Many claims are floated, like errant pitch shots, about golf’s deeper meanings. But one that seems to be on target makes the case that advancing a tiny white ball huge distances toward the horizon in the quest to nestle it into a tiny hole is the ultimate head game. At least that’s what the often-tortured souls who play the game think.
Even if you’re a non-golfer tuning in to the Aug. 7-10 major tournament at eastern Jefferson County’s Valhalla Golf Club, you will better appreciate the action if you identify a player or two to follow and play the mind game along with them. These guys — all 156 in the field — make up the cream of the professional crop and all have shown the talent to be winners at the game’s highest levels. Each will carry a unique backstory, like a second set of clubs, into the contest for the 96th PGA Championship.
Why not, I thought, choose J.B. Holmes?
A native of Campbellsville, Kentucky, about 80 miles south of Louisville, he is certainly a dramatic player, though at 5-foot-11, 190 pounds, he is not physically imposing. Nonetheless, Holmes launches the ball with uncanny power using his driver and other long-hitting clubs. As of June 1 he ranked sixth (of 191 listed) on the 2014 PGA Tour in average driving distance at 305.4 yards per swipe. And he pounds it out there without appearing to tear out of his shoes or overextend at any point during his swing.
He pretty much learned the game on his own, which to me is the hallmark of a Kentuckian: self-schooled and self-reliant. Though he started playing with his father as a preschooler (his swing hasn’t changed much since age four, his father has said), he didn’t have a lesson until he was 12 or 13. While many on the tour have been groomed by swing coaches since childhood, Holmes employed one only after he left the University of Kentucky and joined the pro tour in 2006.
That coach, Matt Killen, a Franklin, Kentucky, native who also tutors Kentucky touring pros Josh Teater, 35, and Kenny Perry, 53 (see sidebar, page PGA 6), has tweaked but not significantly altered the Holmes swing. “The main source of his power is his sequencing,” Killen said as we watched the golfer hit practice shots before the Memorial Tournament in late May in Dublin, Ohio. “He goes from the ground up to the hips and chest and arms to the club. It’s like a whip cracking at the magical moment — not too early. That’s the secret to his power.”
Or, as Holmes’ mother Lisa has said, “John is what we call ‘country strong.’”
At age 32 he should be in the prime of his golfing career, where the strength, flexibility and confidence of youth is tempered, but not overwhelmed, by the battle scars of experience. When you boil down the PGA Tour — a weekly test of 100-plus professionals all seeking that single Sunday trophy — there really aren’t many winners. It’s hard to look at millionaires following summery weather around the globe and strolling on plush green grass as unfortunates, but there are many more instances of managing failure than success at each tournament. Everyone but the winner must make peace with their outcomes.
It all came easy for Holmes during his first year on the PGA Tour, 2006. He finished 10th and high in the money in his first start and a few weeks later won the FBR Open in Scottsdale, Arizona, by seven strokes, making him, at 24, one of the fastest-ever to top $1 million in accumulated earnings. He came back two years later to repeat as the 2008 FBR Open champ, beating Phil Mickelson in an extra-hole playoff, and at one point that year advanced to 42nd in the world rankings, his highest status so far. (He was 70th on the list this June.) He capped the year with a starring role in the Ryder Cup, held at Valhalla in 2008.
As happens with most tour golfers, though, his fortunes turned, forcing some attitude adjustments. “I have a mental coach I’ve been working with,” Holmes told me during our interview on the Memorial practice tee. “I’m trying to enjoy it out here more, not take it quite as hard.
“I try to not think about the score too much. Some weeks the ball bounces into the hole, some not. I try to get as unattached to the results as I can get.”
Holmes became severely detached from his golf game in May 2011. He was competing in the Players Championship, one of the year’s biggest tournaments, when he started feeling dizzy, like he might topple over into one of greenside water hazards. The wooziness continued and he withdrew from the following week’s event. Then-girlfriend Erica Kahldin — now Erica Holmes after their marriage (his second) in April 2013 — recalls the rounds he went through with doctors, who first suspected migraines or a sinus infection, then tested him for vertigo. “The exercises they had him do were quite entertaining to watch,” said Erica, a Louisville native and emergency-room nurse.
