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After 10 years on his school team, Holmes joins the PGA Tour varsity

Big-hitting J.B. Holmes was a golf prodigy in his native Kentucky, and has become a force at the hghest level of professional golf.

01.06.2007 03:50 pm (ET)

KAPALUA, Hawaii (AP) -- The image of Tiger Woods as a golf prodigy is the putt he made on the Mike Douglas show at age 2. For Phil Mickelson, it was the green his father built in their backyard for young Lefty to create shots with his short game.

J.B. Holmes' background in golf is best illustrated by his letterman's jacket from Taylor County High School in Kentucky.

"It was a red jacket, and it would have been gray if I had all my patches," Holmes said after moving into weekend contention at the Mercedes-Benz Championship. "Ten-year letterman. That's got to be some kind of record."

That's right -- he spent 10 years on his high school golf team.

Holmes' first love was baseball, but that changed when he played his first junior tournament and won the first four times he teed it up. That's when his father approached the high school golf coach and asked if his son could try out for the team.

Holmes was in the third grade.

"They only had about four or five players on the team," Holmes said. "They said, 'Well, he has to shoot around 50 on nine holes.' So I went out there and played with the coach a little bit. I played on the team and got better."

He was one of the top two players on the team in the fifth grade. By the eighth grade, he was hitting the ball 300 yards. He won the state title as a sophomore. And the letters and conference patches kept piling up.

"The first year was a little rough. A couple of guys picked on you, but high schoolers are just mean," he said. "I was a third-grader playing with high schoolers, so I learned not to get intimidated. I played the state championship through my senior year, so I was always playing with people older than me, and I was beating them.

"It didn't matter who they are. You just do your best and play your game and see what happens."

The 24-year-old Holmes earned his ticket to Maui by winning the FBR Open in Phoenix last year with an awesome display of power, such as his 4-iron from 263 yards over the water on the par-5 15th that led to an eagle. He won so early, and did so little the rest of the year, that he became a forgotten rookie on the PGA Tour.

Camilo Villegas drew attention for his magazine looks and his body contortions while trying to get parallel with the green when reading putts. The Colombian, however, didn't win a tournament. Rookie of the year went to Trevor Immelman of South Africa, even though he had been playing as a pro overseas for six years.

Holmes, however, was a rookie in the purest sense.

He spent four years at Kentucky, made the Walker Cup team that summer, was a medalist at Q-School in the fall to earn his card and was a winner before he could even get his feet wet on the PGA Tour.

Then came the higher expectations, and the lack of experience. He played too many times in a row, got lonely being on his own for so long and didn't know the courses he was playing.

"I'm used to it now," he said. "I understand what's going on, and I've got a better feel."

It's safe to say Holmes is a quick study.

He was an Academic All-American at Kentucky, an amazing accomplishment considering he was diagnosed with dyslexia not long after arriving on the Lexington campus.

His grades were atrocious as a freshman. However long it took Holmes to read two pages in a book, his buddies had read six. He studied hard and knew the answers on the test, but he had only 50 minutes, and could get through only half the questions.

"If you're guessing the rest of them, your grades are just not going to be that good," he said.

The college worked with him, giving him extra time to complete tests. Holmes still had to work harder than anyone to read and learn all the material, but hard work never scared him.

"I think it helps me in golf," he said. "Dyslexia, you see pictures, you visualize real well. And in golf, a lot of that stuff is visualization. I picture shots really well."

His next lesson is learning to play a full season on the PGA Tour without wearing himself out.

The tour defines a rookie season as the year a player competes in his 10th tournament as a PGA Tour member. That's why Immelman was eligible last year, why Todd Hamilton won the award in 2004 at age 39.

But even rookies like Eric Axley and Troy Matteson had a year or two playing the Nationwide Tour, traveling across the country, figuring out where to stay and learning new golf courses.

For Holmes, it was overwhelming at times, and it showed at the end of the year.

"I played a whole lot early, and at the end of the year I was burned out," he said. "That was the most golf I ever played in a single year. I'm used to play 12, 13 events a year, and I played like 27 and was gone over six months. That's a big change from being gone two months, and every time you leave you've got six of your buddies going with you.

"I didn't handle it as well as I would have liked."

After winning in Phoenix, he didn't finish in the top 10 the rest of the year. He was sick the tail end of the year and didn't realize it until December, when he was told he had chronic tonsillitis and had his tonsils taken out. He lost weight, which he is slowly putting back on.

He is not worried about a sophomore slump.

"I'm 24," he said. "I think I have plenty of time to prove myself. I'm not too worried about that."

Holmes has been proving himself his entire life, starting with his first varsity letter in the third grade.

Copyright 2007 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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