Big in­ter­view: JB Holmes

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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.

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