His parents met on the golf course, so it’s no surprise James Ballato starting playing at a young age.
“I started playing when I was 3,” he said. “When I was about 7-8 years old, I started playing every day. I always had a club in my hand, whether it was putting, chipping or playing holes with my dad. And most weekends, we were on the road for tournaments.”
Even then, the Yulee High School senior knew he wanted to pursue golf.
“We moved here in 2015, mainly for my golf,” Ballato said. “In Connecticut, you can only play 5-6 months out of the year. Down here, you can pretty much play every day.
“I love it. It’s perfect for golf.”
But, after graduation, Ballato is heading back up north. He is the first golf scholarship recipient for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York.
“It feels great to represent Yulee,” Ballato said.
Getting into West Point is no easy task.
“I think it’s about a 6-10 percent acceptance rate,” Ballato said. “You need a congressional nomination, so I got mine through Congressman (John) Rutherford.
“It took about nine months. I needed three teacher recommendations, someone in the community to recommend me, and good test scores on the ACT and SAT and a high class rank.”
Ballato is ranked first in his class of 315 students and boasts a weighted 4.5 grade point average. He’s a member of the National Honor Society and the National Society of High School Scholars. He’s been included on the Superintendent’s Honor Roll for having straight A’s from 2017-2019.
He’s also found success on the golf course. The team captain and most valuable player was the North Hampton men’s club champion in 2018, and during his freshman year at Camden County, he was named most accomplished varsity golfer.
Ballato was player of the year for the Hurricane Junior Golf Tour and the North Florida Junior Golf Tour in 2017 and received the NFJGT Varden Award the same year.
He volunteers in the community and works for his family-owned jewelry business.
In addition to the academic requirements, Ballato had to display his fitness — push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, shuttle run.
“I’ve been training hard physically for about a year,” he said.
Ballato has had a plan in place for years.
“The goal was to use golf to get into the best school academically, and West Point was the perfect choice,” he said. “Plus, it’s a way of giving back to people. You have to spend five years’ active duty in the Army, and then three years in the reserves. That’s a minimum.”
Upon graduation, Ballato will be a second lieutenant.
“It’s very challenging academically, and fitness-wise it’s challenging,” he said. “I wanted to join because of the camaraderie. Everyone I met is just a class act. I just think it’s the perfect place to thrive as a person and grow as a leader.”
Basic training starts June 29, and Ballato is excited to kick off his college career.
“The golf team has one of the better tournament schedules in the NCAA,” he said. “They went to Hawaii and Puerto Rico.”
Next season, the Knights, an NCAA Division 1 team, will play in Ireland.
Ballato plans to major in economics, but he’s focused on golf.
“I’m going to play it by ear,” he said. “I’m going to try to pursue golf and hopefully make a career out of it.”
Chris Hicken, golf coach at Yulee High School, was also accepted into West Point.
“The upper 1 percent of the people in this nation are accepted to a military academy, and when you are, that in itself is an accomplishment,” Hicken said. “He’s going to play as one of their top golfers. This guy is phenomenal.
“James is a fine young man because that’s all they sign into our service academies. He’s the first one to sign a golf scholarship at the school in the history of the school.
“He does everything right.”