Hamilton’s Trace Thomas hits a drive during the Division I sectional boys golf tournament at Miami Whitewater Golf Course on Oct. 5, 2016. GREG LYNCH/STAFF

An appeal to play: Hamilton’s Thomas gets to chase dreams on the links

That may seem like a simple statement of fact, but it’s much more than that for Thomas, a Hamilton High School senior.

Thomas and his Big Blue teammates finished fourth at last week’s sectional tournament, earning a trip to the district for the third straight year and remaining alive in their quest for a state championship.

“I’m just really happy we get to come to districts three years in a row,” Thomas said Monday evening after a practice round at Glenview. “Me and Eric (Roberts) have been best friends since the second day of preschool. Our sports together besides baseball are running low, so it’s nice to get another week in and give it a shot.”

Reaching this point took more than ability for Thomas. He needed help — lots of it — from people he knew and people he didn’t, including a pair of golf legends.

Hamilton senior Trace Thomas and his Big Blue teammates will participate in the Division I district boys golf tournament Thursday at Glenview Golf Course. RICK CASSANO/STAFF

It’s been a long, complicated journey, but Big Blue coach Justin Beck said everything turned out the way it should have.

“Really,” Beck said, “this was a huge achievement for the golf community.”

Chance of a lifetime

The issue of eligibility came up for Thomas in July when he was one of 81 prep players across the country selected to play in the PURE Insurance Championship, a PGA Tour Champions event at Pebble Beach Golf Links and Poppy Hills Golf Course in California.

The tournament matches junior players from the First Tee program with professionals and amateurs. Thomas, a member of the Greater Miami Valley First Tee since 2009, was the only Ohio player chosen.

The First Tee program isn’t just about golfing ability. Its mission statement reads like this: To impact the lives of young people by providing educational programs that build character, instill life-enhancing values and promote healthy choices through the game of golf.

And playing at Pebble Beach? It’s a golf mecca.

The problem for Thomas was that the Ohio High School Athletic Association had a rule that stated no golfer could participate in non-interscholastic competition on or after Sept. 4 and remain eligible. Three events were exempt — the U.S. Amateur for boys and girls, the Junior Ryder Cup for boys and girls, and the Junior Solheim Cup for girls.

The PURE Insurance Championship was not on the list, and it was slated for Sept. 22-24. So if Thomas participated, he would be ineligible for prep play when he got back, including the postseason.

“Trace was actually a finalist last year, so I had presented it to the coaches association as something that may be discussed at the state clinic,” Beck said. “They took it up there, and the state ruled that it wasn’t going to go through.

“Once we found out Trace made it this year, within probably two hours I was on the phone with the OHSAA,” Beck said. “That’s when we started getting the ball rolling with the appeals process.”

Trace Thomas (left) poses with Sir Nick Faldo at the PGA Champions Tour PURE Insurance Championship last month in California. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Assistant commissioner Jerry Snodgrass is the OHSAA administrator for boys and girls golf, so he was the primary contact for HHS. When it became clear that a formal appeal would be required, the process intensified.

Hamilton athletic director Todd Grimm informed the OHSAA of the intent to appeal in a letter. Grimm, Thomas and his parents (Scott and Carol) had to appear before an independent appeals committee Aug. 31 at the OHSAA office in Columbus.

Prior to that, the Thomas family checked other states’ rules and accumulated numerous letters of support from associations and companies on Trace’s behalf. Two of those letters came from Jack Nicklaus and Sir Nick Faldo.

How exactly does a high school kid get people like Nicklaus and Faldo to join his fight? Beck said a Facebook message from Carol Thomas led to Faldo’s letter, and Nicklaus came on board after a call from Scott Thomas.

“Three or four days later, there was a letter from Faldo Enterprises basically saying he was in support of Trace playing in this event and that he didn’t want to punish a kid for something he deserved,” Beck said. “Jack’s letter was a little bit more aggressive. His letter kind of went after the OHSAA and said we shouldn’t punish kids for archaic rules, that all we’re trying to do is grow the game of golf and having a rule like this didn’t make sense.”

