LOS ANGELES – A wild West Coast swing saved the best for last.
After two months of Sundays, from 30-mph wind gusts in Maui to hail at Pebble Beach to this week’s run-in with something called the “Pineapple Express” (that’s a thing, look it up), the lesson was clear – Mother Nature doesn’t always win, but she certainly refuses to be left out of the conversation.
Through it all, the PGA Tour persevered, albeit worse for wear.
After playing 72 holes in three days of cold, wind and rain, Genesis Open host Tiger Woods sipped a cup of coffee, his only refuge following a blustery final day, and considered the draconian conditions and the toll a week of heavy-lifting had taken.
“I'm happy that it's over,” sighed the 43-year-old Woods, who added a tie for 15th place to his Riviera resume. “The weather, the long days, the temperature, trying to be focused for long, long periods of time, it took a toll on a lot of us out there today. Well, quite frankly, this entire week.”
Justin Thomas, 18 years Woods’ junior, could relate.
Thomas had held up admirably through three-and-a-half weary days, piecing together back-to-back rounds of 65 on the weekend to cruise into the final round with a four-stroke lead. This was JT in full flight, launching towering drives into the Southern California sky and converting putts from Santa Monica to Malibu.
But a week that began with early play on Thursday being wiped from the record books as a result of a seven-hour weather delay and four consecutive days of golf that spilled well past twilight finally caught up with him.
He lost his legs, he lost his feel on the greens and, eventually, he lost a tournament that was his for the taking.
It wasn’t J.B. Holmes’ best stuff, but then again Rickie Fowler proved two weeks ago at the Waste Management Phoenix Open that style points are overrated. The Genesis Open is Holmes’ fifth victory on Tour, but with rounds spilling from dawn to dusk and a forecast that grew worse by the minute, Sunday’s final turn felt greater than the sum of its parts.
“I just knew that on the back side with all that wind, there was just so much stuff that could happen. It was so difficult,” said Holmes, who closed with a 1-under 70 for a one-stroke victory over Thomas. “You just knew it was going to be very difficult and anything could happen.”
For Thomas, who along with Holmes completed his third round early Sunday and was back on the clock less than an hour later, it unraveled so quickly. Following a birdie at the first hole, he dropped shots at three of his next four holes to lose his lead and set up a closing nine with more lead changes than an NBA All-Star Game.
The duel between Holmes and Thomas would include three two-shot swings in four holes: first at the 10th when Thomas lipped out a par putt, then at the 11th following a three-putt from Holmes from inside of 4 feet and finally at No. 13 when JT’s day on the greens officially hit rock bottom with a four-putt from 63 feet.
If you’re sensing a theme here it could be found in Thomas’ putter. He needed 34 putts to complete his final round, that’s 10 more putts than he needed in Round 3, and struggled with two three-putts and that always-deadly four-putt on his closing loop.
“I really struggled putting in that wind out there. It's something that I've needed to get better at and it unfortunately just kind of showed a flaw in my game. I really didn't play that bad,” said Thomas, who closed with a 75. “It was obviously very, very difficult out there.”
To be clear, Holmes’ final round was a model of consistency under intense conditions and Thomas was quick to give credit to the champion’s final-round performance, but that didn’t salve the sting: “It's always a bummer to hand him a tournament,” Thomas allowed.
With winds gusting to 30 mph, Holmes hit 13 of 18 greens in regulation and was 4-for-5 scrambling in the final round despite missing half of his fairways. It may not have been picturesque, but it was productive.
It was a particularly impressive performance considering that his best finish this season on Tour came way back in October at the Safeway Open (T-9). It won’t help Thomas sleep any better to know that Holmes’ Riviera revival was the byproduct of his ridiculously improved performance on the greens.
He led the field in strokes gained: putting and was 61 of 68 on attempts from inside of 10 feet, a titanic improvement over the status quo this season. Before this week he ranked 202nd on Tour in strokes gained: putting and was averaging 29.96 putts per round.
“That it had been really bad putting is an understatement the last few weeks,” Holmes said. “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 on line.”
Thomas had no such breakthrough, especially down the stretch when he had chances to square what had long been a two-man match. He missed a 6-footer for birdie at the 17th hole that would have pushed him back into a share of the lead and again at the 18th hole from 23 feet.
This wasn’t exactly the Hollywood ending one would expect from a West Coast send-off, from the less-than-ideal weather to Kentucky’s Holmes, who is distinctly more southern drawl than SoCal. It was, at times, hard to watch, and even harder on the players. But given how this year’s trip out west unfolded, it was only apropos.