By Adam Stanley, PGATOUR.COM
- James Nicholas is an avid outdoor photographer. (Courtesy of James Nicholas)
It’s rare to see a Korn Ferry Tour player who is an Ivy League alum.
More rare, perhaps, to learn that alum was the pre-med track.
Rarer still to see that Ivy League alum on a pre-med track also boast a serious following on Instagram and YouTube – his photography and video work racking up millions of views and thousands of likes.
But that’s James Nicholas.
After earning 2020-21 Korn Ferry Tour status by advancing to Final Stage of Q-School, Nicholas – who was first alternate at the Panama Championship, Country Club de Bogota Championship and El Bosque Mexico Championship – is eager to test his mettle against some of the best in the world.
First, though, the 23-year-old spent a few minutes with PGA TOUR Digital to chat about his love of photography, how someone with a degree in ecology and evolutionary biology managed to become a professional golfer, and how his grandfather helped Joe Namath and the New York Jets win Super Bowl III.
So you went to Yale, one of the most prestigious post-secondary institutions in the world, and you played multiple sports. How did that come to be?
I grew up playing tons of sports, but I grew up in a family where school came first. My dad went to Harvard. He was a baseball and football player there. My mom was a talented athlete as well. I played a ton of different sports, but my parents were always like, ‘You have to finish your homework before you go play with your friends.’ That’s how I learned how to manage my time well. Growing older I realized I wanted to do sports in order to get me into the best university possible. At that moment in time, it was going to be hockey. I always wanted to play hockey – it was my sport. I traveled every weekend for hockey. In my freshman year of high school, I had a college offer for lacrosse and I was talking to colleges for hockey and football. Naturally I was going to play those sports in high school, and golf was just a sport I was decent at, at best, but I wasn’t ever going to play competitively. In my freshman year I broke my collarbone in football and then I re-broke it in hockey. I went to the nurse’s office to get my approval to play lacrosse and she looks at me and said, ‘Maybe it’s best if you play something with less contact’ (laughs). I ended up playing golf.
I joined the team as a freshman and I made the (state championship) as a freshman and that was the first time a freshman had made it in a long time. That gave me the motivation to really practice and elevate my game to the next level. The next couple of years I got better and in my junior year (of high school) I got the itch, fell in love with the game. My college coach, Colin Sheehan, came to watch me at a high school tournament and he said he wanted to have me at Yale.
How did you manage your time with football, hockey, and then eventually golf?
At that point I had an offer for football as well and I just fell in love with it. The campus is beautiful. New Haven (Connecticut) doesn’t have the best rap but it’s an awesome city and I was lucky enough to be there. The golf course is the best college course in the country. From there it was purely dedication and once I quit football I focused all my time on school and golf. It was hard to juggle the two – I’m taking four biology classes. There’s biology, chemistry … the list goes on and on for all the pre-requisites for pre-med. It never gets easy. Pre-med was the harder track but I grew up in a family where my father was a doctor, my grandfather was a doctor. They were both doctors with the Jets. My grandfather won Super Bowl III with the Jets. It was a tradition. I would always ask my dad, “How was surgery today?” so I was always interested in it. Science was always my favorite thing in school – science and math. I always felt that biology would be my major at Yale, but I never really thought how hard it would be. If I was to dedicate my time, I could do it.
Wait, your grandfather helped win a Super Bowl? Like Joe Namath and those New York Jets?
He was the team doctor (laughs). He was the one that operated on Joe’s knee and developed the knee brace that Joe wore in Super Bowl III.
That’s pretty cool.
It’s always amazing. During the 50th reunion for Super Bowl III, in 2019, we went on the field, since my grandfather passed away (in 2006). We were there with the whole team during the ceremony and it was pretty awesome to have all the guys come up to me and tell me stories about my grandfather. My dad was the water boy for that team. All the stories they told me were just amazing.
During this time of COVID-19 and the uncertainty surrounding it, and not playing professional golf right now, did you ever think, ‘Maybe I should pivot and be a doctor?’
Once I quit football my sophomore year, I told myself I was going to become a professional golfer. Now that I have Korn Ferry Tour status, this has been my main focus. Obviously I’d love to help any way I can but I’ll leave that to the professionals. I’d have to go through four years of med school anyway before I could help, so it’d be a while (laughs).
In terms of playing at Yale, your scoring average improved tremendously year after year. What was the key to that improvement and what did you learn?
