KAPALUA, HI – J.B. Holmes played only two rounds in four months leading into the new year. He expected some rust at Kapalua, and it showed when he managed only two birdies in his opening round of 78.
He can recover from that, especially in a 34-man field with no cut in the Sentry Tournament of Champions.
Far more difficult was getting over his shot to win a major.
For two days at Royal Portrush, Holmes played some of his best golf and shared the 36-hole lead. Even after Shane Lowry began to pull away with a 63 in the third round, Holmes still had a chance.
Right up until he shot 87 on Sunday.
“The British was great until the last day,” Holmes said when he arrived at Kapalua on the weekend. “That was fun being able to play like that, and then having one of those days with crazy, crazy weather. I hit one or two bad shots, and it starts compounding. Unfortunately, it happens.”
The next two months were a blur. He finished near the bottom in two limited-field events with no cut. He was never in the mix at FedEx Cup playoffs opener. He played at Greenbrier to start a new season and missed the cut. And then a shoulder injury caused him to withdraw from the CJ Cup in South Korea, ending his year.
For someone who won at Riviera in the Genesis Open early in the season, it suddenly felt like a bad year.
“I shouldn't take it that way,” he said. “But it was just being so disappointed after playing great the whole week. You try not to think of it that way, but you come off as a negative. I played three great rounds and then just had a terrible day. For the rest of the year, that hurt a little bit.”
He took a month off after his PGA Tour season ended because he felt he needed time away from the game.
“I had been working hard all year,” he said. “I hadn't been playing good so I was grinding. And then it peaked, and to not finish the way I wanted, it took the wind out of my sails. I was ready to take a break.”
Holmes wasn't alone.
Francesco Molinari spoke openly about a similar plight after the Masters.
Molinari had won at Bay Hill and looked like a winner at Augusta National. He had gone 49 consecutive holes without a bogey. He still had a two-shot lead until his 8-iron tumbled back into Rae's Creek on No. 12. Another shot on the 15th clipped a branch and found the water, and that paved the way for Tiger Woods to be a Masters champion again.
It was the most celebrated moment in golf in 2019. It was devastating for Molinari.
"It's tough," he said in late October. "Like in any sport, I think when you lose a tournament or a game or something like that, it takes a toll mentally. I guess I was coming through a period, an extended period, of a few months where things were most of the time going my way. ... And then I tried to do the same things after that ... but I don't know.
“I think something obviously changed that week.”
The results certainly did. In his 14 tournaments after the Masters, Molinari didn't record a single finish in the top 10.
Dustin Johnson had similar results after his close call in a major last year, but his circumstances were different.
Besides, Johnson has a history of moving quickly past meltdowns. He certainly has had plenty of experience, whether it was the 82 in the final round of the 2010 U.S. Open when he had a three-shot lead, the bunker penalty at Whistling Straits that kept him out of a playoff in 2010 PGA Championship or the 12-foot eagle putt to win the 2015 U.S. Open that turned into a three-putt and a runner-up finish at Chambers Bay.
Johnson shaved a seven-shot deficit to one at Bethpage Black in the final round of the PGA Championship until Brooks Koepka steadied his game and Johnson made two bogeys. After that runner-up finish, Johnson went the final eight events of the season without finishing in the top 10. That was his longest such streak in eight years.
In this case, it was his left knee that needed surgery to clean out shearing from under his knee cap.
“It didn't really take anything out of me,” he said. “Even at the PGA, I played good, but I didn't play the way I wanted to. The only thing I can look back on is it must have been my knee. I played a straight shot. I couldn't get it to cut. I was hanging on my right side all year.”
Johnson will be OK. His talent is such that he has won at least once all but one year since he joined the PGA Tour in 2008.
For Holmes, and perhaps for Molinari, it's been a long road back from a day they'd like to forget.
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