J.B. Holmes: The PGA Tour’s Alpha Dog


In what should have been the prime of his career, J.B. Holmes spent almost three years in various forms of injury rehabilitation, after two brain surgeries and a broken ankle. He fought back to win on Tour in 2014 and “15. Then, two months after his latter victory, his high school coach and father figure died of a heart attack. We caught up with Holmes, 34, at his home in Bradenton, Fla. The resilient star looks back on a year that saw him notch top-5s in two majors and help Team USA win the Ryder Cup. He also looks ahead to 2017 and explains why the time to win his first major is now.

After victories in 2014 and ’15, you had another strong campaign last year, with top-5s at the Masters and the British Open. You also led the Tour in driving distance. Is a major title the next step?

Hopefully. It’s been a great two years, so I just want to keep that going. I’ve been focusing more on the majors, and I’ve gotten some better results. Obviously, I would love to win a major, so I need to be in the conversation at more events. I want to get myself in contention and have those chances. I definitely have the game for it, and I’m finally healthy. Golf’s really hard to start with, and when you’re not healthy and trying to fight through stuff, it’s even more difficult.

Team USA finally beat the Europeans in the Ryder Cup. You made the squad on points. What was the difference at Hazeltine?

Captain Davis Love did a great job getting everyone playing as a team, not as a group of individuals. He talked to us, gave us input, kept us in the loop. And younger guys like Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed have fire. We didn’t have all the same guys who lost, lost, lost, lost, lost. It was an atmosphere where we could play our best. I’ve been part of two teams, and both of those captains did similar things, and both teams won. Hopefully, we’ll see a pattern there and can build on what Paul Azinger started [in 2008] and what Captain Love kept going.

What surprised you at this Ryder Cup?

That Bubba [Watson] came. That was huge, after being ninth on the [points] list and not getting picked. A lot of people would have been upset. But he was pumped to be there. He was selfless, helped us bond, and I never saw him hang his head.

You seem to have good perspective on golf and life. Have your health woes contributed to that attitude?

Being in a good place, growing as a person, it’s made me realize that golf is my job. It’s important, but it’s not that important. You can ask anybody in the world who won in Houston [in 2015], and a very, very low percentage will know it was me. In the grand scheme, winning on Tour is not a big, life-altering experience. If you think that, you’ve got a rude awakening coming, because guess what: The next week they start another golf tournament.

You had surgery in 2011 for a structural defect in the cerebellum known as Chiari malformations, and then another surgery because you were allergic to the adhesive that the doctors had used on your skull. You came back, but ended up hitting too many balls and getting tennis elbow. And then, to top it all off, you broke your ankle Rollerblading. It all cost you almost three years.

It was one medical event after another. But at the same time, I enjoyed taking a year off and just getting on a good workout routine. There was a lot of rehab involved. At one point, I was going to rehab at three different places a day in Orlando. But at least I got to take vacations with family and friends.

Maybe it’s fitting that your wife, Erica, is a nurse. She had to undergo brain surgeries, too, right?

She had three before we even met. She doesn’t call mine brain surgery. With mine, they cut out a piece of skull and put a metal plate over it. She had brain surgery.

But wasn’t yours scary the second time you went under the knife?

I had to get a medevac to Johns Hopkins. I was allergic to the adhesive and the patch popped up, so there was fluid going everywhere. It was chemical meningitis. Hers was way scarier—she had pressure sitting on her nerve, and if it had gotten worse, she could have become blind.

Didn’t Erica know next to nothing about golf when you two met, in 2010? She wasn’t even aware that you were a top Tour pro.

She thought I was a club pro. The first tournament I took her to was Phoenix in 2011. She figured it out then—like, Okayyy, this is different than I thought.

And she’s also from Kentucky.

She lived in Louisville, and when the Ryder Cup was in Louisville in 2008, she thought it was a horse race. [Laughs]

When guys on Tour complain about sore necks or shoulders, do you want to say, “I had brain surgery!”

Nah. It’s a long year, and your body goes through a lot. Part of that is preparation, making sure that you’re in good shape.

Your obstacles were more than physical. David Parsons—your high school golf coach and your caddie’s father—died unexpectedly in 2015, yet another setback.

We were in Rhode Island for the CVS Health Charity Classic in late June, and Brandon [Parsons, Holmes’s caddie] got a call in the second round: “Coach Parsons has died of a heart attack.” He was only in his early 60s.

Did you finish the round?

Brandon took off, and I felt obligated to stay. Terry [Reilly, Holmes’s agent] took over my bag. On one hole, I pulled my drive about 80 yards. Obviously, I wasn’t there. Peter Jacobsen, who runs the event, pulled me aside and said, “You’ve done everything we needed you to do. You need to go be with Brandon.” I really appreciated Peter doing that.

As you were growing up in central Kentucky, Coach Parsons was a father figure to you. There’s a story about when you made the high school golf team as a third-grader. The team stopped at McDonald’s. You were too shy to go in, and he coaxed you to go inside by promising to order for you.

He was a big part of my life. He was my coach for 10 years. The last tournament he came to was the [2015] Match Play at Harding Park in San Francisco, with his wife. We got to see Alcatraz together. That was the last time I saw him.

You lost more people in 2015. It must have been a trying year.

My grandma died the week before [the Shell-Houston Open], and I went to her funeral. I didn’t get to Houston until Wednesday, and then I played great and won. By Augusta, it caught up to me. And then my mom’s dad passed away. He had Alzheimer’s.

So three funerals in one year?

People who were instrumental in my life. My dad got me started playing golf, and I played a lot with my grandpa, too.

What did Coach Parsons teach you that stuck with you?

I basically grew up at Coach Parsons’ house, with Brandon. It’s not one thing—it’s all the memories I had with Coach, like high school golf trips. Coach Parsons was my tennis coach, too. And my senior year, I was his assistant in a class, so I hung out with him for an hour each day.

Making the high school golf team as a third-grader is incredible. Did you get 10 letters for those 10 years of high school golf?

[Laughs] I got one letter and 10 bars. This was my 12th year on the PGA Tour, so I’ve now played on Tour longer than I played high school golf. I didn’t fail any grades, either!

You won in Phoenix as a rookie, in 2006. J.J. Henry’s caddie, Matt Hauser, said you hit a ball that week harder than any shot he’d ever seen. And that season, you almost dethroned Bubba atop the driving distance ranks. Quite a rookie year.

[Laughs] The ball goes a little farther in Phoenix. I can still move it, but I don’t know if anybody hits it as far as they did at 23.

You moved it pretty good at Augusta in 2016, for your best Masters finish. Does playing a cut there hurt you at the par-5 13th, which favors a draw for righties?

That hole has given me trouble. I haven’t played it as well as I’ve wanted to. My cut works on 15. You have to play the par 5s well.

Amazingly, you’ve only played the Masters four times.

It’s a small field, and you’ve got a lot of past champions playing. And when I won in Phoenix in ’06, they didn’t have the win-and-in rule.

Let’s talk Kentucky golfers. If you and Kenny Perry played mano a mano— both at your peak—who wins?

If you’re talking about when Kenny was winning three or four tournaments a year and he’s hitting every approach shot to a foot, nobody’s beating him.

Your first win after all those physical and emotional struggles came at the 2014 Wells-Fargo. You entered the event ranked 242nd in the world. Was it your most meaningful Tour victory?

Yeah, it would have to be. I’d worked so hard to come back from everything, the elbow, the ankle, the surgeries—everything.

You also battled vertigo. What did you think when Jason Day played so well at Chambers Bay while suffering from the same affliction?

That was impressive. Jason played incredibly well with that. For me with vertigo, I would lay the sod over it one or two shots a round.

Looking ahead to 2017, what parts of your game do you need to work on?

It’s mainly mental. I think all facets are good enough to win on the Tour, good enough to win majors. I just haven’t done it yet. Golf is so much about playing good at the right time. You look at Sergio Garcia, who is obviously a phenomenal player but hasn’t won a major. And then you have somebody like Shaun Micheel, who won one tournament [the 2003 PGA Championship], and it was a major.

Timing is everything on Tour.

Yeah. So, I won Houston [in 2015]. I was the best player on Tour that week. If it had been just a week later, I’d have won the Masters. [Laughs] I also need to get more consistent with my chipping and my short game. You never can get too good at that.

You have a homemade swing—the club doesn’t reach parallel at the top. What pleases you about your move?

That it’s my own. I have a different swing. It’s not typical. Yet I feel like I’m a great ballstriker. Hey, I’m blessed: I don’t have to hit balls six hours a day. I get most of my work by playing.

You’re similar to Bubba in that way. He’s never been a range rat.

Well, I’ll hit more balls than him—it’s not that I won’t hit any balls. I’ll work on something if my swing is off. But if I’m hitting it well, I’ll just hit warm-up shots and go play. I mean, how many times in a round do you get a dead-flat lie with a full club like you do on the range? That’s not golf.

Right. Golf is about finding a way.

Absolutely. I played with Jordan Spieth in the second round of the Tour Championship [in 2015]. I hit the ball a lot better than Jordan did, but when he mishit a shot, he got up and down. I was in better positions, but I didn’t make the putts, didn’t hit my wedges as close. I shot 2-over, and he shot 4-under. He capitalized. He didn’t give any back.

Let’s talk about a key member of your team—your dog, Ace.

Whether I shoot 90 or 60, Ace doesn’t care. When you come home, he’s so happy to see you he might pee on himself. It’s nice to have him on the road. It’s like a piece of home. He plays with Keegan Bradley’s dog, Penny.

And isn’t Ace a service dog?

Ace has his green service-dog vest when he’s in the airport. As soon as we get on the plane, he lies down and goes to sleep. He’s been doing it since he was little, so he’s used to it.

You play in pro-ams. What advice do you give weekend players for more power?

The secret is clubhead speed. I can’t help them in one day. A lot of amateurs do five different things wrong. If there was one big secret, then everybody would do it. Nobody is walking up to LeBron James and asking him how he dunks. He does it because he’s 6’8” and can jump out of the gym. I can hit the ball a long way at 5’10” because of certain attributes I was blessed with. It doesn’t show up in my height. I’m strong, I have real fast hips, and I have the right attack angle on the ball.

When you air it out on the range, who’s longer: you, Bubba or DJ?

Probably Bubba. It depends on who’s grooved. Dustin pounds it. We’re all different. Bubba has a low cut, I’m all carry, and DJ’s in the middle.

Do you work out?

I stretch. And I do Pilates—there’s an instructor nearby. I’ve got to pay somebody to make me do it, because I’m not going to do it otherwise. I hate working out. I’ll play basketball.

So mostly you come by your strength naturally? Good genes?

My dad had really big legs growing up. He had to buy size-36 pants and have the waist taken down to 30 because he had massive legs. I’ve always been built for speed, and really strong. I had a buddy in college—Brandon’s brother, Tyler Parsons—who’s a trainer now, and he was like, “Working out is so hard, I got my bench press up to 205.” I was like, “All right, let’s go.” I hadn’t lifted in like three years, and I got 210. It’s all genetics. I’m very, very lucky.

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