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Who's James Nicholas? A pre-med Yale grad who just fired 61; that's who

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – On Sunday, at 8:44 p.m., James Nicholas randomly fired off this text message in advance of the Monday morning qualifier for this week’s Korn Ferry Challenge:

“(I don’t know) why but I just got a wave of this come over me,” Nicholas wrote to his agent, Rob Mougey. “I’m so done with all this waiting. I need to get into these events and start making a name for myself. I know Monday qualifiers are a long shot but there’s gonna be 4 players make it through. Why not me? Time to make it happen.”

Nicholas was right about the odds – they were long. With so much pent-up demand after 15 weeks off, there were 264 total players and four spots available at each of the two qualifying sites. The field included a five-time PGA Tour winner, a pair of European Tour winners and more than $92 million in PGA Tour earnings, according to the Monday Q Info Twitter account.

But Nicholas was right in another sense, too: Why not him?

The next day, he fired a bogey-free 61 to lead that distinguished pack of qualifiers. By five shots.

“This is it,” Nicholas said by phone this week. “This is what I’ve been waiting for.”

The late entry set off a whirlwind 24 hours: extending a rental car, finding hotel accommodations, hiring a caddie. Those duties were happily fulfilled by Mouger, allowing Nicholas – in another first – to drive to the local Mayo Clinic early Tuesday morning for his mandatory coronavirus testing. His first practice round was washed out after 13 holes, but that mattered little. The 23-year-old was thrilled to be able to make his Korn Ferry Tour debut this week at TPC Sawgrass, the latest star turn for this fast riser.

Full-field scores from the Korn Ferry Challenge at TPC Sawgrass

While in high school he was a multi-sport athlete, recruited by colleges to play football, hockey, golf and lacrosse. He eventually chose to play football and golf at Yale; at 6 feet tall and 206 pounds, he played his freshman season as a strong safety for the Bulldogs. He quit football his sophomore year and focused solely, for the first time, on golf. After posting a 74.5 scoring average his freshman year, he shaved it down to a stout 69.1 during his senior season, earning 2019 Ivy League Player of the Year honors.

“I put in tons of work,” he said.

He’d practice for three hours in the morning, go to class for five hours, practice for four more hours in the afternoon and then study until 11 p.m. During the winter, he’d sometimes sleep in the team’s indoor practice facility; a few times he was kicked out by the school’s security guards. He grinded just as hard on his studies. On a pre-med track at an Ivy League institution, he thought about following the path of his father and grandfather, both of whom were orthopedic surgeons. His grandfather famously operated on Joe Namath’s knee and developed the brace that Namath wore while leading the New York Jets to victory in Super Bowl III.

But the delayed gratification of med school and training didn’t align with his career desires. Once he made match play at the 2017 U.S. Amateur, Nicholas glanced at the leaderboard – and in particular, at some boldfaced names that missed the 36-hole cut – and thought for the first time that he might have the goods to go pro. “If I can beat them today,” he said, “why can’t I beat them every time? I wanted to see how good I could get.”

After graduating in spring 2019, Nicholas advanced all the way to the final stage of Korn Ferry Tour Q-School, missing full status by a few shots but earning a conditional card for this season.

His first year as a pro has been frustrating. He was a top-three alternate in Panama, Colombia and Mexico but never got into the field. His prospects began to brighten once he received sponsor exemptions into both Louisiana events – and then those were the first tournaments canceled once the coronavirus pandemic shut down the sports world.

The three-month layoff and condensed 2020 schedule have created even deeper fields, at least for now, and so Nicholas realized the only way to gain entry into these upcoming events was to Monday qualify. For the past few months he dedicated himself to his craft, playing and practicing every day at the Floridian, relying on his girlfriend, America Richmond, an Instagram-famous chef, for meals, and working with a trainer to add more flexibility and stability to his now-175-pound frame. 

“It’s nice to see that pay off immediately,” he said.

The challenge of Monday qualifying – the massive field, the blind target, the low score – is over. Now his plan is simple: “Play great here.” A top-25 finish earns him a spot in next week’s tournament in St. Augustine, and that’s easily attainable while he’s on this heater.

Those who have played with Nicholas have come away impressed, and he has a strong support team around him.

When he tapped out that text Sunday night, his agent quickly replied.

“I love it! We are pushing! You will make it happen! You will be a superstar on tour!!!”

Nicholas was right.

Why not him?