How burnout helped Ben Griffin rediscover his competitive edge
Spent time as mortgage loan officer before earning TOUR card via 2022 Korn Ferry Tour
November 14, 2022
By Kevin Prise , PGATOUR.COM
- Ben Griffin grew up in North Carolina and now resides in St. Simons Island, Georgia. (Courtney Culbreath/Getty Images)
Ben Griffin remembers the scene like it was yesterday.
It’s the 2011 North Carolina high school 4A state golf championship. Griffin, a 4-foot-11 freshman, is pitted against senior Andrew Decker in a playoff at Pinehurst No. 6. On the second extra hole, the par-4 18th, Griffin’s approach finds a greenside bunker; he catches the bunker shot thin and the ball sails over the green.
With Decker facing a 15-footer for par, Griffin holes his par chip. Decker misses, and suddenly the freshman is a state champion.
“I had never played in front of cameras or anything, and there are all these news stations filming, 200 people watching,” Griffin said. “All the high school teams are watching, all the parents … I picked the line, hit the line, it bounced straight and went right in the middle. It was nuts.
“I had watched so many films of Tiger and all these people that were so calm and collected in those moments, whereas I knew I was shaking. I was shaking and I just hit it, and I tried to have this fierce look because I’m 14 years old, 4-foot-11, new kid on the block … I was the 4A state champion, having not gone through puberty. My voice was super high. It was crazy.”
Griffin remembers the scene because he has loved the game since childhood in North Carolina. His passion, inherited from his dad Cowan and grandpa Douglas, propelled him to a college career at North Carolina, where he was twice an honorable mention All-American, and a 2018 win on PGA TOUR Canada in his first summer as a pro.
In his first full Korn Ferry Tour season, in 2022, he earned a PGA TOUR card. In his fourth TOUR start as a member, he led on the back nine at the Butterfield Bermuda Championship before finishing T3. The rookie is set to conclude a successful fall at The RSM Classic in his adopted hometown of Sea Island, Georgia, this week.
To look at him, you’d never know Griffin almost gave up professional golf for good.
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Get to know: Ben Griffin
James Oh has spent his career in golf, first as a player on the PGA TOUR and Korn Ferry Tour, and now as a swing coach across tours in men’s and women’s golf. He says there are two main reasons he’ll get a call from a pupil – “it’s one of two things; you’re either getting married or you’re getting fired.”
This was neither. It was spring 2021, and Griffin was calling to say he was walking away. A feel player who never had a consistent swing coach as a kid, Griffin synced with Oh’s ethos as one of the game’s least technical instructors.
Along the way, though, Griffin had fallen into one of professional golf’s inherent traps: an abundance of free time. He’d tinker for the sake of tinkering.
“He was videotaping his swing, changing equipment, all the things he never did,” said his trainer, Randy Myers. “He became that guy that he didn’t want to ever become.”
Griffin trusted his work with Oh, which he describes as a series of small tweaks rather than massive overhauls – “16 things I’ve probably got to do a bit differently for me to be the No. 1 player in the world” – and felt his game improving. But he was in status no-man’s land, having lost his Korn Ferry Tour status after 2019 and missed at Q-School before the pandemic hiatus. What’s more, the combination of financial stress and mental uncertainty didn’t improve matters – “getting beat down by trying to do Monday qualifier after Monday qualifier,” Myers said.
The unbridled joy of that high school freshman had dwindled away to almost nothing.
“I was so burnt out at golf,” Griffin said. “I didn’t have the love for the game.”
In that respect, he was like 77% of respondents in a recent Deloitte survey who said they’ve experienced burnout at their current job. The question was what to do next.
Opting for a clean break, Griffin took the required coursework, passed accreditation tests at the state and national level, and became a licensed mortgage loan officer at CIMG Residential Mortgage in his native Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
“If you’re going to get away from it, get away from it,” Oh said. “That’s the only thing as a player that’s going to drive you back, and if you don’t have the motivation to come back, you shouldn’t do it. You shouldn’t have someone else tell you that you should do it. You’ve got to want to do it. And I knew that with how good of a player he was, he just needed to really get away from it to … want to come back.”
Anxious to start with CIMG, Griffin admits he “barely passed” his accreditation tests. Colleague Karen Lorbacher, a loan coordinator, showed him the ropes.
“She taught me everything that I learned,” he said.
