18 February 2019: Mike McAllister on the PGA TOUR
The first omen appeared Monday when amateur Lukas Euler, currently a junior on the University of Kentucky golf team, earned an exemption into the Genesis Open by winning the Collegiate Showcase at Riviera.
On Sunday, the two most notable active PGA TOUR pros from Kentucky battled for 34 holes to decide a much more lucrative prize. Fittingly, with their home state famous for its equine competition, the final round essentially became a two-horse race.
In the end, it was J.B. Holmes, the older of the two thoroughbreds, who caught Justin Thomas down the home stretch to win at Riviera in an afternoon of challenging, windy conditions. In the scoring tent, Thomas noted that the final leaderboard had the Bluegrass State going 1-2.
“Obviously wish I was on the other part of that,” Thomas said, wondering if it’s “ever happened before on the PGA TOUR, two Kentuckians finishing first and second.”
Holmes and Thomas have known each other at least 15 years. When Thomas was still in grade schools, Holmes showed him the ropes by allowing him inside-the-ropes access during practice rounds. When Holmes and fellow Kentuckian Kenny Perry were on the American team at the 2008 Ryder Cup at Valhalla in Thomas’ hometown of Louisville, a teenaged Thomas was part of the victory celebration.
Holmes said he’s basically a “big brother, mentor a little bit” to Thomas. They’ve played practice rounds together, but this weekend was the first time at a regular TOUR event they’ve been paired in the same group.
Due to the schedule adjustment forced by a seven-hour rain delay to start the tournament, rules officials decided not to re-pair the groups between the third and fourth rounds in order to make sure the playing schedule was not pushed into Monday. That meant Holmes and Thomas – along with Australian Adam Scott – played two holes late Saturday afternoon to start the third round, then 16 holes to complete the round Sunday morning before teeing off 20 minutes later for 18 more holes in the final round.
“It was great being able to go out and play with him and battle it out,” Holmes said. “He’s such a great player, so it was fun being out there, talking and just battling it out.”
It probably didn’t seem as much fun for Holmes when Thomas appeared to take control of the tournament with a third-round 65 that put him four strokes ahead. But that lead evaporated five holes into the final round when Holmes gained a stroke on four consecutive holes with a birdie and three Thomas bogeys.
Once Scott fell off the pace at the turn, the outcome was left in the hands of Holmes and Thomas. Holmes took his first outright lead of the day with a birdie and a Thomas bogey at the drivable par-4 10th. He promptly gave the lead back with his first three-putt of the week, at the par-5 11th, while Thomas birdied. At that point, Thomas was 15 under, Holmes 14 under.
Holmes had entered the week ranked 202nd in Strokes Gained: Putting but found a hot hand on Riviera’s greens. He refused to let his season-long putting struggles create doubt in his mind down the stretch, especially with wind gusts of 30 mph creating indecision with every shot or putt.
“I knew were getting on the holes that were very, very difficult and that anything could happen,” Holmes said. “For me to get upset was just going to hurt me there. It was over and I had to do the best I could to get back in it.”
Holmes did exactly that by playing par golf the rest of the way. He made a crucial par-saving putt from 12 feet on the 13th hole and another one from 11 feet at the 16th.
Meanwhile, Thomas self-destructed with a double at the 13th and a bogey at the 14th. He admitted to struggling with the putter, adding that it showed a flaw in his game.
“J.B. won, he played great,” Thomas said. “But it’s always a bummer to hand him a tournament. I feel like I should’ve won that thing.”
Instead of Thomas winning for the 11th time on TOUR, it was Holmes who claimed his fifth win, and first since the 2015 Houston Open. Known for his length off the tee, it was, surprisingly, the putter that gets most of the credit for ending his victory drought. He credits time spent with his coach Matt Killen.
“We spent a lot of time this week with the coach and getting on the green and trying to find the right ball position and how it set up, and putting through some gates, making sure I was starting the ball online,” Holmes explained. “I putted for several hours throughout the week in the morning, we changed our routine and we had a string and a mirror and just made sure that everything was dialed in.”
On the 18th green late Sunday, Holmes made a terrific lag putt to set up a short par putt for his final-round 1-under 70 that won him the tournament when Thomas missed his birdie attempt from 19 feet. The two guys from Kentucky – Holmes is from Campbellsville, Thomas is from Louisville – then hugged, competitors for 36 holes who shared more than just a thirst for victory.
Perhaps one day, they’ll race down the stretch again.
”I’ve known J.B. since I was 7 or 8 or 9 years old,” Thomas said. “He was always so great to me. He would always pull me in the ropes in practice rounds in PGAs and stuff like that. I mean, that’s stuff I never forget.”
“I just never thought, you know, 15 years later he would beat my ass at Riviera. That was a bummer.”
But for the Bluegrass State, it was pretty cool.