Commentary

J.B. Holmes latest surprise champ

Updated: May 5, 2014, 7:34 AM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Phil Mickelson started the day with aspirations of a coveted first victory at Quail Hollow, a 43rd PGA Tour win and a nice boost in the lead-up to what will be a big push to win his first U.S. Open.

It ended with him making just one birdie, having an ugly three-putt green at the 16th, unable to build on the exciting 63 he shot Saturday and posting a disappointing 76 that left him 7 strokes back of winner J.B. Holmes at the Wells Fargo Championship.

[+] EnlargeJ.B. Holmes
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonSince his last PGA Tour victory, J.B. Holmes endured multiple medical procedures -- including two brain surgeries. After his victory at the Wells Fargo Championship on Sunday, he'll be teeing it up in this week's Players Championship.

That is how this year has gone for Phil -- and for golf in general.

With apologies to Holmes -- an amazing story in his own right -- and a slew of other surprising winners in 2014, we've reached the eve of the Players Championship with little buzz, little to build upon.

"No theories," Mickelson said about the state of the pro game. "There are certainly a lot of great players and the guys that have usually been up there are all kind of a touch off."

Unlike team sports, golf disdains parity and underdogs. That has been the theme of the year and it's not been particularly appealing, simply because golf fans show an inclination to cheer superstars, to see them win often and add to their legacies.

All we have in that regard this year is Bubba Watson, and perhaps Matt Kuchar, who has been amazingly consistent but has a single win.

The reigning Masters champion Watson won at Riviera and contended at Phoenix and Doral to climb from 28th in the world rankings to fourth. He returns to competition this week at TPC Sawgrass, and it will be fascinating to watch how he handles his major title this year compared to the difficulty he endured after capturing the Masters in 2012.

Aside from that?

Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott and now Mickelson have seen excellent Sunday chances for victory elude them. Tiger Woods, lest we forget, won five times a year ago in a player-of-the-year season but is now sidelined indefinitely after back surgery. Henrik Stenson, the reigning FedEx Cup and Race to Dubai champ, has not won in 2014, either.

Jim Furyk, who has not won since the 2010 Tour Championship, gave himself a chance Sunday with a dazzling 65 that included a birdie-birdie-eagle stretch, but it ended up being a single stroke too many.

Justin Rose, the reigning U.S. Open winner, was on the fringe of contention, his double-bogey at the last leaving him 4 shots back and in fifth place.

"Absolutely," Rose said when asked about golf's strange year. "I've been surprised how my world ranking has maintained itself because the top guys have also been struggling. The guys haven't stretched out. No. 1 in the world is even more for the taking than it has been for a lot of players. Probably for 20 guys, if they get on a hot run, can challenge."

Rose got as high as third in the world after winning the U.S. Open at Merion but hasn't won since and was 10th heading into the Wells Fargo Championship despite not really contending. In fairness, Rose dealt with a shoulder issue that delayed the start to his year, but his fifth-place finish here is his best of 2014.

"It has been slow for the top players," Rose said. "It's been a weird year ... 54-hole leaders haven't done very well. A lot of young names. The Americans have done a lot better this year. And yet it doesn't surprise me because the depth out here is so great. Before you always had that separation. Now in part you've got the top players not playing so great and in part the rest catching up."

Holmes is the latest example. Now 32, he earned his third PGA Tour title but first since the 2008 season, when he also played on the last winning U.S. Ryder Cup team.

Since then, it's been a series of medical maladies for Holmes, the most serious of which was 2011 brain surgery -- twice -- for a Chiari malformation that affected his motor skills. When Holmes tried to return, he dealt with an elbow injury that he didn't have fixed until he broke his ankle early in 2013 in a rollerblading accident. He didn't return to golf until January at the Farmers Insurance Open.

Now he's in next week's Players Championship as well as the Masters in 2015. Holmes began the week ranked 242nd in the world and should easily crack the top 100 after his victory.

"This is a big win for me," Holmes said. "It's been since 2008 since I've won, and since then I had two brain surgeries and broke my ankle and had arm surgery, the list goes on. So it's a huge win and to get in the top 20 in the FedEx Cup, that's huge, and just to win in a venue like this with such a good field and the golf course is always so well-manicured, it's just great. I'm just ecstatic."

Holmes is one of the feel-good stories of the year, and his victory should be applauded. Will he build on it? Few this year aside from Watson have done so.

Jimmy Walker and Patrick Reed have gone quiet since their latest victories. Jason Day has been injured since winning the Match Play. Scott Stallings, after winning at Torrey Pines, has missed six of eight cuts. Kevin Stadler. Russell Henley. John Senden. Matt Every. Steven Bowditch. Matt Jones. Seung Yul Noh.

Those have been the guys holding the trophies and oversized checks, with some of the biggest names in the game left searching.

"I had two great rounds and I had two pathetic rounds this week," said Mickelson, who shot 69-75-63-76 and was a shot out of the lead as late as the eighth hole Sunday.

Mickelson hasn't finished in the top 10 on the PGA Tour all year. He hasn't posted consecutive rounds in the 60s since he tied for second in Abu Dhabi back in January.

It's been an odd year so far for Lefty.

But he has company at the top.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

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