J.B. Holmes was 9 when he joined the Taylor County High golf team. He played collegiately for Kentucky, and at 23 burst onto the Tour with a seven-stroke victory at the 2006 Waste Management Phoenix Open in just his fourth start. He won the 2008 WMPO, led through 36 holes at that year’s PGA at Oakland Hills, and went 2-0-1 for the winning U.S. Ryder Cup team at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville.
For the longest time most everything went right. And then it didn’t. Brain surgeries. Tennis elbow. Broken ankle. Divorce.
“It was one thing after another,” says Holmes, whose revival has been one of the biggest stories of this season, and who will look to improve on his two second-place finishes in 2015 at this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational. “But this year has been a lot of fun, so far. The biggest thing is my schedule has been so solidified. I wasn’t in the U.S. Open, and now I am. I wasn’t in the British Open, and now I am. I’m in all the WGCs. It’s been nice.”
What happened to J.B. Holmes? The short answer is life happened.
He first was sidetracked by the dissolution of his first marriage, which he says was “definitely part of” his six-year slump. He came into the final round of the 2010 BMW Championship looking like a good bet to qualify for the Tour Championship, which would set him up for the top tournaments the following year, but shot 78 and dropped to 34th in the FedEx Cup standings.
“I think I ended up missing by one stroke,” he says now.
Still, he bounced back, racking up top-15 finishes in seven of his first 10 stroke-play starts in 2011, culminating with a T-6 at the Players Championship in May. That’s when he began to feel vertigo-like symptoms that began to affect his play. He tried to push through it, but he quit three months later after an opening-round 80 at the PGA Championship. Diagnosis: chiari malformations in his cerebellum.
Surgery went well, but every time Holmes tried to come off the steroids he got splitting headaches. He was also vomiting, so he was airlifted to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. It turned out he was allergic to the glue that surgeons used to affix a titanium plate to the base of his skull, and after a second operation he didn’t hit a ball for almost six months.
Brain surgery begat tennis elbow. When Holmes returned to golf at the end of 2011, he hit so many balls in an effort to make up for lost time he wrecked his left arm. Again he tried to play through the pain, getting shots in the elbow until March 2013, when he crashed while in-line skating with then fiancée Erica Kahlbin, breaking his ankle. He says the spill was a blessing, sort of, because it prompted him to get elbow surgery.
“That was probably the low point,” Holmes says now.
Last year, playing on a major medical extension, Holmes had 19 events in which he had to earn $580,000 to keep his card, but he did more than that with his third-career Tour win at the Wells Fargo.
Though he hasn’t won, this year has been even better. He lost to Jason Day in a playoff at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, and playing for the first time with a custom-built Fujikura shaft in his driver, Holmes shot a 10-under 62 in the wind-swept opening round of the WGC-Cadillac at Doral.
Although he would finish second again after a final-round 75 (“It just wasn’t my day,” he said) his 62 was epic — four strokes better than the next best score and 111⁄2 shots lower than the field average.
Holmes, who has made $1.75 million this year and risen to a career-best 19th in the world, is in a better place off the course too. He’s eating better and working out. He and Erica wed in May 2013 and, he says, they will soon start trying to have kids. For now they’re content chasing their golden doodle, Ace, around their new home in Bradenton, Fla.
“Everything is new,” says Holmes’s agent, Terry Reilly. “This has been such a fresh start for J.B., and he is so much more balanced in his life. He’s not worried about a golf score or anything else, and as a result he’s shooting the numbers he is,.”
On the day Holmes shot 62 in Miami, Reilly was on Long Island, N.Y., at a funeral for his first cousin, who died of a heart attack at 53. Still shaken by the loss, Reilly collected himself and wrote his client a congratulatory text. Holmes’s reply: Thanks Terry, we had a lot of fun out there today. I know your cousin had my back today. God is good.
“That’s who J.B. Holmes is right now,” Reilly says. “He’s in such a good place. He worked hard to make sure there were no stones unturned in his world. That’s why I’m really excited for the next few years.”
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