James Nicholas emerging as the top golfer in the Ivy League for his senior year at Yale wasn’t much of a surprise after he gave up football prior to his sophomore year at Yale. His younger brother, Stephen Jr., becoming one of the better golfers in the Centennial Conference for Franklin & Marshall after leaving the F&M football program was a shock for sure.
While James spent the spring and summer of his high school years playing golf, Stephen was a lacrosse player who played golf recreationally with his family. When he opted to give up football and take up golf, saying he was a longshot is an understatement, especially given the first impression F&M coach Andy Tompos was left with.
One of the pro shop staff told Tompos there was a “kid out there thinking about coming out for the golf team.” Tompos went out for a look at Stephen, who was on the 16th hole. The shot, according to Tompos, was “instantly shanked right out of bounds.”
It looked like Tompos, a 1969 F&M grad who’s been head coach of the golf team since 2008, an assistant since 2002 and a volunteer before that, wouldn’t be taking his first-ever walk-on after all.
When Tompos finally met Nicholas, however, he agreed to let him try out, but warned him that the odds were not in his favor.
“He came to me not really a polished golfer, not really a good golfer, but he had determination,” Tompos said. “He set the goal to play on this team and he worked as hard as anybody I’ve ever seen to become a much better player.”
Giving Stephen the 10th and final spot on the team wasn’t much of a gamble for Tompos, but putting him in the lineup spring of sophomore year for the Centennial Conference Championship match was. Tompos called it “a big decision,” adding, “I can tell you and the team will tell you if it wasn’t for him we wouldn’t have won.”
Nicholas played in the No. 5 slot and while he shot 73 and 74 over the first two 18-hole rounds, “Everybody else didn’t play well,” Tompos said. “Then at nationals he was our second low scorer.”
The “not a good golfer” was named team caption for junior year this past fall and spring. “He leads by example on and off the course,” Tompos said. “It’s his whole demeanor. He’s just a tremendous young man.”
Junior year Stephen outperformed expectations again, this time by winning The Hershey Cup, which, according to Tompos, is “one of the biggest tournaments of the year.”
“He beat players that were ranked in the top 10 in the country to win the tournament,” Tompos said. “There were four schools ranked in the top 10 and they all had players that were ranked in the top 10 and Steve beat them all.”
“That was a great experience, kind of a wow moment from walking on sophomore year to winning a college tournament junior year,” Stephen said. “It’s one thing to go out and play good golf with your brother or with your dad, but doing it in a tournament for me was difficult. I didn’t have any tournament experience.”
After freshman year of football, Stephen signed up for some tournament qualifiers, but didn’t make the cut. Not once. Those experiences didn’t discourage him.
“The summer going into sophomore year I played golf every day, from when I woke up to when I went to bed,” Stephen said. “I didn’t have an internship and I just focused on golf all that summer.”
Stephen has one more year at F&M, where his twin sister, Michaela, is a member of one of the top Division III field hockey teams in the country, and he’s just going to keep doing what he’s been doing for two years — defying expectations.
“He’s never going to tell you how good he is or say anything — he’s just going to go play and he’s going to do it through hard work,” Tompos said. “I expect him to maybe be our No. 1 player this year, believe it or not. He’ll definitely be top two or three, but maybe No. 1.
“A lot of times attitude is more important than aptitude. He’s definitely got the right attitude and that seeps in and helps the other players on the team. He’s always willing to help everybody. If you ask him to do something he never hesitates. He’ll do it just like that.”
Stephen will again be at a disadvantage going into senior year as he’s interning at the Cannell Group at J.P. Morgan in wealth management, not spending quality hours on the course. He’s hoping it will turn into a job offer for next spring when he graduates. “It’s a social job where hopefully you get to play some golf,” he said.
“College golf is different than playing in the summers because you’re playing with four other guys, so it’s more of a team sport,” Stephen said. “It’s great knowing you’ve got four other guys who have your back and you’re going out on the course knowing you want to do your best for your team.”
Of getting on the course with his family, Stephen said, “I played a couple of times here and there. I was never great. I was OK. After my freshman year at Franklin & Marshall playing football, I decided it wasn’t for me. I was thinking about maybe playing lacrosse or golf in college, so I was always deciding between the three sports. When I stopped playing football, that summer I took a lot of time to play golf and once I started getting better and better each week, each month, I decided I could give this a real shot.”
The family aspect has played a major role, as has belonging to Winged Foot and Westchester Country Club.
“I have the resources available to come out and practice, so it’s up to me to spend the time to do the nitty gritty work to get the results,” Stephen said. “That’s the thing about golf is it can be such an amazing sport, but it can be so difficult. One day I can come out and play my best golf and I go into the clubhouse and I’m saying to myself I still could have shot three or four better. That’s the thing that has you always coming back.”
James, already an accomplished golfer from high school, making states twice, winning the New York State championship and placing second in the Federation as a senior, was as surprised as anyone to see his brother take a new route in college.
“He deserved it,” James said. “It’s cool to have two college golfers in the family because we can always go out there and battle on the course. It’s fun to support each other.”
The two had played football and ice hockey together, winning a pair of Section 1 titles in ice hockey along with younger sister Erin, a field hockey and lacrosse NCAA champion and All-American at Middlebury, so in a way they’re both still relatively new to the grind of competitive golf.
