Reigning Mickelson Award winner Ben James is lurking at NCAA Men’s Golf Championship

CARLSBAD, Calif. — The results don’t show it, but Ben James believes he has played much better as a sophomore than he did as a freshman.

That’s hard to believe for James, let alone anyone comparing the seasons blindly next to each other. Last season, James won five times for Virginia and won the Phil Mickelson Award given to the Freshman of the Year. This year, he has no wins, only two top fives and six top-10 finishes.

“I’m actually playing a little bit better than last year,” James said Sunday after signing for a 3-under 69 in the third round of the NCAA Men’s Golf Championship at Omni La Costa Resort & Spa’s North Course. “I’ve been really consistent. All around, my game feels a bit better.”

He has had to remain patient, but perhaps that’s finally starting to pay off. James sits T-2 and two shots back of the lead with 18 holes to play in the race for the individual title. What would be his first win of the season would be the biggest yet of his career.

“It’s like shooting 61 and then having to come back it up the next day,” Virginia coach Bowen Sargent said. “You’ve got to be able to manage expectations, and I do think he has gotten better. The parts have gotten better this year.”

The winner of the NCAA individual championship would earn exemptions into the 2024 U.S. Open in a couple of weeks at Pinehurst No. 2 and also would earn a spot at the 2025 Masters, given they accept the exemptions as amateurs. The lone player in front of James, Ohio State’s Adam Wallin, is a senior.

No pressure, right?

“Stuff just happens for a reason,” James said. “If it’s my day, it’s my day.”

Wallin also shot 3 under on Sunday and is two ahead of James. Vilips led by five entering the day but signed for 4-over 76 and is T-2 alongside James.

And James would be a shot closer if not for a pace-of-play penalty during Friday’s first round. However, his patience through that situation, and the season in general, are why James is clicking when it matters most.

“Being patient and letting things kind of come to you, that’s hard when you’re a great player because you’re used to taking the bull by the horns a little bit,” Sargent said, “but being patient is a big part of his game, and hopefully this week is his week.”

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek