BY MIKE FIELDS
When Grover Justice is asked about his most memorable moments in golf, there’s no doubt that the day in 2005 when he played with Arnold Palmer at Bay Hill, shot 65 and got to kibitz with “The King” relegates every other experience to also-ran status.
“Yes, playing with Mr. Palmer at his golf course probably ranks right there at the top,” Justice said, almost reverently.
Winning five collegiate tournaments while playing for Kentucky also conjures up special memories for the Pikeville native. Finishing as low pro in the Kentucky Open three years in a row was pretty sweet, too. And now, as a teaching pro, watching more than a dozen of his students play on the college level is personally rewarding.
What about a chance to play in a PGA TOUR event in his own Kentucky home backyard?
Where would that rate on Justice’s “Wow!” meter?
He’ll find out this summer when he competes in the $3.5 million Barbasol Championship.
As the Kentucky PGA Section’s Player of the Year, Justice has received an exemption into the July 16-22 tournament at Champions at Keene Trace. He is the first golfer officially in the 132-player field.
“I’m real excited,” Justice said. “It’s pretty special to get this opportunity.”
Justice couldn’t be more familiar with Champions. He played the course countless times when he was in college because his coach, Steve Smitha, was the head pro there.
After Justice graduated from UK, he was an assistant pro at Champions for a while.
“I know the golf course,” he said. “I know they’re making a lot of changes. They’ve moved some earth and cut down a lot of trees, and putting the ropes up will make it a different environment.
“But (competitive golf) is not what I do now. It’s not how I make a living. So it’ll be a fun week, with no pressure. I’m excited to see how it goes.”
Justice, 44, took a couple swings at playing professionally in his younger days. He tried his luck on the Florida mini-tour circuit, lost his card, took a job as club pro at Green Meadow in Pikeville, then gave that up to go the mini-tour route again. He also tried to make it through PGA qualifying school “5 or 6 times.”
Justice eventually stepped away from golf for more than two years and worked in the mortgage business, but he wound up returning to the game he loves as a full-time teacher.
He now works at High Performance Golf Academy, which is located at Keene Run, the Champions’ neighboring course. He gives lessons 40 to 50 hours a week, which doesn’t leave him much time to work on his own game. He tries to practice and play on Mondays, and he might squeeze in 9 holes on weekends.
He and his wife Heather (who caddied for him during his early days playing the mini-tours) have a 14-year-old son (Logan) and 11-year-old daughter (Madelyn), so free time is a luxury.
But Justice hopes to have his game in competitive shape when the PGA TOUR comes to town in a few months.
How does he think Champions will hold up against some of the best players in the world?
“The weather is probably going to dictate how tough it can play,” he said. “If the greens get firm it could present a pretty good challenge. But no matter how it’s set up or how firm it is, somebody’s going to shoot 20 under. They’re just that good.”
Justice remembers the first time he played Champions — the 1991 Kentucky Open — a few weeks before he started his junior year at Pikeville High School.
“I was thinking it was the hardest golf course I’d ever played,” he recalled. “I was hitting driver and 5-wood into every hole and still couldn’t get to some greens.”
He shot 85-81 and missed the cut by nine shots. Steve Flesch, who shot a course-record 62 in the first round, won the tournament comfortably.
Justice was back at Champions for another Kentucky Open in 2004, and contended for the title. After shooting 69-68, he was tied for the lead with defending champion J.B. Holmes and Jeremy Langley going into the final round.
Justice was paired with Holmes the last day. Holmes wound up winning with a 69. Justice shot a 73 and finished fourth.
Justice remembered that among the spectators following him and Holmes that final round were club pro Mike Thomas and his 11-year-old son Justin.
Justin Thomas, of course, is now one of the brightest stars on the PGA TOUR.
“Who knows? Maybe watching J.B. that day was an inspiration for Justin,” Justice said. “And maybe some kids watching (the Barbasol) this summer will be inspired.
“That’s one of the ripple effects this tournament can have. Kentucky is already really rich in junior golf, and this can only help make it even better.”
Now, back to Grover Justice’s memorable day with Arnold Palmer 13 years ago.
Justice was the pro at Green Meadow at the time, and one of the members, Greg McDonald, invited him to go play at Bay Hill. (Some other Pikeville natives also belonged to the Florida club and were friends with Palmer.)
When they arrived at Bay Hill, McDonald surprised Justice by telling him one of their playing partners was going to be Palmer.
After Justice picked his jaw up off the tee box, he settled in and played great golf.
He stuck his approach on the first hole to within 8 feet of the pin. He rifled his tee shot on the long par-3 second hole to within 15 feet.
“After that, Mr. Palmer looks back at me and says, ‘Grover, does anybody do anything in Pikeville but play golf?’,” Justice remembered with a laugh.
It was an unforgettable moment.
Justice will have another unforgettable moment when he tees off in the first round of the Barbasol Championship this summer.