“Instead of growing up playing and slowing down as you get older — some kids tend to burn out — we’re learning as we go,” Stephen said. “It’s not like I know everything about golf and this is what I’ll be. Each week I’m learning more. I still have so much to learn, so each time I play and practice I’m learning more, which is leading to better results on the course.”
The two older Nicholas brothers — Brian will be a freshman at Scarsdale High School this fall — have played charity events, brother-brother events and the Wilson Cup together to name a few.
“It’s nice that we didn’t actually compete against each other in collegiate golf so we don’t have to be enemies,” James said. “We can root for each other, but when we’re playing for fun I’m always trying to beat him, he’s always trying to beat me. My littler brother Brian is always trying to beat both of us and my dad is trying to beat us all. Golf is an individual sport. You don’t want to lose.”
Though James was officially going to Yale for football, he knew from the beginning he’d be on the golf course, too. What he didn’t know is that he’d leave the gridiron behind. James had been All-State in both sports in high school, though he was best known for helping lead the ice hockey team to two Section 1 titles, while winning All-State there, too. (But don’t worry, he managed to play four years of club hockey at Yale.)
“I went into Yale knowing I was going to play golf and football, so I was committed to both sports,” he said. “I didn’t go in knowing I was going to end up playing one, whether it be golf or football. At one point I was thinking just hockey, but I didn’t want to give up golf and they overlapped.”
A day prior to football training camp before sophomore year at Yale, James opted not to play, even though he “loved” playing in the junior varsity games freshman year. He felt he played well enough to see time on varsity and had some differences of opinion with the coaches — he wanted to play offense and return kicks, they wanted him on defense at strong safety.
Playing Cypress Point, Pebble Beach, Monarch Peninsula and San Francisco Golf Club on a team spring break trip freshman year really sealed the deal for James with golf.
“I was like, ‘OK, this is what I want to do,’” James said. “I wanted more of this, to do this in the fall, too. I didn’t leave football because I loved golf more — I left football because I didn’t love it as much as I did in high school. It didn’t feel the same. Playing for Scarsdale felt a lot more special than playing for Yale.”
Even in high school when he was one of the best golfers in the section and state, James was only committing the spring and summer to the sport because football and ice hockey were still priorities. At Yale the last three years, with golf as his No. 1 priority, Nicholas began making greater strides.
“I never got the time to actually practice, so now that I’ve got the time to actually practice and improve and work on things and change my swing and learn really how to play golf it’s been a really cool experience,” he said.
James also had a memorable early encounter with his college coach, Colin Sheehan, a 1997 Yale grad who took over the program in 2008. Sheehan asked James what his goals were. “I told him, ‘To bring Yale to a national championship and win,’” James said. “He looked at me and said, ‘No one has ever said that before.’ I said, ‘Isn’t that everyone’s goal?’”
Though Yale didn’t quite reach that level, James knows setting his sights high at all times is important for his success. That’s why his personal goal was to win Ivies, which he did as a senior. The better he played the better the team would do and if he had his best day, he knew it would be good for everyone.
“Coming into the 18th fairway I knew that we couldn’t win and I was kind of pissed even though I had a two-shot lead,” James said of Ivies. “That’s just the way it is. I look at college golf as a team sport, not an individual sport. Even thought I won a couple of times they didn’t really feel like wins unless the team won. I was part of a lot of team wins, which felt really, really cool over my four years. Those are the best, when you get to celebrate with other people like in hockey or football.”
While James is still proud of the two Section 1 golf team titles Scarsdale won in high school under coach Andy Verboys, he won’t forget the two the team didn’t win. Among James’ memorable teammates were Josh Goldenberg, Ethan Bunzel and Anthony Scarcella.
“They were awesome competitors and we always wanted to win,” James said. “We won a lot and I brought that mentality with me to college and I was definitely the most excited guy on the team when we got a win.”
James is all-in when it comes to turning pro as a golfer. He majored in biology and has all the pre-med requirements. He opted not to take the MCAT because it would expire after two years. He’s qualified for many top amateur events, while he’s also had bad days on the course in-between this summer. James plans to hit Qualifying School in Europe in the fall and get a tour card as soon as possible.
“There’s a lot of unknowns in golf, so I can’t tell you when I’m going to be somewhere, but all I know is I’m going to give it my best and hopefully within three years make it to the PGA Tour,” James said.
Yale gave James a major edge with the various trips Sheehan took the team on around the globe. “We’ve played all the best golf courses in the world,” James said. “We’re really fortunate and lucky to have experienced it all.”
He added, “At my best I’ve played pretty well, so I’m prepared to do whatever it takes to make it. I think my game is at a good place to give it a good shot.”
Since graduating from Yale, James has lived golf from the time he wakes up until the time he goes to bed. First on his to-do list is either a workout or yoga before he has a healthy breakfast. Pro Gary Weir has given James games and drills to do on his own, in addition to giving him one or two lessons each week. In a given day he’s working out every part of his game, sometimes with his contemporaries like Goldenberg, Christian Cavaliere, Matt Minerva or his brothers. This way practice isn’t so “lonely and boring,” James said.
“It’s a massive goal that sometimes takes people 15 years to do, but sometimes it takes other guys three months,” James said. “There’s a range and hopefully I can make it happen.”