MARANA, Ariz. — How would you prepare to compete in the World Match Play Championship, especially if you’d never seen the twisty, tricky Ritz-Carlton Golf Club here?
J.B. Holmes got ready — or didn’t, actually — by spending his afternoon lounging around the Orlando airport after his flight was delayed. Kids, don’t try this at home.
Holmes got a call from his agent at 11 a.m. Tuesday, informing him that Tim Clark withdrew from the Match Play with an elbow injury. Holmes had already flown home to Orlando from Los Angeles after finishing 12th in last weekend’s Northern Trust Open at Riviera, even though knew he was the first alternate this week. Holmes got booked on a flight out of Orlando at 4:40 p.m. but it was delayed several hours, so he spent the afternoon killing time in the airport when he normally would’ve been playing a practice round to reconnoiter a golf course he’d never seen.
He made a connecting flight in Dallas, got to Tucson sometime around 11:30 and by the time his head hit the pillow last night, Holmes said, it was 1 a.m. Then he got up at 5:30 Wednesday, went to the course and knocked off Camilo Villegas in a first-round match, 4 and 2. Holmes got off to a quick start — he was 2 up after three holes, and won a back-and-forth match.
So the last man in the field, Holmes, moves on to the second round, where he’ll face Ernie Els. That makes Holmes the comeback story of the week so far — as in, he had to come back from the East Coast to play.
“I was just happy to get in,” Holmes admitted. “I felt all right, actually. I woke up this morning and didn’t feel too bad. I knew it wasn’t going to be an all-day thing. I knew I could take a nap later. I’m hitting the wall now, I’m pretty tired.”
He will be better prepared for the next match. After he eliminated Villegas, Holmes asked an official if he was allowed to play his way in on the final two holes even though his match was over. When he got the OK, he did just that.
“I just wanted to see the last two holes,” Holmes said of what you’d have to call a veteran move. “Hopefully, none of my matches go that far, but I thought I’d better see them if I could.”
There was an awkward moment in the match at the ninth hole, a long par 4, where Holmes hit to the green from a blind spot in the fairway, only to find out later that the match ahead, Ernie Els and Jeff Overton, were still on the green. “The flag was in, nobody saw them,” Holmes said. “It looked like nobody was up there. I backed off my shot once. My ball was at the peak of its flight and the crowd starting clapping up there and I was like, ‘What?’ There were eight people in the fairway up there and nobody saw them. I want to apologize to them, for sure.”
Villegas missed a short par putt at the ninth, giving Holmes a 1-up lead. Holmes stuffed a wedge close at the tenth and missed the putt but won the hole when Villegas bogeyed. Villegas bounced back with a win at the 11th, but Holmes won the 12th when Villegas failed to get up-and-down from a bunker.
The 13th was the signature hole of the match. Holmes hit a monster drive, followed by an 8-iron to 15 feet on the 583-yard par 5. He drained the eagle putt to go 3 up with four holes to play. According to Shotlink, Holmes hit his drive there 372 yards.
“I hit it really good,” Holmes said. “I looked at my caddie and said, ‘I killed that.’ I don’t know how long that hole is but I had 8-iron in.”
The beauty of the World Match Play event from a player’s standpoint is, win one match and the worst you can do is finish tied for 17th. Win a second and you’re in the top ten — the worst you can do is tie for ninth — and you’re in the sweet 16. No matter what happens, no one in the field will be happier to be here than Holmes. He hadn’t played in this event since 2007, when he had Tiger Woods on the ropes in a first-round match but finished poorly and wound up losing, 1 down. So he was particularly pleased to get a second chance to play in a World Golf Championship event.
“It’s much better than sitting at home, that’s for sure,” he said. “I was hoping I could get in. I’d been playing well and felt like I could do well here.”