By Mark Lamport-Stokes
SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - Big-hitting American J.B. Holmes has lost swing speed and driving distance but is simply thankful to be back competing on the PGA Tour this week after undergoing brain surgery last year.
Sidelined since August after being diagnosed with Chiari malformation, structural defects in the part of the brain which controls balance, Holmes says he has gained a deeper appreciation of his good fortune to be a professional golfer.
"It feels like it's been forever, but I'm just happy to be back," Holmes, a double winner on the U.S. circuit, told reporters Tuesday while preparing for the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines.
"I've been working pretty hard the last few weeks and I'm ready to get back out here, get back into the competitive tournament and just see how it goes.
"It was a long process last year, but I guess compared to a lot of people that have had that, I caught it fairly quick."
Holmes had been experiencing vertigo-like symptoms since the Players Championship in May and he pulled out of the Barclays Classic in August before having the condition diagnosed followed by surgical treatment in early September.
"It's scary at first," Holmes, 29, said of how he felt after his diagnosis. "Talking to the surgeon and stuff, he said for a brain surgery, difficulty-wise for him it was only about a one out of 10.
"It's still brain surgery, but that at least made me feel better. Then I got to the hospital and started putting on the gown and everything else and it was like, 'Wow, I'm about to have brain surgery.' So it really hits you then."
The surgery went well but one week later Holmes reacted adversely to the adhesive used on the webbed titanium plate which had been inserted in his skull.
He was put back on pain-killers and then air-lifted from his home in Campbellsville, Kentucky, back to Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore where he had a second surgery.
"After that, everything's gone pretty much according to plan," said Holmes, who led the PGA Tour in driving distance last year with an average of 318.4 yards. "My swing is gradually coming. When I first started playing (in December), I was hitting it like 240 (yards).
"My swing speed starting out was like 106, 107. Now it's up to 115. Last year I averaged around 120 and I could get it up to 125 if I wanted to. 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 a permanent reminder of his surgery, Holmes has the small piece of his skull which was removed by doctors sitting on a window ledge in his closet at home.
"I asked the guy if I could have it because I grew it, so I figured I may as well keep it," Holmes smiled. "I see it every day.
"It's just a reminder that I'm very fortunate to be able to go through something like that and be able to come back and play, very fortunate to have this job and be able to play a game for a living."
(Editing by John O'Brien)