Trace said he felt good going into the meeting in Columbus.

“We did our homework on other states’ rulings,” Thomas said. “I think it was allowed in 48 out of 50 states. Some states played high school golf in the spring, so it really wouldn’t matter, but it was still 48. That stat alone and having Jack Nicklaus and Nick Faldo and all these other people writing letters of support, I was kind of confident coming in that they were going to change it for me.

“It was funny … when we walked in the board room, up on the wall was Jack Nicklaus’ picture. That was like our first point. Jack Nicklaus from Columbus, Ohio, wrote a letter that this tournament needs to be added to the list.”

When the appeal was finished, Thomas headed back home. Beck was driving the team to a match later that day when his cellphone rang.

“My phone was going off in the cupholder,” Beck said. “I saw that it was Todd Grimm. I handed the phone to Eric Roberts and said, ‘Go ahead and answer it and tell him it’s you.’ Todd said, ‘I’ve got great news, the appeal’s granted,’ and then all of a sudden my phone just started blowing up. Trace’s mom called me. Jerry Snodgrass texted me. It was a really, really cool process to be a part of.”

Trace said his immediate reaction was, “Oh, thank God.”

“It’s everybody’s dream their senior year to make some kind of run at whatever sport they play,” he said. “That chance would’ve been completely wiped out if the appeal was denied. Now I’m still playing with my team.”

The rest of his season would’ve been wiped out because Thomas admitted he probably couldn’t have passed up the opportunity to play with the pros at Pebble Beach. Beck was adamant that Thomas needed to go, regardless of the OHSAA ruling.

“Absolutely,” Beck said. “In fact, in my letter to the state, I said, ‘As his golf coach, I’m telling you he doesn’t have a choice. He needs to go to California.’ I think when you’re given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, especially when it’s character- and integrity-based, you’ve got to seize that moment.”

Playing at Pebble Beach

The PURE Insurance Championship is a 54-hole event. The experience covers almost a week, though the tournament itself runs Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Eighty-one professionals were paired with a junior and two amateurs, and there were three concurrent competitions — pro (individual), pro-junior team (gross best ball) and pro-amateur team (foursome net best ball).

The professional in Thomas’ group was 66-year-old Bob Gilder, who has six wins on the PGA Tour and 10 wins on the Champions Tour.

“I was not familiar with him at all,” Beck admitted. “But he’s had a really solid career. Because he wasn’t a high-profile name, I felt like Trace had a pretty good chance of having a good experience.”

Thomas started his week with a nine-hole practice round at Poppy Hills. Included in his group … Sir Nick Faldo.

“We saw him on the practice range hitting balls,” Thomas said. “Since he had written me the letter, I introduced myself. He said, ‘Oh, you’re the lad.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, that was me.’ We had no idea I was playing with him. I get up to the tee, and it turned out he had the same tee time as us.

“He’s all business, man. I had never seen a level on a putting green until that day. He was out there mapping everything out, so that was pretty cool.”

Thomas also played an 18-hole practice round with Gilder at Pebble Beach and made some personal history, shooting a 41-35—76. The 35 represented his first-ever subpar total for nine holes.

Trace Thomas (left) poses with Bob Gilder at the PGA Champions Tour PURE Insurance Championship last month in California. SUBMITTED PHOTO

“I think I made like a 15-footer on 18 for birdie to shoot 1-under,” Thomas said. “To shoot 35 at Pebble Beach, that was pretty awesome.”

Once the tournament started, they played 18 holes at Poppy Hills and Pebble Beach, but didn’t make the cut. That left Thomas to play at Poppy Hills on Sunday in a competition that didn’t include the pros.

Thomas said he didn’t play great golf in the tournament, and Gilder went out of his way to help him.

“It was our first tournament day at Poppy, and I didn’t hit my irons very well,” Thomas said. “Bob went to the range with me and hit balls with me for an hour and a half, two hours. He gave me a lot of pointers. You can’t ask for a much nicer guy than Bob. He has been around the game a ton.”

He said he wasn’t star-struck during most of his time in California.

