For a burly, long-hitting Ryder Cup star, J.B. Holmes has remained remarkably anonymous
John Holmes is 9 years old. His dad Maurice knows that the golf coach at the local high school is desperate for warm bodies, so he rings up David Parsons and asks what a kid has to shoot to make the team. Parsons says in the 50s for nine holes, to which Maurice (pronounced Morris) replies, "I've got a third-grader doing that right now!" Little John, with his jug ears and a tuft of blond hair, joins the Taylor County High team, becoming the Doogie Howser of Kentucky schoolboy golf. Yes, he's picked on, but as he likes to say now, "The easiest way to get somebody to be quiet is to just beat him."
John Holmes is a senior at Taylor County High. He's won state as a sophomore, but now the Louisville Courier-Journal is running an article on another golfer, a kid from Shelby County, 90 minutes away. The newspaper calls the kid the best high school player of the year, which rankles Holmes.
As it happens, he is playing in a tournament with the kid that very weekend, and as it happens, he gets paired with the kid. "I'm going to bury him," Holmes tells Parsons. He does. It's a rare show of bravado, because if Maurice impressed anything upon his only son, it is this: Always make sure your hat fits.
And so it goes, John (J.B.) Holmes quietly playing his game while the rest of us pay no mind until it's too late. Of course we saw him coming! To borrow from a certain U.S. president, there's a lot of "misunderestimating" going on.
This is strange considering that Holmes almost beat Tiger Woods in the first round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play last year, forcing Woods to make three birdies and an eagle (and 88 feet worth of putts) to rally from three down with five to play. It's odd given that Holmes led through 36 holes of the PGA Championship at diabolical Oakland Hills, where the punishing, blazing fast greens will expose the tiniest putting flaw. (Forced to play 36 holes on Sunday, Holmes was a shot back with one round remaining but triple-bogeyed the first hole on his way to an 81.)
And we've already forgotten his 2-and-1 Ryder Cup victory over Soren Hansen, when Holmes carded six birdies. Said the Dane: "He hit it quite long. But quite long is probably an understatement. He hit it really long."
After all that, almost no one was praising Holmes as the next big thing by the end of '08. Camilo Villegas, 27, has more flair, hair and muscle. ("John is what we call 'country strong,'" says his mother, Lisa.) Hunter Mahan, 26, boasts a prettier swing. Mark O'Meara, among others, has likened Anthony Kim, 23, to Tiger Woods.
Holmes is quiet. He's not ripped. He has a Caesar haircut. He's as ordinary as a guy can be while hitting a ball 350 yards. He was lightly recruited before landing a scholarship at Kentucky, but coach Steve Smitha, seemingly the only one who believed in him, moved on before Holmes got to Lexington. New UK coach Brian Craig inherited the barrel-chested kid with the sawed-off swing and asked himself, "Why the full ride?"
"I was just getting to know his game and was out in the fairway of a par-5 with him," Craig recalls. "He had 225 yards in. We were going through the process of picking a club, staring at the green. He said, 'I think it's a 5-iron.' I said, 'How far do you hit your 5-iron?' Without changing his expression he just kept looking at the flag and said, 'As far as I want to.'
"So he hit a 5-iron," Craig continues, "and hit the green and made birdie. It was real easy to figure out why he'd been offered a scholarship."
Maybe you have to see Holmes up-close to appreciate him. Or maybe the public is stuck on the zero-sum assumption that if a man excels at one thing (driving), he must not be very good at the rest of it.
While dining at an upscale restaurant in Providence, R.I., last fall, Holmes wasn't asked for a single autograph. This was after the Ryder Cup heroics, and even after the maitre d' asked him to remove his cap. That kind of anonymity is a luxury enjoyed by few men whose work is televised.
Fresh off the airplane from Orlando, Holmes followed the lead of his agent Terry Reilly, who was one of the first to recognize Holmes' potential. Reilly ordered the kobe meatballs and not surprisingly so did Holmes. He looks 27 going on 9: Same shock of blond hair, same ears and boyish face.
