CHARLOTTE, N.C. — J.B. Holmes was asked Saturday when was the last time he took a lead into the final round of a PGA Tour event.
“I don’t know, probably a broken ankle, arm surgery, brain surgery ago,” he said. That tells you all you need to know about Holmes’ long journey to the top of the 12th Wells Fargo Championship leaderboard Saturday.
Phil Mickelson’s 9-under-par 63 in Saturday’s third round at Quail Hollow Club is an emphatic declaration that his game is back from a slow start to the season.
The round pulled Mickelson within two shots of the lead, as he’s bouncing back from a pair of minor injuries that led to two withdrawals in the midst of tournaments in the first three months of the year.
But the comeback being made by Holmes is much more impressive – one of the most impressive in golf in recent memory.
Holmes, who missed the majority of the 2011 and ’13 seasons because of two brain surgeries, a broken ankle suffered rollerblading and surgery to relieve tennis elbow, is the player everyone is chasing entering today’s final round.
The 32-year-old Kentucky native and University of Kentucky graduate shot a 6-under-par 66 Saturday and holds a one-shot lead at 13-under 203 over Martin Flores, who outplayed playing partner and fellow 36-hole co-leader Angel Cabrera by six strokes Saturday.
Mickelson is two strokes back at 205, Kevin Kisner is at 10-under 206, and Justin Rose and Jason Bohn are four back and tied for fifth. A total of 10 players are within five shots of Holmes’ lead.
“I’m repeating over in my head, just being thankful to be out here and grateful to have this opportunity, and trying to put into words what’s going on, and trying to enjoy the moment not get ahead of myself, and just having fun,” Holmes said.
The ordeal for Holmes, whose two PGA Tour wins are the 2006 and ’08 FBR Opens, began in 2011, when he experienced vertigo symptoms for much of the year. He was diagnosed that fall with Chiari malformations – structural defects that affect balance – and underwent surgery, during which a quarter-sized chunk of his skull was removed to relieve pressure on his brain.
A month later, doctors discovered that he was allergic to the adhesive used on the webbed titanium plate at the base of his skull. Holmes was airlifted from his then-home in Kentucky to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where he underwent another surgery. He returned to the Tour in 2012 and finished 80th in earnings and had eight top-25s.
After less than three months of the 2013 season, his year was cut short by the broken ankle. He underwent a procedure to relieve tennis elbow while he was out and went about six months without touching a club. Holmes was at the Kentucky Derby this time last year and said the break in the past year helped him get out of a state of frustration with golf.
The past Ryder Cup participant returned for the 2013-14 season on a major medical extension in late January. He had 19 starts to earn $580,299 to retain his exempt status this year, and hit the mark in his 10th event with a tie for 11th last week at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans.
It was the third consecutive top-20 finish for Holmes, who has had a solid but unspectacular season, missing just one cut in 11 events but ranking just 83rd in FedExCup points.
Holmes is one of the tour’s longer hitters, which sets him up well for a layout that can stretch to nearly 7,600 yards. He used his length to birdie all four par-5s Saturday with a two-putt on the 537-yard seventh, a bunker shot to a foot and pair of short chips to 5 feet. He also holed a pair of short birdie putts and a 21-footer from off the green on the 18th.
“It was an all-around great day for me,” Holmes said. “My short game was on, and chipping and putting and the driving game was on, too.”
Mickelson, who withdrew from the Farmer’s Insurance Open in January with a back injury and Valero Texas Open in late March with a strained muscle in his side, is seeking his first top-10 in now his 11th event this season. Playing Saturday with Brendon de Jonge, who tied the course record Friday with a 62 and shot a 68 Saturday to move into a tie for 11th, Mickelson had one of the most impressive stretches of holes on the PGA Tour this year.
He played the six holes from 3-8 at 7 under par with five birdies and an eagle on the par-5 seventh hole with a 220-yard approach to 13 feet. His birdie putts in the stretch were 5, 30, 7, 38 and 2 feet.
“This was a really good day from start to finish,” said Mickelson, who saved par on 18 with a 60-yard wedge to 3 feet. “I had a good round today and it feels good, because it’s been a rough year for me this year. I haven’t been healthy early on, and I haven’t put it together.”
Mickelson will play with Kisner a group behind the final twosome of Flores and Holmes, who will take a different perspective than most going into the final round with a lead.
“I’ve worked really hard to get there and it would be a great accomplishment to come back and get a win in the bag,” Holmes said. “I’ll go out tomorrow and do the best I can and if I win that’s great. If it ends up not being my day, then I’m just thankful to be out here and happy to have the opportunity that I have.”
Contact ALAN BLONDIN at 626-0284.