Campbellsville, Ky., is about 71/2 hours and 410 miles from Chicago Golf Club, but John Holmes’ journey has been much longer than that.
Four years ago, the Walker Cup was a pipe dream for a player who began his golf career at the University of Kentucky virtually unheard of outside his home state and ignored by the vast majority of NCAA Division I coaches.
Despite being named 2001 National High School Coaches Association Player of the Year after his senior season at Taylor County High School, Holmes was a mere speck in the world of junior golf, having played only five junior events outside of his home state.
That lack of exposure left him with offers from only three middle-of-the-pack Division I schools – Kentucky, Louisville and Mississippi – and plenty of motivation and desire to show the rest of the SEC what they were missing.
“There were a few schools in my conference that didn’t have a spot for me,” Holmes said. “But you’ve got to believe in yourself. I knew I could play for some of those schools. It gave me something to prove.”
Call it a quest fulfilled for the 2005 SEC Player of the Year, who led the Wildcats to a NCAA Central Regional crown (2004), back-to-back top 10s at the NCAA Championship (2004 and ’05) – their first appearances at the national finals in 57 years – and the 2005 SEC title, the first in the program’s history.
Those feats are made even more impressive by the fact that Holmes struggled academically through his first semester before finally receiving help for a dyslexia problem that had been diagnosed several years prior.
“It’s not something you’re proud of,” he said. “It’s something I didn’t want to mention to anybody. I was smart enough to get through in high school, but it was different in college. I finally realized it was nothing to be ashamed of, that it wasn’t my fault.”
The next semester, after learning ways to cope with the learning disability, Holmes improved from a 2.3 to a 3.6 GPA and made the athletic department honor roll.
His last two seasons, he was an Academic All-American.
“I think it just helped his overall self-esteem and view of himself,” Kentucky coach Brian Craig said of Holmes’ decision to get help. “His first semester was really tough for him, but from that semester on, he has done really, really, really well. And it picked up his overall demeanor.”
Holmes’ climb in the world of college and amateur golf has been no less impressive.
This week, the player few wanted four years ago arrived in Wheaton, Ill., as a key member of the U.S. Walker Cup team, one of only 10 players in the most prestigious, exclusive club in the amateur game.
Only the second Kentucky native to play in the event (Jodie Mudd was the first in 1981), Holmes doesn’t possess your typical Walker Cup pedigree. But in an event that suddenly has turned Great Britain & Ireland’s way – the Americans lead the series 31-7-1 but have lost three in a row – maybe this good old boy from the Bluegrass State is exactly what the U.S. needs.
Known for his prodigious drives and competitive fire, Holmes is a self-made player who developed his swing during 54-hole marathon sessions on summer days at Campbellsville Country Club, the only golf course in a town of about 20,000. His technique – a short backswing, enormous pivot and full shoulder turn – isn’t complicated (“not a whole lot to screw up,” as Holmes puts it), and his swing speed has been clocked as high as 136 mph, although he says he “uses only about 80 to 85 percent” of his power in tournaments.
But the most impressive thing about Holmes is the combination of his length and accuracy, something that should serve him well both at the Walker Cup and when he begins his professional career following the U.S. Amateur Aug. 22-28.
“Even when he drives it offline,” said Craig, “he doesn’t miss the fairway by a whole lot. I would say for guys in his length category, he’s got to be one of the straightest out there – college, pros, whatever.”
His length can intimidate in a match-play format, and his putting touch is surprisingly soft. He can post plenty of birdies, and his tee shots should give his partner an instant edge in foursomes (alternate shot).
Holmes’ longest drive is 440 yards “downwind in Ireland,” on a par-5 hole in June 2004 at Royal County Down, where he proceeded to hit a wedge to 1 foot and made eagle. He had a 408-yard smash in winning last year’s Kentucky Open (his second consecutive victory in the event) and, when asked, he’ll tell you his drives average 315-320 yards.
“But I’ll always hit at least one 350 to 360,” Holmes says without a hint of bragging. “I have at least one of those a round, so it’s no big deal.”
Such attributes and numbers make Holmes an important player for the U.S., said Walker Cup captain Bob Lewis, who thinks the host site sets up well for long hitters.
“The fairways are fairly wide open, and it’s really a second-shot golf course,” Lewis said following the U.S. team’s practice session July 27-30 at Chicago Golf Club.
“I really think power can be an advantage for us, and John certainly qualifies. He can overpower a golf course.”
Lewis watched Holmes at the Palmer Cup held earlier this summer at Whistling Straits, where Holmes compiled a 3-1 record to lead a team of U.S. collegians to victory against their European counterparts. Holmes’ length there was “downright devastating,” Lewis said.
If there is a weakness for Holmes – by all accounts a quiet guy off the course – it is that on it he has the reputation for becoming too emotional at times. It’s something he has worked hard at improving.
“He gets so charged up and wants to win so much that it sometimes gets to the point that he needs to watch it a little bit and hold it in a little more,” Lewis said.
But hey, maybe a little more emotion and tenacity is what the U.S. team needs. After four losses in the past five matches, it can’t hurt. Lewis is willing to take his chances.
“John’s an extremely competitive guy, a gamer,” his captain said. “When the flag goes up, his ‘A’ game has a tendency to come to the surface.”
Echoed Craig: “He has a great knack for meeting the moment and rising to the occasion. When there’s a great challenge or a situation that’s pressure-packed, he usually plays his best golf. As soon as the lights come on, he tends to shine.”
Expect the same in the bright lights of Chicago. Along with a few more of those 350-yard drives.