Nearly three years after he lay on an operating table having brain surgery, J.B. Holmes won the Wells Fargo Championship at Charlotte’s Quail Hollow Club on Sunday by one stroke over Jim Furyk.
In a remarkable comeback tale, Holmes shot a final round 1-under-par 71 (14 under for the tournament) to edge Furyk – who was hoping to become the tournament’s first two-time time winner – and Martin Flores, who was another shot back at 12 under. Jason Bohn finished fourth at 11 under, with U.S. Open winner Justin Rose another shot back in fifth at 10 under.
While the surgery he underwent in the fall of 2011 at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University wasn’t life threatening, Holmes’ ability to return fully to the PGA Tour – and to win one of its signature events – made for compelling theater.
“He worked so hard,” said Holmes’s wife Erica. “There were days he had to go to rehab twice, then to acupuncture, then to his workout. He’s worked so hard to get to where he is.”
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Holmes, 32, has had other medical setbacks since the surgery – a broken ankle and elbow surgery – that have also worked against him.
But after he took the third-round lead Saturday at Quail Hollow, Holmes turned everything in his favor. Staving off challenges from Furyk and Flores, he won despite making bogeys on the 16th and 18th holes. He had a two-shot cushion on Furyk on the 18th tee and, after spraying his tee shot into the pine needles on the right side of the fairway, needed to sink a nerve-rattling 3-foot putt to win.
Holmes’ health problems began when he began having symptoms while playing in the Players Championship in 2011. He told Erica he was feeling dizzy and that he had nearly fallen into some of the water on the TPC Sawgrass course.
“I thought it might be a sinus infection or an ear infection,” Erica said.
It was more serious than that. Holmes was diagnosed with structural defects in his cerebellum called Chiari malformation that caused his vertigo-like symptoms. He underwent surgery in September 2011, with the operation at Johns Hopkins including removing a small part of his skull.
He had another operation a month later because of an an allergic reaction to the titanium plate in his head.
Holmes returned in 2012, playing 25 tournaments and finishing in the top 10 twice. But in March 2013 he broke his left ankle while rollerblading with Erica. He then had surgery to fix tennis elbow in his left arm.
That put him out of action until February of this year. Three months later, he was winning for a third time in his career.
His chief competitor Sunday was Furyk, the 2006 Wells Fargo winner . After Furyk birdied No. 14 and had an eagle on 15, he was tied for the lead with Holmes at 13 under.
“When I birdied 14, it was the first time I realized, ‘Wow, I’m just a couple off the lead.’ ” said Furyk, who won a playoff over Trevor Immelman for the 2006 Wells Fargo title. “I really wasn’t thinking about the lead or anything. But, lo and behold, I’m up there tied for the lead.”
Playing several groups behind Furyk, Holmes birdied Nos. 10 and 11 to take back the advantage. He wouldn’t give it back, although he made things interesting on the final hole.
Holmes, one of the tour’s longer hitters, didn’t shy away from his driver on No. 18, where a conservative tee shot with a 3-wood all but guaranteed a victory. Instead, Holmes hit driver, with the shot going 345 yards to the right, where it rested in the pine needles and under some trees. It was similar to a drive he hit on No. 9, which he survived by hitting a superb second shot out of the woods and onto the green, from where he two-putted for par.
He managed to do the same on 18, this time to win the tournament.
Flores, playing in the final group with Holmes, stayed close all day. He countered two consecutive bogeys on the front nine with an eagle on No. 10 and finished with an even-par 72.
Then there was Phil Mickelson, who still doesn’t have a top-10 finish this season. He was unable to put any pressure on Holmes or Flores, the players in front of him after he shot a 9-under 63 Saturday.
He played the front nine 1 over and didn’t have a birdie until the par-3 13th. After that, Mickelson pretty much melted down, going double bogey-bogey-par on the final three holes for a 4-over 76 and finishing tied for 11th, seven strokes back.
The day instead belonged to Holmes, who said the quarter-sized piece of his skull that was removed during the operation sits in a specimen dish in the bedroom closet of his Orlando, Fla., home.
Holmes was asked if he would put the piece of skull next to the newest of his life’s mementos: his Wells Fargo Championship trophy (which he won along with $1.242 million).
“I’ll put the (piece) in the trophy,” he said.