Thursday, May 10, 2018 | 2 a.m.
As he played out the final holes of the Mountain West Championship tournament in April, UNLV golfer Shintaro Ban felt comfortable enough to let his mind wander. With a huge lead in his back pocket and UNLV on track to win the team title, the usually focused senior was free to revel in his fifth career collegiate medal and his first individual conference victory as it was happening.
“The last four holes or so, I was just trying to embrace it and enjoy the moment,” Ban says. “I wanted to stay in the present, because it felt like my hard work was paying off. It felt really rewarding. And it was a great opportunity with my parents out there watching my last [conference tournament] — and knowing we got the team win as well, it was enjoyable.”
Ban fired a final-round 65 (seven under par) to run away with the MWC title by a record nine-stroke margin and cement himself as the latest in a long line of accomplished UNLV golfers. He’ll look to build on that legacy when he leads the Rebels into the NCAA Championships beginning on Monday, May 14.
Winning hasn’t always come so easily for Ban. What he wasn’t thinking about during his victory lap at the Mountain West tournament were all the laps he completed as a youth swimmer. Growing up in Northern California, Ban’s first love was the pool — or so he thought.
As a pre-teen, Ban was dedicated to competitive swimming and everything that came with it, including the 4 a.m. alarms, the cold morning water and the endless, repetitive churn of lap after lap after lap, all in the pursuit of tenths of a second. And he was good at it, finishing first often enough to make all the hard work worth it.
And then everyone in his age group hit their growth spurts. While the competition grew taller, developed elongated strokes and recorded faster times, Ban stopped sprouting around his present-day height of 5-foot-8. Peers he used to beat regularly were leaving him in their wake, and physically there was nothing Ban could do about it. Suddenly, swimming wasn’t so fun.
Ban had a revelation: He wasn’t into swimming because he loved the sport; he was into it because he loved winning. Once the winning stopped — became impossible, really — he started to see how tedious it really was. Swimming up and down the pool for hours kind of lost its appeal.
That’s when Ban turned to his second sport and dedicated himself to golf with the energy he had previously devoted to the pool. And while he wasn’t great at it right away, he found that golf was a better fit for his personality. Where the act of swimming was droning and mechanical, Ban found golf to be an intellectual challenge. Every course was different, no two shots were alike and there were endless permutations of every round.
“I was burnt out on swimming,” Ban says. “With golf, every time, it’s different. Every time I play is a new learning experience for me. And each individual is different with their own game and their body type. Even smaller people can win majors. Golf kind of gave me hope.”
With his mind stimulated and his swing locked in, it wasn’t long before Ban was one of California’s top prospects, and after four years at UNLV, his creative approach to the game has helped him become one of the nation’s top amateurs.
At the Mountain West championship, Ban assessed the layout of the Gold Mountain Golf Club in Bremerton, Washington, and surmised that a cut would be more playable on certain holes than his natural draw — meaning, his stroke would induce the ball to curve from left to right in flight, rather than from right to left as a draw would. Though he’d almost never used a cut in previous tournaments, he had the confidence and the creativity to go for it and make it work in big situations. The result was a 16-under-par performance and another individual title.
“He’s got a lot of control over his game,” UNLV golf coach Dwaine Knight says. “He’s got great touch, and he’s got great control of the golf ball right now. He’s a really creative mind, and that’s unique for an athlete. He sees things people don’t see. He’s one of the best I’ve seen around the green, and it’s because he has such a creative insight to his game.”
Ban is set to graduate in the spring, and after that he plans to turn professional and attempt to make his way onto the PGA Tour. It’s a realistic path, as evidenced by the success of former UNLV golfers like Ryan Moore, Charley Hoffman and Chris Riley.
Ban wants to be the next UNLV alum to make a splash on the pro circuit, and it doesn’t take a creative mind to imagine it happening. “I don’t just think I’m in college now and then I’m going straight to the PGA Tour,” Ban says. “There are so many factors. I have to make Qualifying School first. It doesn’t work out for everyone, and it might not happen for me, but I’ll never stop trying. College has helped shape me for that.
“It’s more of a reality than a dream now.”
This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.