Big interview: JB Holmes
The US Ryder Cup winner has beaten brain surgery to win again.
When JB Holmes was told he needed emergency brain surgery in 2011, his plan was simple – recover, practise, improve and win again on the PGA Tour. That’s exactly what the Ryder Cup star did
In 2011, JB Holmes had it all. A Ryder Cup star, he led the PGA Tour distance stats, averaging 318.4 yards per drive. He won nearly $1.4 million, with six top-10 finishes. Life was good, his career on an upwards trajectory. But the season ended prematurely when he was forced to withdraw from the US PGA after shooting a first-round 80 and feeling unwell. All of a sudden, his career – and his life – were under threat.
He’d been suffering vertigo symptoms for a while – Holmes thought it was an ear infection – but it was much more serious. He was diagnosed with the rare condition called Chiari Malformation Type 1, or excessive pressure on the brain where it attaches to the spinal cord. He underwent emergency brain surgery, but complications set in – it turned out he was allergic to the glue on a titanium plate that was put in his skull – and a month later he had to be airlifted back to hospital to fix severe headaches. These were tough, traumatic times for JB and his family, but he knew what needed to be done, telling TG: “It was something that could make me better, so I was going to get it done.”
Holmes remained positive throughout his ordeal and, more than anything, was determined to get back on track with his life and golf. The four-time PGA Tour winner has done just that and to his enormous credit, not only made the triumphant US Ryder Cup team at Hazeltine last year, but acted as a major source of inspiration to his teammates. “I’m still living the dream,” he smiled. Tell us about your early career... I started playing golf before any other sport – I had a club in my hands at 14 months, virtually before I even started walking! I was just hitting it in the yard. I liked baseball a lot and probably was better at than golf until
was 12, then golf took over. As a kid I won the first four competitions I played in and thought “wow, I’m pretty good at this!” I kept playing and got to the stage where I really enjoyed golf more, worked at it and tried to do the best I could. It went from there. I excelled at it and I’ve been on the PGA Tour for the last 11 years. It’s a dream come true.
You’ve won virtually everything in the game except a Major – that must be a target? You’re trying to win every time you go out. But if you start putting pressure on yourself, it’s unlikely to happen. The goal is to get better every week, do the best you can and enjoy being out here. If you’re doing that, the opportunities to win will come and then you’ll be ready to play well in those moments. Does brain surgery put golf ambitions into perspective? Oh yeah! It took six months to diagnose, but I had the surgery so we could figure out exactly what the problem was. It was rough that year. I started to get the symptoms, felt dizzy and didn’t play very well. It was hard to get out there and practise and I just felt something wasn’t right. Obviously when I found out what the problem was it was kind of a relief; but at the same time it was pretty scary.
What’s it like when someone says “you need brain surgery”? It was scary at first. The surgeon said difficulty-wise for him it was only about one out of 10. So that makes you feel better. But it’s still brain surgery! I just kept it out of my mind, basically until the day. I got to the hospital and they started putting on the gown and it then really hits you.
How are you now? Everything is good. The surgery went great, although it took me about a year-and-a-half to two years to get back to 100 per cent. Ifeel I’m now 100 per cent. But it was a lot of hard work – rehab,
‘Nah, I never let myself think it’s over. I always said they’d fix me, I’d go out and get better’
hitting piles of balls. It was a whole lot of work, but it makes it that much sweeter when you come back and achieve things.
Did you ever doubt if you’d be able to play again on the PGA Tour? Nah, I never let it get to that stage. I always said they’d fix me, I’d go out and practise and get better. And after my first tee shot back on Tour, I said ‘OK, now I’ve got to go and win again’. It was a process and I never really thought this or that could happen.
But you had to take your recovery slowly? It was a slow process getting better, waiting for the mobility in the neck to heal. I could putt after a month, chip a month and a half later, but I had to wait four months before I could start hitting drivers.
Has it changed your game at all? It can be frustrating knowing you can play better, but I realise you can’t take anything for granted – you’ve got to appreciate the moment you’re in. Life can change fast. You’re one of the few young Americans to have won two Ryder Cups; how does it feel? That’s the icing on the cake. You call me a lucky omen, I prefer to call it skill! Seriously, I’ve had two great captains in Paul Azinger and Davis Love III; the way they set the team up together I played great and hopefully I’ll make the team for the defence in Paris next year.
Is it harder to win on the PGA Tour these days with so much strength and depth? Pretty much everyone in the field has a chance to win. You don’t tend to have as many double or triple winning players in a single season, Justin Thomas being an exception this year. I’m not saying multiple winners don’t happen, but you used to have 10 guys who would dominate and virtually win twice every year. But generally speaking that is no longer the case.
Is that a good thing for the game? Absolutely. It’s great to have stronger fields, more people playing and in contention. Everyone has got better so that can’t be bad for the sport.
What are you working on in your game? My driving was pretty bad earlier in the
season so I’ve been trying to improve that. My irons, wedges and putting have been pretty good – I’ve worked on my wedges really hard and that has paid off. Driving is usually my strong point, but I’m not too worried about it, I can find it. It’s all about putting everything together in one week.
Where does your power come from? It’s a lot of things. I have fast hips, I have big, strong legs, I have big forearms and I create clubspeed with all those along with a big hip turn. I generate a 120-124mph through everything working together. If I was 6ft 5in I’d hit it further, but with my height (5ft 11in) I’m pretty much maxed out!
What driving tips can you give our readers? Everybody is different. Firstly, amateurs should make sure they have the right amount of loft – you often see them struggling to get it in the air. I see a lot of amateurs coming over the top of it and really hitting down on it and it’s harder to get much distance as you need to be coming more from the inside and trying to hit up on the ball.
If you could pick one major power fix? All the guys who hit it long have wide stances, and have the ball more towards the front of their stance so they can try to hit up on it. That’s the biggest key to hit it a long way; you must hit up on it.
Having won twice in Scottsdale, are you a fan of the raucous par-3 16th at the Waste Management Phoenix Open? Nothing is quite like a Ryder Cup atmosphere, but you get on 16 and it’s close. It provides the only chance a golfer gets to experience that stadium-like feel experienced by a football or basketball player. It’s unique. You wouldn’t want to do it every week, but it’s a whole lot of fun when you get out there.
What are your hopes for this year? To continue what I’ve been doing. I’ve had a good couple of years. I’m really working on the mental game and just enjoy being out there and the more you can have fun, the better your golf ends up being.
‘The biggest key to hit it a long way? You must hit up on it’
n We talked to JB at the Waste Management Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale.
Take that, Europe JB is rare – a young American who’s been on two winning Ryder Cup teams.
Victory ahead Holmes tasted victory at the 2015 Shell Houston Open. Easy to spot Holmes famously wears a black glove.