J.B. Holmes completes comeback from two brain surgeries with Wells Fargo victory

Brian Murphy
Yahoo Sports
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J.B. Holmes completes comeback from two brain surgeries with Wells Fargo victory

The man himself called it "low-risk" brain surgery, and in terms of all-time oxymora, that ranks right up there with the old George Carlin standbys "jumbo shrimp" and "business ethics."

J.B. Holmes said it about the two surgeries performed inside his skull in 2011. And Holmes, who once was a two-time PGA Tour winner and member of the victorious 2008 U.S. Ryder Cup team, is about the last guy you'd expect to be reading about after the star-studded field played 72 holes of golf at Quail Hollow for the Wells Fargo Championship.

It's not just that he was ranked 242nd in the world entering Quail Hollow, or that it had been six years since he won. It's that in the time since he last tasted glory, he'd had his brain operated on twice. We won't even mention an ensuing elbow injury and broken ankle while rollerblading last year. Just focus on the guy coming back from brain surgery – pardon me, two brain surgeries – to beat back Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy, Jim Furyk and a cast of thousands to re-launch his career at age 32.

His insistence that it was "low risk" in the fall of 2011 was based on the diagnosis of Chiari malformations, which cause vertigo-like symptoms, and is treatable. Still. You want two brain surgeries? He had to have the second because he proved allergic to the titanium placed in his brain after the first one. He had to be airlifted from his Kentucky home to have the second surgery.

So forgive Holmes for his disappearance on the scene. While he made an admirable comeback as early as January 2012, and even had two top-10s in 2012 (at Riviera and Houston), he wasn't burning up anybody's Fantasy Golf draft boards. By the time he missed four of his first five cuts last year and then broke his ankle roller blading, you'd be forgiven if you forgot Holmes had a Tour card.

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But adversity is a funny thing. It can bury you, or it can stoke you. Holmes used the time off to spend time with his new wife and his family and friends, and to "recharge the batteries," as he said. He also is deeply religious, and leaned on that to fuel his comeback, too.

Next thing you know, he's stringing together top-20s in the three weeks leading up to Quail Hollow, and then he starts playing that J.B. Holmes golf we used to know way back when: long, longer and longest. Always one of the biggest bombers on the planet, Holmes dialed up his home run swing at Quail Hollow to lead the field in driving distance, and more importantly married it to uncanny short game recoveries. It was not unimportant that he got hot with that best friend of a winner, his putter.

His Saturday 66 gave him a one-stroke lead over Martin Flores. His Sunday 71 was just one stroke better than a charging Furyk, who keeps reminding us that, even though he turns 44 next week, he will grind you and grind you and grind you, the latest example being his Sunday 65. And even though Holmes had to sweat out a couple of bogeys on 16 and 18, he had done enough to put the hay in the barn.

Just like that, his career is back on track. The two-year exemption, the big check, the FedEx Cup points, the Masters invite and even the last-minute, "Hey, we've got room for you if you can make it" entry to this week's Players Championship at Sawgrass. Pretty darn impressive, but then again, a guy who thinks of brain surgery as nothing he can't conquer probably expected it all along.

SCORECARD OF THE WEEK

69-76-65-70 – 8-under 280, Rory McIlroy, tie-8th, Wells Fargo Championship, Quail Hollow Club, Charlotte, N.C.

The temptation was strong to reward Stacy Lewis for her solid, bounce-back LPGA win in Texas just a week after Lydia Ko went all "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" on her last week at the Swinging Skirts at Lake Merced.

But Sunday was Rory's 25th birthday, and the shaggy-haired Ulsterman hitting the quarter-century pole almost begs for a moment of reflection.

On the one hand, the lad's first 2½ decades on Earth have been a smashing success: two major championships, a time at No. 1 in the world, a massive Nike contract, engaged bliss to tennis star Caroline Wozniacki and the equanimity and good manners of a child well-raised.