Holmes perked up when the discussion turned to movies, specifically Superbad and the Michael Cerra/Seth Rogen/Jonah Hill oeuvre. "I've seen 'em all," Holmes says, smiling. He also speaks fluent Xbox ("Halo 3," "Call of Duty 4"), which he and caddie/childhood friend Brandon Parsons (David's son) play online with friends back in Campbellsville.
Holmes is frugal, or sensible — take your pick. When wife Sara started making a habit of Starbucks, he did the calculations in his head and lamented the cost per year of such a fix. "It's the principle of it," Holmes says when reminded that he made close to $700,000 for two days work in winning the long drive, closest to the pin, and low score at the Tavistock Cup last March. "It's more like a milkshake, anyway, by the time you put all the stuff in there."
Holmes actually was the fastest player to win $1 million on Tour, having won the PGA Tour Q School and then the 2006 FBR Open by seven shots in his fourth start as a rookie. He was 23.
But the trouble with early success is that it can seem like there's nowhere to go but down.
Maurice and Lisa Holmes were devout cheerleaders for their son. They drove to so many tournaments they went through three Dodge Caravans, each reaching about 130,000 miles before trade-in, each one white because as Lisa says, "You don't have to wash them as much. They don't look dirty."
Throughout his entire amateur career, J.B. says his dad missed "maybe two tournaments."
Coach Parsons was a trusted ally, as well. The story of the team's trip to McDonald's in John's first year is legend: When the team piled out of the car, Holmes didn't budge. "I said, 'John, do you want to go in?' He said, 'No,' " Parsons recalls. "And I got out of the car and it dawned on me: He doesn't want to order. He's too shy. I said, 'John, if I order for you, will you eat?' He said, 'Yeah.' And away we went. I had to learn to handle him."
Still, the whole thing might not have worked without the coach's son, Brandon. A grade ahead of John, he joined the team as a fifth grader in John's second year. They became fast friends, forming a mini-clique among their older teammates and sharpening their skills by knocking around Nerf-style practice balls. "There's no telling how many hours they have spent together," David Parsons says.
Holmes took to team golf like a warm bath. After a decade on the Taylor County High team he led Kentucky from league door-mat to SEC power. He won a Palmer Cup, a Walker Cup and a USA vs. Japan match.
But it didn't take him long to feel the absence of all that camaraderie on Tour. Mom and Dad were at home; Coach Parsons was still doing the high school thing; his pal Brandon Parsons was making a run as a pro. Holmes struggled after his maiden victory. He shot an opening-round 84 at the Wachovia and withdrew. He missed seven cuts in 22 starts, and then WD'd again at the Chrysler Championship late in 2006.
Still, there was a bright spot, a new working relationship with swing coach Matt Killen, 24. "I'd met him once years ago, probably when he was 19 or 20, at a tournament," Killen says. "I was actually caddying for Kenny Perry's son, and John was in the same group. We had a two-hour rain delay, and John came back out and on a 230-yard par-3, with no warm-up, hit it to an inch. That was the first time I knew he was good."
The first time Holmes and Killen played, at Franklin Country Club after the 2006 British Open, Holmes shot 60 with a three-putt on 16.
Despite his newfound coach, Holmes' 2007 season was uneven. He recorded three top-10 finishes but also missed 11 cuts in 24 starts. The Tour was a lonely place. The upside was he had met Sara Vallet through Killen and Justin Perry, and Holmes and Vallet were married in late November.
Thus began a bevy of personnel changes. After employing two veteran caddies in his first two years, Holmes would turn to his boyhood friend Brandon Parsons as his caddie in 2008. Sara would handle the travel arrangements.
Reilly called a meeting of Team Holmes in Holmes's home-town of Orlando in December 2007. There was Maurice, Lisa, Sara, Brandon, Killen, Reilly and John himself. "I brought a PowerPoint," Reilly says. "I said, 'I've never hit a ball in front of 20,000 people, but here are some things we can work on.' John said he wanted to win twice on the West Coast and make the Ryder Cup team."
