Modesto City: Thomas repeats twenty years later

MODESTO, Calif. (June 13, 2011) -- Jeff Thomas flipped his cigarette to the turf, 1950s style, as he took his stance on Dryden Park's first tee.

Twenty years ago this month, he won the Modesto City Championship by driving Dryden's downwind 326-yard first hole, and there he was again Sunday — locked in a hard-to-believe playoff, first tee, a helping breeze wafting his cigarette smoke toward the green. Golf deja vu.

Thomas, 52, had returned to his comfort zone.

"I sure wouldn't mind a 2-putt win here," he thought.

Thomas didn't rip it to within eight feet like he did in 1991.

This time, after watching opponent Teddy Schrier block his drive about 60 yards to the right, the former Modestan launched one — yesterday's persimmon replaced by today's titanium — that carried the greenside bunker and settled about 30 feet off the putting surface and pin-high.

By then, the episode seemed to be preordained. Schrier struggled to a bogey while Thomas carefully two-putted from 10 feet for a par and his third City title. Thomas became the oldest champion in the tournament's 29-year history. His latest victim, a Cal State Stanislaus senior-to-be, wore diapers during Thomas' first two victories ('91 and '92).

For once, a flat-belly was humbled by a, well, not-so-flat-belly.

"I am shocked, absolutely," Thomas admitted. "I was just trying for second place."

Schrier, the 2-iron-thin Atwater product, had all but enrolled his name on the list of champions for the second time in the last three years. He led by seven strokes with only eight holes to go until the fickle golf gods intervened.

Schrier (66-74 — 140) and Thomas (70-70 — 140) both contributed to the turnaround. The margin tightened, but it was Schrier's pushed 3-iron and costly triple bogey 7 at the 16th — while Thomas drained a 30-footer for birdie — that changed everything.

"I started to think, 'How close am I to him?' " Thomas said.

Neither knew it at the time, but Schrier's 3-putt bogey at 17 locked them into a tie. First-day leader Jim Atchison (64-80 — 144), the 2008 champion, slumped early in the day and vented by peeling down to an undershirt for the final six holes.

Meanwhile, the co-leaders matched birdies at the par-5 18th with Schrier holing a clutch 6-footer on top of Thomas' 8-footer.

"We didn't even know where we stood when we shook hands," Thomas said.

Thomas, a conveyor belt salesman who now lives in Huntington Beach, won more than a few bets at Dryden during the late 1980s. His long-distance tee shots and smiling swagger anchored his twin City victories, but Father Time chipped away at his game.

"I won the Costa Mesa Senior last year. They let us 50-year-olds in as seniors," he said. "I was tired of getting beat by college kids."

Schrier, predictably downcast, wore the loss with grace.

"He (Thomas) is a good player with a lot of experience here. He was center-cutting 'em," Schrier said. "I definitely knew nothing was guaranteed. Weird stuff like this always happens."

The women's division went more to form. Turlock's Spencer Heller (70-73 — 140) coasted to a nine-stroke win and her second straight City crown. Modesto's two-time City champion Jane Findarle and Fresno State freshman Hillary Billingsley tied for second.

Heller, a two-time NCAA Division II All-American with two years left at Sonoma State, high-fived her caddie-father Jim after she birdied Creekside's par-3 15th. Out-driven consistently by her foes, the 5-foot-6 Heller compensated with crisp irons and a solid short game.

"I'm Crossfit training twice a week and also doing cardio," she said. "Getting outdriven used to bother me when I was younger."

Ken Webb of Turlock (68-77 — 145) claimed the senior championship flight, and Riverbank 9-handicapper Leo Martinez edged Bill Clayton of Modesto in the first flight. Bill Donaldson of Livermore (second flight) and Phil Dodge of Modesto (third flight) also were victorious.

The tournament drama was reserved for Schrier and Thomas, who supplied a stirring finish.

"I wasn't even thinking about winning," Thomas said. "Second place was the only realistic thing going on out there."

All bets are off, of course, when Thomas walks to Dryden's first tee.

ABOUT THE Modesto City

NCGA Points Event. 36-hole stroke play event open to any amateur golf 18 years or older. Men's championship division is capped at index of 5.7. Senior championship capped at index of 8.7. Four men's net flights based on handicap. Senior men's flight along with women's flights in which a gross and net winner will be determined.

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