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J.B. Holmes is getting his health back; his game's recovering too

He was having a fine 2011 on the PGA Tour until medical problems sidelined him. He has bounced back from brain surgery last summer. Now he's looking to get his game on track at the Northern Trust Open.

February 15, 2012|By Lance Pugmire
  • J.B. Holmes his a tee shot during the second round of the Farmers Insurance Open in La Jolla last month. Holmes is hoping to have a successful -- and healthy -- 2012 season.
J.B. Holmes his a tee shot during the second round of the Farmers Insurance… (Donald Miralle / Getty Images )

Before he was about to operate on the golfer's brain, J.B. Holmes' surgeon wanted to make sure there was one thing he didn't forget once he was finished with the delicate procedure. He had to remember to call his wife and wish her a happy birthday.

As Holmes came back to consciousness after surgery Sept. 1 to address the debilitating effects caused by something called Chiari malformations, the first thing he said to his Johns Hopkins doctor, George Jallo, was:

"Don't forget to call your wife."

For those nearby, including Holmes' girlfriend, Erica Kalbhin, and his parents, Maurice and Lisa Holmes, that was the sign that the good-natured, Kentucky-reared pro golfer was on his way to recovery.

The journey continues Thursday when Holmes tees off at the Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club.

"I still don't have my speed swing back, but I really like this golf course," said Holmes, whose three top-10 finishes at the Pacific Palisades course underline the point. "You can really swing here more than other places, and it's set more for a fade — which I play — on key holes."

In 2011, Holmes, 29, led the PGA Tour by averaging 318.4 yards a drive and won nearly $1.4 million with six top-10 finishes.

But his season ended prematurely when we withdrew after shooting a first-round 80 at the PGA Championship in August.

Three months earlier, at the Players Championship, Holmes stood up inside a trailer and felt a rush of dizziness.

"I thought it was an ear infection, or that I was tired," Holmes said. "But after hitting some balls, my body wasn't bouncing back. I was still dizzy, then started getting headaches. It became clear this was not just an ear infection."

Maurice Holmes said the difficulty in diagnosing his son's condition led to medication that left the golfer lethargic, still dizzy and dealing with "lots of depth perception issues."

Not good, especially on the golf course. As the dizziness persisted, Holmes posted finishes of 51st, 57th and 49th, missing the cut twice and then withdrawing.

"His depth perception became so bad at Greenbrier, he hit a drive 350 with 76 feet to the pin, but then he'd hit the ball 20 yards over the pin," Maurice Holmes said. "Then, on another hole, he'd hit it 25 yards short."

Ultimately, his condition was identified as excessive pressure on the cerebellum, an MRI exam showing where fluid flowing around the brain was blocked where the spinal cord attaches.

"They'd have to cut open a part of the skull," Maurice Holmes said.

J.B. Holmes said he listened to Jallo explain the procedure, which would include inserting a titanium mesh where a piece of skull would be removed. Holmes was satisfied that "this was something that can make me better, so I'm going to get it done."

His girlfriend, Kalbhin, is a nurse assigned to the recovery room and emergency room in Louisville.

"His mom's a nurse too, and being in the healthcare field, we knew enough to get us in trouble," Kalbhin said. "He didn't want to know anything that wasn't positive.

"His great attitude, putting those blinders on, helped him. I see it in the ER. The 'poor, pitiful me' attitude is never good for patients. He's just so happy go lucky, and once he decides to do something, he'll do it."

After receiving about 20 stitches to close the opening in the back of his neck, Holmes had a second operation in the same place in late October because of headaches caused because he was allergic to the adhesive placed where the section of skull was removed.

"It was a slow process getting better, waiting for the mobility in the neck to heal — now, it's about 90%," Holmes said. "I could putt after one month, chip a month and a half later … and had to wait three to four months before driving."

Holmes is hoping to regain the skill level he had before he was diagnosed with Chiari malformations.

In 2008, he beat Phil Mickelson in a playoff to win the FBR Open, and he edged Denmark's Soren Hansen for a Ryder Cup point in what became a U.S. victory.

In three tournaments this season, he has missed the cut twice — including a final-day 80 Saturday at Pebble Beach — and he collected more than $17,000 with a three-under round at Phoenix two weeks ago.

He ranks eighth in driving distance (305.8 yards) but acknowledges that his focus on restoring muscle memory and strength can be difficult to balance against the depth of his recent health issues.

After hitting his first drive in San Diego, for instance, Holmes said his thoughts quickly turned from "the grand scheme" to "I want to win out here."

"It can be frustrating knowing you can play better, but I realize you can't take anything for granted," Holmes said. "Appreciate the moment you're in, you know, because life can change fast."

lance.pugmire@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimespugmire

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