Despite slower swing, Holmes finding way in L.A.

J.B. Holmes reacts to his bogey on the fifth hole during the first round of the Northern Trust Open.

J.B. Holmes reacts to his bogey on the fifth hole during the first round of the Northern Trust Open.

LOS ANGELES – For those of us watching J.B. Holmes with great curiosity, the first round of the Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club provided further evidence that his recovery from brain surgery is progressing at a speed almost as fast as the speed he achieves with his Callaway FT Tour driver.

Holmes, under persistent questioning, has said over and over that his swing speed is slower than in the past. “That was just from the surgery,” he said Thursday after shooting a 4-under par 67 that was good for a second-place tie with Hunter Mahan, one stroke behind Phil Mickelson.

Post surgery, Holmes didn’t play golf for several weeks. When he began hitting balls, his neck hurt. “They (surgeons) had to go in between muscles in my neck,” he said, “and it really made my neck where I couldn’t turn it as much. So getting the rotation back in my neck and really feeling like I could swing at it . . . it was really hard for me to go down and get the ball.”

This explains why he topped a shot at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, but gradually he is regaining his range of motion.

“Even out here (Thursday), I was fighting it a little bit. But it’s becoming a little bit easier to not think about it as much and stay down on the ball a little bit better.”

He is, with his power and his injured neck, golf’s mirror image of football quarterback Peyton Manning.

Holmes is renowned for his length. In 2011, he led the PGA Tour in driving distance with an average of 318.4 yards.

How fast does he swing the club?

Plenty fast, but not as fast now as he did in 2011. In launch-monitor testing earlier this week at Riviera, Holmes was paying attention to his swing speed only - not his ball speed.

“Last year, I averaged 120 (mph swing speed), and if I swung at it real hard, I could get it to 125 or 126.

“The highest I could get it at San Diego (this year) was about 117. I feel like probably the highest I can get it now is probably 120. So it’s coming back. My average swing is probably 3 or 4 miles an hour below normal.”

Holmes added that the distance he hits his irons is becoming more consistent, an indication that his swing speed is leveling out and returning to normal.

Holmes claimed he knows little about his Callaway FT Tour driver. “I just hit it,” he said, sounding like a strong man at the carnival.

Regardless, he said the loft is 7.2 degrees, even though an 8.5 designation can be seen on the driver. “It’s not 8.5,” he said.

Does Holmes resent all the attention that is focused on how he drives the ball, when other aspects of his golf game have improved dramatically during his pro career?

“You just get used to it,” he said. “I’ve been a long hitter all my life. Everybody thinks if you hit it a long way, you can’t chip and putt, and that’s not true. If you’re even out here (on the PGA Tour), you’ve got a pretty good short game.

“But, yeah, people want to see you hit a long way. That’s what everybody wants to see. But that all goes away if you start playing well and win tournaments.”

In his seven-year pro career, Holmes has won twice. Both victories came in Phoenix, in 2006 and 2008, but now he has Riviera on his mind.

“I really enjoy playing here,” he said. “I like the layout of this golf course. I feel like I can win if I make some putts.”

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