After a frustrating series of dead-ends, Holmes was diagnosed by a Johns Hopkins surgeon with Chiari malformations, structural defects in the portion of the cerebellum that controls balance. He had surgery in September 2011 to remove the skull abnormalities, suffered a setback when an allergy to an adhesive the surgeon used to secure a titanium plate in his head caused major inflammation, and then underwent a second operation to clear up the complications.
When Holmes picked up a driver again, his tee balls were traveling just 250 yards instead of the gravity-defying 350 he previously carried with regularity. Killen said Holmes had to relearn how to leverage his swing against the ground to regain his awe-inspiring clubhead speed. He returned to the tour for the 2012 season and finished 80th in year-end earnings with $1.18 million.
Then, in early 2013, his career took another duck hook to the sidelines. Holmes broke his left ankle while rollerblading. During that downtime he had surgery to repair a left elbow he’d injured hitting too many golf shots too quickly trying to get back from previous layoffs. His daily calendar at that time often included a four-pack of ankle rehab, elbow rehab, acupuncture and physical conditioning. But he was determined.
Holmes said his wife, who took a year off from nursing to help with the recuperation at their home near Orlando, “It was good to see that fire come back. He grew up loving golf. For a few years he played because that’s what he was good at, but I don’t know if he still had that love in it. I think he re-found that.”
Holmes also changed his technique on shots of 100 or fewer yards (“more finesse, less clubhead speed”) and fine-tuned his accuracy on longer approaches to greens. At the Memorial, Killen stood by me on the range, fussed with a launch monitor and watched Holmes swing as he described the golfer’s road back. “Most people just see him as a guy who bombs it and chops it out of the rough,” Killen said. “But he’s got a great finesse game. His wedge play, putting and greenside game are as good as anybody’s.”
Follow him at Valhalla this month and you’ll see a man who looks quietly comfortable in his Srixon ball cap, good ol’ boy sideburns and monochromatic golf polos. The loudness comes when his noticeably thick forearms and extra-fast hip rotation whip the driver through the swing, causing an unmistakably distinct sound as it concusses the ball. Yet there also is a quiet precision to the more-controlled swings he uses to drop iron shots softly on the green. How can a player, you might think, be at once so potent and so measured?
Renewed proof that Holmes’ talent can at times outperform all others came at this year’s Wells Fargo Championship, held in early May in Charlotte, North Carolina. He won that tournament, besting veteran Jim Furyk by one stroke for his third PGA Tour victory. That moment secured him $1.24 million and automatic invitations to next year’s Masters as well as the PGA at Valhalla.
“I love that golf course,” Holmes said of his home-state venue. “I’ve played it a bunch and just like it. It was one of my goals this year to make sure I got back and qualified for it.”
Holmes, who now lives in Orlando, was still growing his powers as a teenager when the PGA championship came to Valhalla twice before, in 1996 and 2000 (won, respectively, by Mark Brooks and Tiger Woods). But the Jack Nicklaus-designed course fits Holmes well, especially the 300 yards added since 2000 to make it play long even by pro standards. In addition to favoring his mammoth drives, Valhalla requires precision mid- and long-irons, also strengths of his.
Keith Reese, the general manager at Valhalla, who previously was the golf pro there for 17 years, said, “I think it’s a ball-strikers’ course. (In golf parlance, a ball-striker excels at longer, full-swing shots.) Someone who’s a good iron player should play this course well.”
“Extreme length does work as an advantage,” Reese said. “I think he has a great chance.”
Holmes can also summon up warm memories of the one big event he’s already competed in at Valhalla — the 2008 Ryder Cup, matching the U.S. against Europe’s best in team play. He participated in two partners matches, one of which ended in a tie and the other a win for the U.S. Then, during the final day of singles matches, he defeated Søren Hansen to get the U.S. within one point of clinching the cup, which it secured soon thereafter when Furyk closed out his opponent. It was the only American victory over the Europeans in the biennial contest so far this century.
“That was the best part of my career so far,” Holmes told me. “It was awesome. It was a dream come true — mostly because of being in the home state and knowing that golf course and being able to be in a key part and finish strong.”
If he finishes strong and at the top of the leaderboard at this month’s PGA, Holmes will complete a large circle back to the magic he felt six years ago. And his Kentucky fans will be there to appreciate the moment.
This article appears in the August 2014 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit Loumag.com.
Photo by Chris Casella