I always went back to look at my scoring average and in my freshman year I think it was 74.5, which is horrific. Then in my senior year it was 69.1 I look back and just … I didn’t leave the course. I would wake up at 6 a.m. every day, practice until 9 a.m. at the course, then went to class from 9-2 p.m. and then I’d practice from 2-6 p.m. and then I’d study until 11 p.m. and I’d do the same thing every day. During the winter there was an indoor facility and if I wasn’t in class I was in there, either studying or practicing. I’d hit 100 golf balls, then study or work for an hour. Sometimes I would sleep in that room. The security guards came to kick me out a few times. The dedication helped me change from a below-average college player to accomplishing everything I did at Yale.
How have you felt through this calendar year so far? You have limited Korn Ferry Tour status and it’s been a long break through the early part of 2020.
There have been ups and downs. Just getting to Final Stage was a big goal, which I did, and I secured my card but then everything re-focuses and I wanted full status. I missed by three shots at Final Stage, which was a bummer, but I played great. I was really happy with it as a first try out of school. I was told I could get a few starts and I was in the field for the first two events that got canceled (due to COVID-19). I had my chance there and I was looking forward to getting in and reshuffling into the full status category. But I’ve been itching to get going and itching to get starts, but everyone is going to be playing now with the break. Even the PGA TOUR guys are going to try to play in some (Korn Ferry Tour) events, so I’m going to play the Monday qualifiers. It’s a different path than I expected to take, but I still have an opportunity. It’s going to be a little harder but I’m looking forward to it. Hopefully I can make something happen.
You’ve got a couple of Instagram accounts plus a well-followed YouTube channel. How did you get into that side of the media?
(Courtesy of James Nicholas)
That story really started when I was 13-14. For Christmas I was given a GoPro Hero 1 – it was the very first GoPro ever made. It was impossible to use; the battery died every five minutes, and it was just the first shot at them making a camera you could take under water and attach it to your surfboard. That was something I wanted to do. I wanted to bring it into the water, surf with it, and get cool videos of me and my brother and my buddies just having a good time in the summer. That’s what it started as – I just tried to capture the moment. I slowly started using editing software and I realized I could make awesome videos and compilations of all these shots I’d taken. I started doing that and posting them on YouTube, and different companies reached out to me and were like, ‘Do you mind if we send you a couple of hats you can wear?’ and I was like, as a 15-year-old, ‘Free stuff? Yeah! Send it my way. I’ll wear that.’ Fast-forward a couple of years and Greyson Clothiers had reached out (via friends) and we were the media team at the Greyson, an up-and-coming company at the time. We met up with Morgan Hoffmann and we did this huge shoot and that’s when it really took off. I thought I could really do something and help grow brands while growing my own brand and having fun.
What’s the aesthetic you’re going for? Most of your photos have the same kind of look and vibe to them.
I love being creative and doing things that are youthful and energetic and modern. I think a lot of the golf ads are just so boring and streamlined to this one look, and that’s what made me want to focus on the golf side of the content. Before then I had posted on YouTube just videos of all my travel stuff – like there was one video to Iceland and that video has over 1 million views now. Once I got with Greyson and started doing all their content, it made me believe I could do it in golf and make golf more interesting and capture a wider audience.
People have bucket-list courses they want to play, but do you have a list of places you want to go to shoot?
The best combination of my love for travel and golf would be Lofoten Links in Norway. There’s a picture for the cover of GOLF Magazine under the Northern Lights and it is unbelievable. It’s unbelievable. That is the dream, to be playing under the Northern Lights. There’s nothing cooler or more majestic than seeing those. And to combine those with a golf course is unbeatable.
Sand Valley, Bandon Dunes, those are two courses that photograph really well. I definitely want to go back to Scotland and England and take photos of the links courses. I first went over there with my Yale golf team and I was able to do a bunch of drone work but I did all videos. I think photos have been catching my eye more. I want to blow them up on walls. I want to sell them in pro shops.
How have you felt using a drone has changed photography?
No one sees courses from that perspective. When you put a drone up there, it’s like a whole new perspective. I flew it at my home course the other day and you’re like, ‘Wow.’ The contours, the architecture … it’s so cool. It makes you appreciate golf-course architects more.
You have a girlfriend and her name, it’s … America?
Yup! America – just like the country.
Is she a content creator as well?
She’s like my model. It’s perfect. She’s starting to be a content creator but for food. She’s an amazing chef. During quarantine we’ve just been focused on golf and cooking – and it’s been awesome. She started her own food Instagram and it’s been blowing up.
She’s the queen of all foodies and I guess I’m starting to become one as well.