On the other hand, those of us who bought a front-row ticket to see McIlroy take aim at golf history have been left twiddling our thumbs. While the Australian Open win over Adam Scott in December was fun and refreshing, we are bearing down on the two-year mark since McIlroy last won on the PGA Tour or European Tour.

Now, to be clear, the boy is playing much better golf than he did in last year's campaign, which went about as well as Donald Sterling's run-in with a tape recorder. McIlroy has found some level of consistency, and has top-10s in four of his past five starts. He's among the biggest hitters on Tour, he's making a lot of birdies (third on Tour), his scoring average is top five of anyone.

But even he himself is dissatisfied. McIlroy told reporters that his "backdoor" top 10s are not what he's looking for, and he wants some changes in his 72-hole fortunes.

"You want wins," he said. "I'd much rather be in the mix."

Maybe this bit of self-flagellation will get Rors all fired up for Sawgrass.

MULLIGAN OF THE WEEK

Speaking of players who are still searching, has anybody seen Phil Mickelson lately? Oh, there he is – he's at Quail Hollow, missing a three-foot putt, and another three-foot putt, and another three-foot putt, and another three-foot putt and …

Oh, my. Pass the antacid.

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Add it up and it's a Sunday 76 for Phil, in which he tumbled from two shots from the lead on Sunday morning to a tie-11th, seven shots off the pace.

The whole week was Vintage Phil, in that it was entirely unpredictable. If you don't believe me, study a Friday 75, a Saturday 63 and a Sunday 76 and then get back to me. With next month's U.S. Open on Lefty's – and every golf fan's – mind in his bid for a possible career Grand Slam, Mickelson is turning in the kind of flawed golf that would suggest he's not up for a national championship anytime soon.

The putting on Sunday, though – that's hard to explain. Was it an issue with his set-up? His stroke? His concentration? CBS opened the telecast with Phil missing a short par putt on the short par-4 No. 8. That set a theme for the day in which he missed shorties all over the place, capped by a four-putt – three of them from four feet or closer – double bogey on No. 16. Said Phil after the round, in perhaps the most important statement of the day: "I'll see Dave Stockton on Monday."

The good doctor Stockton will need to do equal parts mechanical and psychological work.

In the meantime, let's go back out to the eighth hole, look at that little four-foot putt, remind Lefty that Quail Hollow would love a Mickelson Sunday charge, remind him the Players Championship and the Memorial and the U.S. Open are looming and it's time to get hot, remind him that taking a million putts from four feet is never a good look and … give that man a mulligan!

BROADCAST MOMENT OF THE WEEK

"It's been one of the subplots of the year on the PGA Tour, some notables being in position on Sunday to win a tournament and not coming up with the performance you'd expect." – Jim Nantz, CBS, as Mickelson walked up 18 at Quail Hollow.

This is the kind of thing Nantz is left to say when he's busy calling wins by the likes of a Seung Yul-Noh and a J.B. Holmes. And it's also the perfect coda to the previous two items in this column, because Nantz was talking about McIlroy's blown lead at the Honda Classic and Phil's missed opportunity in Charlotte, among others.

Nantz went on to say "this tournament was Phil's for the taking," while Nick Faldo lamented Mickelson's wild inconsistency.

Lefty, you've been served.

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

The drama ratchets up. Mother's Day now means The Players Championship, and Sawgrass will bring its island-green stage and 18th hole watery terror to our TVs while we fete Mom with brunches and flowers.

In case you've forgotten, the defending champ had to send his regrets.

Yes, Tiger Woods tamed Sawgrass in 2013 – the very course at which he won his first U.S. Amateur back in 1994 over Trip Kuehne – and held off an unusual trio of runners-up in Jeff Maggert, David Lingmerth and Kevin Streelman. But there will be no Tiger at Sawgrass, so you start looking at other contenders from last year like Sergio Garcia and Henrik Stenson and Martin Laird and Lee Westwood and, yes, notching a top 10 last year, Rory McIlroy.

Philly Mick? He missed the cut at the Players last year. You know, just two months before he kissed the Claret Jug. So, golf continues being golf.