“The only time I was nervous was the first hole at Poppy playing with Nick Faldo because, you know, it’s Nick Faldo,” Thomas said. “It’s a big par-5 with a big slanted hill if you hit it way right. I hit this big old slice and my heart was racing and I was so nervous, and it hits this hill and actually comes rolling all the way back down. It was a terrible shot, but it ends up rolling back down in the middle of the fairway.

“After that, I wasn’t all that nervous. I mean, it was Nick Faldo, but it almost didn’t seem like it. It was him, you’re sitting there looking at him, but it was almost like I didn’t believe it.”

Thomas conceded he did have trouble focusing from time to time because of his surroundings.

“It’s so weird when you’re playing,” he said. “You’re on the green and you’re supposed to be reading your putt, and you’re sitting there looking out to the ocean. Your eyes are fixated on it. The views are everywhere, and they’re all outstanding. With all the history and the golf tournaments I’ve watched over the years, you’re like, ‘Wow, I’m actually here.’

“It’s crazy. It definitely lived up to the hype and probably a little more.”

Doing it ‘the right way’

And so Thomas finds himself back in Ohio, playing for Hamilton in the district tournament.

He missed the Greater Miami Conference tournament while he was playing in California, meaning his goal of being a first-team All-GMC player disappeared for the second straight year.

Last season, Thomas four-putted the last hole at the GMC tourney and missed the first team by a stroke.

He looks back at the appeals process that got him here and is thankful for everyone who went to bat for him. The independent appeals committee, a group of retired superintendents, voted 3-0 to include the PURE Insurance Championship on the list of exempt tournaments.

“Jerry Snodgrass was really excited for Trace and his family and obviously our program,” Beck said. “He and I both said there’s something to be said about going through the process the right way. We didn’t try to strong-arm it at all. We were just trying to go through the steps the state required, and fortunately the state found it to be a ruling they wanted to support.

The setting sun shines through the giant Cypress tree at the 18th hole during the second round of the PGA Champions Tour PURE Insurance Championship on Sept. 23 at the Pebble Beach Golf Links in Pebble Beach, Calif. KENT HORNER/GETTY IMAGES

“In fact, they’re actually because of this starting a committee to go back and look at other archaic rules that may be in the rulebook. It’s kind of the ‘Trace Thomas clause.’ It’s pretty cool.”

Snodgrass said that while the OHSAA is indeed looking at other rules that might need to be amended, he said a lot of changes have already been made since he became the golf administrator. This is his first full year in that role.

“I am in support of opening opportunities for golfers, both male and female, that don’t infringe on high school golf while also allowing individuals such as Trace to gain the benefits of the sport,” Snodgrass said. “We will continue to look at those rules, and if they make sense and don’t create a competitive imbalance, then you’ll probably see me proposing them. I realize I’ve got the pen in my hand at times, but I have checks and balances too.”

Snodgrass couldn’t stand up and fight his own organization’s rules in the Thomas case, but he was clearly in support of what he considered to be a common-sense solution. He also liked the way Trace handled himself during the appeal.

“The challenge is that so many of our regulations — and I don’t mean this in a negative way — were developed before any of this non-interscholastic stuff was out there,” Snodgrass said. “So much of it was in the team sport area primarily, where AAU basketball and JO volleyball existed and that was it. We put in a one-size-fits-all rule for everything.”

Snodgrass said he was originally in favor of the OHSAA Board of Directors hearing appeals. He said the independent committee system for appeals was implemented about five years ago by commissioner Dan Ross.

“I was dead wrong. That appeals panel is one of the best things that’s ever happened,” Snodgrass said. “The common joke — and this is coming from me as a former athletic director — was all the time you’d read the minutes of the appeals and you’d see denied, 6-0; denied, 6-0, denied, 6-0. Now 32 percent of appeals are granted.”

Beck and the Thomas family are planning to have dinner with Snodgrass next week to thank him for his help with the appeal.

“If you talk to any coach in the state of Ohio, Jerry Snodgrass is the guy that gets it,” Beck said. “There’s never a doubt why Jerry does what he does. He does it for the kids.”

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