Torrey kicks off return for big bombers

Two of the longest hitters in golf will be on center stage when the Farmers Insurance Open begins Thursday at the Torrey Pines Golf Course. One is making a return to the PGA Tour after two brain surgeries. The other one is the tournament's defending champion.

I first met J.B. Holmes and Bubba Watson at the scenic La Jolla, Calif., municipal course in 2006, when they were both rookies. John Holmes now calls himself J.B., after going by John all of his life. The 24-year-old native of Campbellsville, Ky., wanted to make his own name. The more famous John Holmes, who wore a mustache similar to the one Johnson Wagner wears today, had once been an adult film star in the 1970s and '80s.

Bubba had his own name issues. He was Bubba from Bagdad, Fla., and the only Bagdad most people knew was the one spelled with the "h" in Iraq.

Holmes had made it to the tour straight out of the University of Kentucky, where he was a four-time All-American. The previous December he had been the medalist at the PGA Tour Q-school. Watson had bounced around the mini-tours after leaving the University of Georgia, before he got his card through the Nationwide Tour.

Armed both with homemade swings, these two southern boys had made the big time and were destined for great futures. That week at Torrey Pines both men wowed the fans and other players with their long drives. The feeling was that when they both learned how to harness their power, wins would come in bunches. Holmes would breakthrough first. Showcasing the kind of brute strength that few had ever seen in the game, he won the next week at the FBR Open in Phoenix.

Watson's day in the winner's circle wouldn't come for another four years, but in 2006 both men set new standards for driving distance. Watson led the tour with a 319.6 yard average, followed by Holmes at 318.8.

Watson would tell me years later that Holmes was longer than anybody in the world if you just put all the big hitters on an open field with no wind.

This week at the Farmers Insurance Open, the now 29-year-old Holmes isn't concentrating on out-driving Watson or anyone else. He would be glad to play four rounds after those two brain surgeries last fall. He would be glad to play without the vertigo symptoms, the headaches and dizziness that he first experienced at the Players Championship, when he first noticed something was wrong.

"I was over a putt, and I almost felt like I was falling over," Holmes recalled from the Players Championship. "The next week I tried to play and I withdrew.

"For the rest of the year it really bothered me. I had a couple of cuts and I hadn't missed the cut all year and then I missed three in a row. It was mainly because of that, being dizzy. I'd catch a shot really fat, and make one or two swings around and it cost me three or four shots."

Holmes has what is known as Chiari malformations, which are structural defects in the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls balance. Chiari is related to Syringomyelia, the same condition that plagued Bobby Jones in the last four decades of his life. In September at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Holmes had a procedure to create more space for the cerebellum and to relieve pressure on the spinal column. He now has a small titanium plate where surgeons took out a mothballed-sized portion of the skull.

After the first surgery, Holmes had an allergic reaction to the glue that formed the webbing for the metal plate.

"I had a lot of really bad headaches," Holmes said. "Once [they] went back in there the second time, they didn't use the glue, and they stitched it up. I didn't have any problems since then."

Both Holmes and Watson have both had their driver swing speed clocked as high as 126 mph, but limited rotation in his neck has made it very difficult for Holmes to swing the club with any semblance of his old authority.

"My swing is gradually coming. When I first started playing, I was hitting it like 240," Holmes said. "So my swing speed starting out was like 106, 107. Now it's up to 115. I hit 118 yesterday. So it's coming back. I've just got to get out here and play a little bit, and it will get back to normal."

As Holmes tries to get back to normal, Watson is looking to continue the remarkable success that he had in 2011, when he won twice. Things have been looking up for the 33-year-old lefty since he had his maiden win in 2010 at Travelers Championship in Hartford, Conn. If he is not one of the top players on tour, he certainly is one of its most popular members. In an age when advanced technology makes it difficult to curve the golf ball, Watson can move it like the old-time shotmakers with a Chi Chi Rodriguez-like flamboyance.

Still, he's yet to become a really consistent performer. Outside of his two wins last year, he had only one other top 10. For him to really reach the top echelon of the tour, his game needs to show up more than a few weeks of the year.

"Obviously, the last two seasons were my best two seasons ever," Holmes said. "Last year, I beat my season before. So hopefully we keep moving up. Every year I've improved so that's what we're looking for.

"If that means a major, if that means no wins, just keep improving. The main goal is obviously to improve in life and improve off the golf course with charities and different things. That's what I'm most passionate about."

Sure, he's a fun guy with a big heart. He just bought the original General Lee, the orange Dodge Charger with the Confederate flag that was used in the "Dukes of Hazzard" television show. Despite the homage to slavery and the Jim Crow era with the flag, it's difficult to begrudge Watson for loving the old muscle car.

"It's not about the confederate flag. It's about the show and what it stands for. It's the most recognizable car," Watson said. "Well, my name's Bubba, so … it was just good old country boys. I love the show. I love all those old shows."

Hopefully, the old TV shows and his new car won't distract him this week from the golf taking place at Torrey Pines, where he beat Phil Mickelson by a shot last year. While most of the golf world is seemingly focused on the Abu Dhabi Championship, where Tiger Woods and six of the top-10 players in the world are in the field, Watson is excited about the field assembled at Torrey Pines.

"The field is always good," Watson said. "It's the PGA Tour: 'These guys are good.' You know, this field's going to be strong. There are going to be great players here, great rookies coming out and trying to fire at all pins, so, yeah, it's going to be a good test of golf this week."

For both long hitters, it's still an urgent time in their careers, six years after they first came here full of hopes and dreams.

Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at evans.espn@gmail.com.