Growing up in San Jose, golfer Shintaro Ban also was a competitive swimmer. But even the most weekend warrior of golfers can tell you that the greens and fairways can drop you right in the deep end, too.
Ban was a standout recruit in 2014, coming to UNLV on the heels of winning the Junior Golf Association of Northern California’s Player of the Year award. But he was foundering with the Rebels. He was hardly playing with the team and was left behind for tournaments.
“I was pretty homesick and it was hard. I thought, ‘Hey, you're not traveling at all. If you're going to miss home, may as well go back home,” Ban said. “But I came here for a reason.’”
It was an early reckoning. Ban would soon figure out how to balance school and golf, by making sure he wasn’t up too late that he was tired for practice. He would learn to focus on the weaknesses on his game instead of skating by on the things he already did well, like hitting long off the tee. By his second semester, Ban was an integral member of the team. He would go on to All-America accolades and a spot in Rebel record books with an all-time university low of 62 in one tournament.
Four years and one economics bachelor’s later, on June 14, just before 9 a.m. on a clear Long Island morning, Ban found himself at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club. He teed off between 12-year PGA pro Sung Joon Park and 11-year veteran Tim Wilkinson in the 2018 U.S. Open.
“It didn't quite sink in until after the first round,” Ban said. “It was like ‘Wow, I played a round in the U.S. Open.’ It was the most fun I've really ever had. To be out there experiencing my first day playing my first professional event, it was definitely something special.”
Shinnecock, though, was unforgiving. Some of the top players in the world struggled out of the gate. Ban carded an 81 on the first day, rebounded with a 78 in the second round, but joined the likes of top-flight pros like Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, and Tiger Woods in missing the cut. Former UNLV golfer and Masters winner Adam Scott likewise missed.
Rickie Fowler, who finished tied for 20th, shot an 84 in the third round. So at least, if playing on a course that rough-and-tumble was a lesson, it’s one Ban shared with some of the best golfers on the planet.
“I'm glad I got the experience and a good, brutal beat-down,” Ban said.
The experience was different but the lesson was the same as it was in his freshman year: after a huge challenge on the course, it’s time to put in the work.
So instead of turning pro right after graduation, Ban is staying amateur through the summer to fine-tune parts of his game that he saw were lacking compared to pros at the Open. The Pacific Coast Amateur, where he finished two over and tied for 28th, and the U.S. Amateur Championship at Pebble Beach Aug. 13-19 — the tournament won by the likes of Bobby Jones, Arnold Palmer, Tiger Woods and former Rebel Ryan Moore — Ban expects to be his last as an amateur.
When he does turn pro, UNLV coach Dwaine Knight expects Ban to quickly establish himself as both a player and a personality.
“The thing about Shintaro I really liked was he has a lot of creativity in a lot of different ways. He loves dancing; he's an unbelievable dancer,” Knights said. “He's a fun-loving guy besides being a great player. I think he's going to have a bright future at the next level because he's so creative, and people gravitate to him. He'll endear himself to the fans.”
Delaying the move to the pros did have one notable upside for Ban. It meant he got to play in the Palmer Cup in July, in Évian-les-Bains, France, on the shores of Lake Geneva.
The Palmer Cup is the collegiate version of the Ryder Cup, pitting a team of Americans against their European counterparts. The U.S. squad defeated Europe handily, with Ban going 2-1 in his singles matches and 3-1 overall.
Doing it as a pro in the Ryder Cup proper is still a long ways away. Ban will have to scrap his way to a tour card, itself no mean feat. But should he ever find himself representing the United States again, Ban will be ready.
“Palmer Cup was possibly one of the best weeks of my life,” he said. “I love being around the game and having so much fun. It made me really miss the team vibe. I love playing on a team, where I'm representing something. I love to entertain. It's one thing that makes me really excited about golf — seeing a big gallery, you want to perform well in front of them and feel the love.”