By the beginning of June, Griffin was up to speed and joining realtors at networking events, trying to generate business. A normal day was 8:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m., but it could stretch to a 14-hour day (7 a.m. – 9 p.m.) if things got busy.
In his mind, he was a mortgage loan officer, not a professional golfer.Ben Griffin in his element at CIMG Residential Mortgage in North Carolina. (Courtesy of Ben Griffin)
Coming back to golf
Griffin’s grandpa Douglas, whose motto was “Hit them long and straight,” passed away that July. One day shortly after his grandfather’s death, Griffin felt compelled to pull into a golf course on the way to work. He wondered if it was a sign.
Meanwhile, Mike Swann and Jesse Ahearn, members at Highland Springs CC in Springfield, Missouri – longtime host venue of the Korn Ferry Tour’s Price Cutter Charity Championship presented by Dr Pepper – insisted on flying him out for the event’s Monday qualifier. Griffin got time off and carded 65 to advance into the field, and although he missed the cut, he stuck around Sunday as Dylan Wu, a friend from PGA TOUR Canada, won to secure his first PGA TOUR card.
As all of that was happening, trainer Myers revealed that Doug Sieg, a mutual friend and the managing partner of investment firm Lord, Abbett & Co. LLC, wanted to sponsor Griffin. Sieg had been interested in a potential sponsorship earlier in the summer, but Griffin was committed to his new job as a loan officer. The knowledge that he was headed to a Korn Ferry Tour qualifier changed things.
Things were falling into place for him to be a golfer again.
“Doug said, ‘I’m not going to do this with anyone else but Ben,’” Myers said. “The reason, ‘It doesn’t need to be someone on TOUR; all I need is someone who is good with my clients and in clinics, and Ben’s the perfect guy.’ It was just, ‘I love this kid, regardless of what he wants to do, how far he’s going. I think we can help him out.’”
With his new sponsorship, and hungry to play again, Griffin was positioned to make another run at his original career choice. It was bittersweet to inform his team at CIMG that he was leaving, but he couldn’t let the opportunity pass him by.
He advanced through First Stage and Second Stage of Korn Ferry Tour Q-School last fall, carrying his bag at both events, before authoring a third-round 64 at Final Stage in Georgia en route to securing guaranteed starts with a stroke to spare. He called both Myers and Sieg during a rain delay from a drab motel outside Savannah, with Sieg gently chiding him that better accommodations were in his future.
As he built back his confidence throughout the 2022 Korn Ferry Tour season, he paid more attention to nutrition and sought out rental houses to allow for cooking and meal-prep. He adopted a vegan diet and limited his drinking, although he could be forgiven a libation at the Korn Ferry Tour graduation ceremony in Omaha in August.
“Everything helps together,” Griffin said. “Having a team supporting me has given me a clear mind. Eating healthy is going to make me feel better when I’m out there. Not drinking alcohol is going to keep my mind clear and not foggy. There are so many things off the golf course that affect your golf game more than you even think.”Ben Griffin in the kitchen at home in St. Simons Island, Georgia. (Kevin Prise/PGA TOUR)
The day after this interview, Griffin carded a 59 in a casual round at Sea Island Golf Club’s Plantation Course. He holed out from 155 yards to do so. He finished fourth at the TOUR’s 2021-22 Regular Season-ending Wyndham Championship (competing on a sponsor exemption) and experienced a weekend in the spotlight in Bermuda.
With his three runner-up finishes on the 2022 Korn Ferry Tour, Griffin put together one of professional golf’s most complete seasons without a victory.
“Having people who could help him out and get him going again and find that love for the game again … I think for him, seeing the other side of it, even for the short period of time that he was doing it, gave him that motivation to go out there and get it done,” said fellow North Carolina native Ben Kohles, who lived at Sea Island during Griffin’s first stint as a pro, when the two practiced together frequently.
“Stepping away from it at times can really give you the determination to get back out there and figure it out, and that’s what we’re all out here trying to do.”
Griffin’s break, however brief, was vitally important.
“He had to take it,” said Myers. “He probably wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t. He would’ve quit but never come back. I think he quit when he was still good, which is a good thing, but it’s also one of those things where it drives you back to the game.”
“I had never had significant time away from the game like that,” he said. “Having that reset, it’s so valuable, way more valuable than I had ever imagined. Regardless of what you do in life, it’s important to step back and take a breath. People always say, ‘Get your mind off it. Breathe.’ Golf is what I needed to be playing all along.”