Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Doral already has feel-good story in J.B. Holmes

J.B. Holmes reacts after finishing his round of 10-under-par 62 at the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Trump National Doral on Thursday, March 5, 2015.
J.B. Holmes reacts after finishing his round of 10-under-par 62 at the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Trump National Doral on Thursday, March 5, 2015. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

The splendid serendipity of sports presented itself anew Thursday at Trump National Doral in the first round of the World Golf Championships event. Just when the leaderboard looked like slim pickings – no Rory McIlroy or Bubba Watson near the top – one J.B. Holmes came roaring and rising out of the humidity to dominate the day.

Thank you, golf gods.

Holmes may be only a pretty good player but he’s a much better story. He survived not one but two brain surgeries to win again on the PGA Tour in 2014 for the first time in six years – the remarkable comeback making him the only tour member who might casually say of golf, “It ain’t brain surgery,” and mean it both figuratively and literally.

Also notable about Doral’s early leader: Changed his name, according to published reports, so as not to be confused with a porn star. He had been born John Bradley Holmes but decided going professionally by John Holmes, also the stage name of a famously well-endowed adult film star, apparently, might invite the kind of wisecracks or fan taunts he preferred to avoid.

Seems like a solid decision.

Enter J.B.

Thursday, Holmes shot a tournament-record-tying 62 punctuated by birdies on the last two holes to finish at 10-under par and lead by four strokes. It may not last. The 32-year-old Kentuckian has won only three times on the PGA Tour and never been top 10 in a major. A WGC triumph would be his biggest career title. By a lot.

He certainly is a guy you can root for.

In 2011 he complained of vertigo. A medical exam found he had Chiari Malformation in his brain, a condition that can lead to paralysis if untreated. He underwent surgery that Sept. 1. One month later they found he was allergic to an adhesive used on the titanium plate implanted in his skull, an urgent situation that found him airlifted for a second brain surgery.

He missed an entire year of golf before returning.

Holmes wasn’t sure he would ever win again before capturing the Wells Fargo Championship last May, a small tournament, but not to him.

“It was awesome to be able to come back after all the unfortunate things that happened and fight through them,” Holmes said Thursday as dusk settled over Doral and on his big day. “It was what I’d been working toward. It was awesome. It was just nice for that to happen.”

Holmes has climbed to No. 41 in the Official World Golf Ranking and, for a day, tamed the toothy-again Blue Monster course and outshone all of the bigger names and bigger stars ahead of him.

Those gents would be led of course by No. 1-ranked McIlroy, who shot 1-over par Thursday, and No. 2 Watson, who shot 1-under.

Donald Trump himself had sauntered up to the 10th tee box Thursday, so you knew something important must be happening. The crowd of golf fans murmured. The Donald brought with him Miss Universe, her sash cutting a white satin diagonal across a skin-tight orange dress. Gleaming beyond the water was a parked helicopter with TRUMP emblazoned on it in bold red letters, the accoutrement of wealth placed conspicuously by design.

Trump, his beauty queen and the largest gallery of this WGC event had gathered to watch McIlroy and Watson tee off in the same marquee threesome.

(Holmes would tee off soon after in a relatively anonymous pairing with Joost Luiten and Thongchai Jaidee, the trio followed by a smattering).

The PGA Tour, many golf fans and most golf media are willing a great rivalry to bloom between McIlroy and Watson. Some of the rest of us more parochially are wishing that someone – anyone – will volunteer himself as the sports’ next great American, someone to accept the baton from the fading quiniela of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.

Bubba seems like the guy.

As if affirming it, Trump, as he shook Watson’s hand on the tee box, leaned in and whispered to him, “This is your course.” (I was inside the ropes close enough to hear).

It is his time, too? The Year of Bubba?

Watson is in his prime at 36, is the reigning Masters champion and winner of two of the past three majors at Augusta, and his world ranking alone would seem to verify some newfound elite status. Another Masters win next month would erase all doubt.

In the great beyond post-Tiger-and-Phil, there has not been a consensus answer to, “Quick, who’s the best American golfer.”

Watson is poised to end the debate. (Now all he has to do is do it).

Thursday, though, it was another American, Mr. Holmes, borrowing the spotlight that so wanted to find Watson.

This is the beauty of sports, isn’t it?

Anything is possible and what’s real so often seems better than anything you might script.

Sometimes, in real life, a 7-footer named Hassan Whiteside falls from the sky into the Miami Heat’s lap, a future Hall of Famer named Ichiro suddenly winds up a Marlin, and all-time hockey great Jaromir Jagr somehow appears in a Panthers uniform.

And on a golf course called the Blue Monster about 10 miles from downtown Miami, a young man who happened to survive two brain surgeries shoots a 62 – happy to be ahead, happier to be alive.

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