Pitcher turned golfer, Keene State Alum Kohler finds a home on the links
KEENE, N.H. 8/16/12 – To this day, Ryan Kohler isn't quite sure how it happened. One minute he was an accomplished pitcher with lofty Little League, Babe Ruth, and collegiate credentials; the next, an aspiring amateur golfer with the skill and savvy to capture the U.S. Amateur Public Links qualifying tournament and the recent New Hampshire Stroke Play championship.
While Kohler can't quite figure out the reason he went from a diamond diehard to a lover of the links, the Alstead native does know when the transformation began. The saga starts in the winter of 2008, a few months after receiving his degree in graphic design from Keene State College.
Back living with his parents in Alstead, Kohler, lacking golf experience, let alone his own set of clubs, decided to try his hand at the game. It wasn't long before his fascination quickly became an obsession.
"I'm not sure I would've had enough interest to play golf when I was younger," said Kohler. "Baseball kind of had me. And to be honest, I was so lousy at golf the times I played – I certainly didn't have the itch to play."
No longer playing baseball, Kohler needed something to keep his athletic skills sharp and his competitive battery charged. Golf proved to be a good substitute and a worthy challenge. "I don't like doing things that I feel I'm not good at, so it was basically either get good at this so I can continue playing or give it up," he said.
The winter months didn't deter Kohler from his mission to master the game. To stay in the swing of things, Kohler cleared snow from his backyard, setting up a homemade range so he could continue his daily ritual of driving balls into the nearby fields and woods. Over the course of the winter Kohler ended up ordering so many range balls (over 4,000) from eBay that he and the FedEx driver became friends. "I spent the whole winter out in the snow to the point where the driver would ask, 'How are you doing with your golf game,'" said Kohler. "He still asks my mother how my game is going and follows me online."
Kohler's hard work paid off. He went from not being able to break 90 to breaking par for the first time the following spring. "When people find out I've been golfing for just four or five years the first thing I always get is – 'that's awesome you're such a natural.' But in reality it was a lot of hard work, a love of practice, and good hand-eye coordination that allowed me to pull it off."
Joining the Bretwood Golf Club, Kohler spent the next year just playing and learning the game. The following summer, he entered his first tournament – a qualifier for the state amateur championship. "I had never been to a golf tournament in my life – much less play in one," he said. "So it was very new to me. I didn't know if I'd even make contact on the first tee."
Kohler not only made contact, but qualified for the championship. "I had a reasonable amount of success out of the gate which I think helped because I was still struggling with the confidence that it takes to go out and compete against the best amateurs in the state and the country," Kohler said. "Most of the kids I was going up against grew up playing junior golf and high school and college golf. I didn't even think about golf at those times in my life."
Baseball was the name of the game for Kohler as he was growing up. Kohler's love for the sport can be traced to his father, Joe, who played ball at the old Vilas High School in Alstead and later in the Keene softball league.
The younger Kohler played for former Owl Hank Beecher at Fall Mountain Regional High School and was recently reunited with many of his Wildcat teammates this summer playing for the Walpole Wild Blue in the Conn. River Valley League. Unfortunately, arm injuries plagued Kohler. He missed half his junior season in high school with a sore arm and suffered a broken arm three games into his senior year when he was hit by a ball sent back to the box. Demonstrating his grit, Kohler, wearing a brace on his left arm, came back to pitch Fall Mountain to a Class I tournament win that season.
Kohler's pitching pinnacle came as a member of the Concord Big Blue Babe Ruth team. Temporarily over his arm ailments, the 18-year-old right-hander pitched his team to the 2002 state championship and a berth in the World Series in Stamford, Conn. Kohler won two games in the series for the Big Blue, which finished third in the country.
Kohler's success didn't follow him to Keene State, where persistent arm problems lingered. "Ryan was never able to get back," said his father. "He had a decent freshmen and sophomore year, but by his junior season his arm was toast."
"The unfortunate thing about Ryan was he never pitched healthy after his freshman year for us," said KSC associate coach Marty Testo. "He took the ball and pitched on will."
Then Kohler turned his attention to golf. Encouraged by his steady improvement, Kohler, now residing in Spofford and playing out of the Hooper and Brattleboro Golf Clubs, has had a breakthrough season this summer, winning the U.S. Public Links championship qualifier, leading wire-to-wire to claim the N.H. Stroke Play title and posting the second-best amateur score at the N.H. Open.
The 36-hole qualifier for the U.S. Public Links championship was held at Bretwood. After shooting a disappointing opening round of 74, Kohler redeemed himself by posting a 68 in the second round. "I was a little bit out of it after the first round and had a friend come over and caddie for me for the final 18 holes," Kohler said. "We said let's go out and shoot a 68. I actually bogeyed the third hole but battled back and went five under par from there, birdying the last two holes to win by one."
Although he struggled and missed the cut, Kohler, a first-time qualifier, called the chance to play against the nation's elite at the U.S. Amateur Public Links tournament in Midway, Utah, "an extraordinary experience." Disappointed, but certainly not discouraged, Kohler chalked it up as a link lesson, one that would pay dividends a few weeks later when his name sat atop the board after carding rounds of 69-66-73-74 to hang on and win the New Hampshire Golf Association Stroke Play championship at Green Meadow Golf Club in Hudson.
In only his fourth summer playing competitive golf, the 28-year-old Kohler has exceeded his own high expectations. "I try to set unrealistic expectations, so I certainly thought about getting where I am, but I'm not sure that I really thought I could," he said. "At the same time I'm not satisfied. I'd like to get better, so I tend not to look where I'm at, but rather where I'd like to be."
A late bloomer to the sport, Kohler, a self-employed graphic artist, doesn't regret his tardiness getting to the tee. "I certainly don't regret playing golf earlier – baseball is still my favorite sport and I wouldn't give up a single game I played when I was younger," Kohler said. "But on the other side of the equation, I consider myself to be about 13 years old as far as experience on the golf course in concerned. I'm sure I would've benefited picking up the game a little earlier in life. But I have no regrets."