To watch Holmes play is to marvel at not only his drives but also his defiance. Craig, the UK coach, recalls being busy at a golf camp while Holmes shot an opening round 76 at the 2003 U.S. Open. Craig arrived at Olympia Fields on Thursday night, and he and Holmes closed the driving range.
"The next day he played well and shot 69, which was really close to making the cut," Craig recalls. "Afterward, he looked at me and said, 'Coach, this one's on you.' I said, 'What are you talking about, John?' He said, 'If you had got here a day earlier and helped me, I would have made the cut.' "
Craig laughs when he thinks about Olympia Fields, and is quick to point out the importance of it. Even Jack Nicklaus, he reminds, had a way of filing lousy shots under headings like "Gust of Wind" so as to safeguard his hard-won confidence.
Holmes has proven a quick study on Tour, which is perhaps not surprising given that he was an academic All-American after being diagnosed with dyslexia at UK. He's figured out whom to lean on and when. Hardly confident coming into the 2008 FBR, having shot a 75 in the final round of the Buick, he won anyway.
"He called me on Sunday and told me to come out to Phoenix because he was hitting it terribly," Killen says. "When he's hitting it good, we're best friends, having a great time, but when he's hitting it bad we're archenemies. He's yelling at me, I'm yelling at him."
The 2008 FBR only seemed to validate the notion that Holmes is built for wide-open TPC Scottsdale, but what went unnoticed was that he'd won with less than his best stuff. "I was not surprised by 2008," says Reilly, his agent. "He figured out, 'Oh, OK, I don't have to get to the course by Monday afternoon.' His practice was sharper. He tried not to play five weeks in a row. John is intelligent. He knows what's going on around him and is very analytical."
On a recent tour of Titleist's ball plant, with Reilly and a reporter in tow, Holmes seemed to be the only one paying much attention, genuinely curious about the mind-numbing process of making a Pro V1x. That same studied, low-key approach may serve him well as he tries to avoid mistakes that have at times tarnished his first three years. He led the field with 20 birdies at the Sony Open last year, but also made 13 bogeys and a double and finished T17. At the Players, where he tied for 10th place, he went par-less on the front nine (four birdies, five bogeys) on Sunday.
"He needs to substitute the bogeys for pars and keep the birdies," caddie Parsons says. "It'll come. This will be only his fourth year on Tour. We're both young guys and still learning." Case in point: In his first Masters start last April, Holmes hit iron off the tee on the dogleg-left 13th hole — a par-5. He was, in a word, unsure.
Reilly thinks Augusta holds promise for Holmes. The greens resemble those of Oakland Hills and, says the agent, "John's a phenomenal fast-greens putter."
"He can win anything if his desire is there," Killen says. Even on a tight, tree-lined track like, say, Colonial? "Definitely," Killen insists. "He is just as good with no driver and people don't respect that. He hardly hits driver on Tour — maybe three or four times a round. There's more finesse to his game than people give him credit for."
Yet the rocketry of his drives will be all anyone remembers about Holmes until he breaks out with four good rounds at one of the four most important tournaments. To that end, Team Holmes met again in December to map out 2009. Many of them were also planning to get together for Christmas at Holmes' hunting lodge on the Green River in Campbellsville. It's 15 minutes from the house John grew up in, and you can fish off the deck.
No one will ever find the titular hero of Team Holmes there, just as no one finds him in plain sight. But he's not bothered. Playing under the radar suits J.B. Holmes, and his hat still fits just fine.
UM, ABOUT THAT NAME ...
When CBS golf analyst Gary McCord met rising star John Holmes in 2006, McCord knew one thing about him: he had the same name as the adult-film actor who inspired the film Boogie Nights.
"I said, 'Listen, you hit it nine miles, and every local sportscaster is going to open with, 'Long John Holmes is here in our town.' If I was you I'd call the Tour office to change your name to J.B. Holmes.'
"The next day he says he wants to show me something. He takes his bag and turns it around, and Cobra has changed his first name to J.B."
Says agent Terry Reilly: "We'd already been experimenting with what to call him, like Bradley or something else. On the Q School application he was 'John Bradley Holmes.' The premise was there, and Gary followed up on it."