Sunday “Ryan Kohler Day” and raised nearly $1,000 in donations to defray Kohler's tournament expenses, while Brattleboro players chipped in more than $700, said Ron Rosko, Hooper's head pro.
Although Kohler no longer plays with his $100 set, his bag isn't flush with the latest clubs. After wearing out the face of his driver recently, he borrowed a replacement from a friend that Brattleboro head pro Eric Sandstrum estimates was at least six or seven years old.
“He just plays with what he has, and he learns to hit it,” said Sandstrum, who lives in Swanzey. To help Kohler compete favorably with the nation's elite amateurs, Sandstrum let him borrow a driver and a hybrid featuring up-to-date technology.
No matter what equipment he's using, Kohler has drawn notice with his aggressive play.
“It doesn't seem like he has any fear,” said Cilley, who lost to Kohler in the 2010 State Am before exacting revenge last year. “Sometimes you play conservatively because you know what the outcome could be if you don't pull a shot off, but Ryan doesn't seem to ever let that faze him. He just goes after it.”
Although he'll miss this week's State Am while in Utah, Kohler will have several New Hampshire supporters following his progress, including his father, Joe, and possibly the guy who delivered all the range balls Kohler hit into his parents' field.
“The UPS driver still asks how Ryan's doing,” Joe said.
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Through the green: Thirty-one girls will tee off Thursday in the NHWGA Junior Girls' Championship at Intervale. Windham's Lauren Thibodeau will defend the title she won as an 11-year-old last year. ... Seven New Hampshire players will compete in the New England Women's Golf Association Championship starting tomorrow in Vassalboro, Maine: Suzanne Flynn (Pease), Rowena Wilks (Country Club of New Hampshire), Shannon Biehl (Cochecho), Jean Johnston (Plausawa Valley), Lisanne Schmidt (Eastman), Alexandra Schmidt (Eastman) and Nicole Tombs (Concord). ... Manchester's Dylan Cowette (72) won the NHGA Eagle Division junior tournament at Newport last Tuesday. Brookstone's Kaitlyn Lutinski (87) won the girls' division. ... Stonebridge's Zach Storro (72) won the Hoodkroft Junior Open last Thursday. Thibodeau (79) won the girls' division.
Mike Cullity's column on New Hampshire golf appears weekly during the golf season in the New Hampshire Sunday News. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.