LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — J.B. Holmes is a Ryder Cup rookie, but he’s practically a Ph.D. at handling pressure.
Even though the 26-year-old from Campbellsville won’t make his debut on golf’s biggest stage until later this week, something about it will seem familiar. As a precocious 8-year-old, Holmes played on the varsity golf team at his high school – nervous as a kid can be, but never scared. He proved that by boldly calling a penalty on an opposing player who was double his age and three times his size.
David Parsons, Holmes coach at Taylor County High, recalled pulling the youngster aside at the time. “I told John, if you let them get away with something, they’ll try to get away with everything,” Parsons said. “I told him ‘You’ve got to stand up for yourself.”‘
Holmes hasn’t had much trouble holding his own ever since.
He admits to being nervous at the thought of teeing it up in front of home-state fans with sky-high expectations when the matches begin Friday. But scared? Not a chance. Holmes just doesn’t do fear.
“It doesn’t really matter who you’re playing,” he said. “If you play well and do the best of your ability, you can win.”
He was a high school star on full scholarship at the University of Kentucky, but had always been more comfortable on the golf course than in the classroom. It wasn’t until Holmes was diagnosed with the learning disability dyslexia that he understood why. And once he channeled his focus and ferocious work ethic toward school, he became an academic All-American.
“You don’t have to have everything be perfect to be able to be successful,” he said.
That single-mindedness has led Holmes to Valhalla, two hours north and a world away from Campbellsville Country Club, where he honed his game playing 54 holes a day during the summer.
He joined the Taylor County High team as a kid because Parsons needed a player to help fill out the roster. Holmes shot a 56 on that first nine, so small he had to reach up to grab the handle of the pull cart he used to make his way around the course.
Yet his new teammates didn’t exactly adopt Holmes as a little brother. During a post-tournament trip to McDonald’s that first year, the older players piled out of the team van and dashed to the counter while Holmes stayed behind, intimidated by the idea of ordering food by himself for the first time.
The only place Holmes felt like an equal was on the course. So he dedicated himself to the game.
“It was rough, being in the third grade and everything, everybody being older than me,” Holmes said. “I got picked on for a little while. In fifth and sixth grade, I started beating them and they stopped picking on me.
“The easiest way to get somebody to be quiet,” he added, “is to just beat them.”
He did plenty of that in subsequent years. Holmes was the team’s best player by the time he was in middle school, and by the time he reached high school, his talent and the long drives his large forearms cranked out were already creating a stir.
During a fundraising tournament at the country club as a freshman, Holmes stood on the fourth tee and for a $25 donation, teams could wager whether he could rifle his tee shot onto a green 365 yards away.
“He made it more than he missed,” said Parsons, whose son Brandon is Holmes’ caddie. “It’s a God-given talent. It amazes me. It amazes everyone.”
Holmes won the state championship as a sophomore, but an armful of varsity letters and junior titles did little to impress new Kentucky golf coach Brian Craig. Craig took an inventory of his players his first day on the job in 2001 and wondered why Holmes was on 100 percent scholarship in a sport where full-time rides are rare.
“I think I told my wife, ‘I don’t think he’s going to like me too much. He’s not going to be on a full scholarship after his freshman year,”‘ Craig said.
It took Holmes all of two shots to change Craig’s mind. Yet all that talent was almost derailed by Holmes’ academic struggles. He was in danger of flunking out after his first semester until testing revealed he suffered from dyslexia.
“He probably had to work twice as hard as students who don’t have these weaknesses, especially when you’re just really learning how to adjust,” said Amy Craiglow, Holmes’ academic adviser at Kentucky.
With tutoring and extra time to complete his exams, Holmes was zeroing in on a degree when he decided to turn pro in 2005.
He validated that decision by taking medalist honors at Q School to earn his card, then needed just five starts to earn his first victory, capturing the FBR Open in 2006. An up-and-down 2007 followed, but with the Ryder Cup in his sights, Holmes won the FBR again this February, then matched Tiger Woods nearly shot for shot before losing 1-up at the Match Play championship.
A strong showing through three rounds at this year’s PGA Championship had Holmes poised to play his way onto the Ryder Cup team. Then he made a triple-bogey on the opening hole Sunday. But that didn’t stop U.S. captain Paul Azinger from selecting Holmes with one of his wild-card picks, and if fellow Kentuckian Kenny Perry’s lobbying effort is successful, he and Holmes could wind up going off together in the first round of foursomes.
Azinger refused to tip his hand, but he did say this: “I want everybody to get comfortable on the golf course, and Kenny and J.B. know it better than anybody.”