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Holmes returns from elbow surgery, a product of rushing back after brain surgery

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SAN DIEGO - J.B. Holmes made another return from surgery at San Diego, this time with far less fanfare.

Then again, tennis elbow doesn't sound nearly as bad as brain surgery.

What kept Holmes off the PGA Tour for the longest spell of his career was surgery on his left elbow. He had not played in nearly a year — a 78 to miss the cut in the Honda Classic last March — but is finally feeling as healthy as he has been in four years.

In a roundabout way, the elbow might have been connected to the brain.

Holmes had been dealing with vertigo symptoms in 2011 when he eventually was diagnosed with structural defects in the cerebellum known as Chiari malformations. He had surgery twice in 2011, once to remove a piece of his skull, another because of an allergic reaction to the adhesive on the titantium plate at the base of his skull.

He was trying to get ready for the Shark Shootout at the end of 2011 when he started hitting balls — too many, too hard, too soon.

"I pushed it too hard that day, and I've been fighting the tennis elbow ever since," Holmes said Sunday after he tied for 19th at Torrey Pines.

The blessing in disguise might have come last March when he was on roller blades as part of his fitness routine and broke his left ankle after an awkward fall. Holmes wasn't sure he could have played anyway, because his arm was so sore. While recovering from the ankle, he figured he should take care of his elbow.

"The ankle was not that big of a deal," Holmes said. "I had surgery on my arm. It was more getting past that."

At least this time, Holmes is taking it slow.

He was able to chip and putt as the FedEx Cup playoffs were getting started (he failed to qualify for the first time). He was taking easy swings in the fall, and then waited until the Farmers Insurance Open to return. He is playing this week in the Phoenix Open, where he won as a rookie fresh out of Q-school in 2006.

"I want to get out there and beat balls, but I want to make sure it doesn't come back," he said.

Holmes said he was at 95 per cent strength. He is playing this year on a major medical exemption and believes he'll be back on track in no time. The last time he was healthy?

"Probably the year before brain surgery," he said.

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CLOSE CALLS: The good news for Stacy Lewis is she has eight straight top 10s on the LPGA Tour. She has not been out of the top 10 since the U.S. Women's Open last July (except for when she withdrew after one round in Canada, one week after winning the Women's British Open at St. Andrews).

But it's hard not to think how much better it could be.

Lewis was the runner-up for the fifth time in her last eight tournaments when Jessica Korda birdied the last hole to win the Pure Silk Bahamas Classic.

It started harmlessly enough at the Safeway Classic when she finished two shots behind Suzann Pettersen. In China, she lost on the final hole when Shanshan Feng's approach to the par 5 took a wild hop and slammed off the pin to set up an eagle for the win. Lexi Thompson birdied the last hole in Mexico to beat Lewis by one. And then Pornanong Phatlum birdied the 18th hole in Dubai to beat Lewis by one.

Lewis can only hope the result in the Bahamas is a sign of things to come for the rest of the year.

"It's very frustrating," she said. "The 18th has gotten me the last couple tournaments. I've had so many chances to win. It's very frustrating, but to finish second a lot of weeks in a row, you're not doing anything really wrong. That's what I'm taking out of it is I'm doing a lot of stuff right. There's more events and there's bigger tournaments this summer, so I'm just going to take this momentum from here."

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GO WEST, YOUNG MAN: Scott Stallings loves being at home in Tennessee. He also loves to play good golf, and something had to give.

It's not usual for players from the cold parts of the country — Steve Stricker in Wisconsin, for example — to head to the desert for a few days to start shaking the rust off. Stallings went to Palm Springs a few days before his first appearance in the Tournament of Champions at Kapalua.

"We had a good time, but it was only for a couple days right before I went to Maui," he said.

Before going to Kapalua last year, he switched up his plans and headed to Scottsdale, Ariz., for four or five days. That's when the light came on.

"I spent some time with Kevin Streelman and he took me around Whisper Rock and showed me the ropes," Stallings said. "I was like, 'Man, you can get really good here.'"

And so he did.

Stallings finished up his 2013 schedule in Mexico and met his wife, Jennifer, and their young son in Scottsdale. That was in November, and he's not leaving until March. He spent most of the last two months playing with Richard Lee and Josh Teater and is now in the process of joining Whisper Rock.

"It's nice to be with guys who do what you do and are trying to figure out what it takes to get better," Stallings said. "In Tennessee, I love being home, I love where my family is. But it's not going to help me be a better golfer, so we made the commitment."

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USGA & FOX: For all the talk about Fox Sports being a newcomer to golf telecasts when it gets the U.S. Open starting next year, USGA executive director Mike Davis looked at it another way. In an interview with Sports Business Journal, he said the Fox crew could devote more time to the U.S. Open and other USGA events.

"What's neat about this is they can focus on our events," Davis said. "It's not 30 weeks a year where they're doing golf and the U.S. Open sneaks up on them. They plan on taking their announcers to the site months in advance to learn the golf course, and I'll be there with them to take them through what we're trying to do. ... While there may be a new group, in some ways they'll be more knowledgeable than what we've seen in the past."

That last comment might not go down easily with the NBC and ESPN crews, which feature the likes of two-time major champion Johnny Miller, two-time U.S. Open champions Curtis Strange and Andy North, and former U.S. Women's Open champion Dottie Pepper.

Fox Sports thus far has hired Mark Loomis as their executive producer. Loomis brings plenty of experience, having previously worked for ABC Sports at the British Open and other tournaments.

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DIVOTS: Jim Herman never had a card like the one turned in Thursday in the Farmers Insurance Open. He shot a bogey-free 66 on the North Course at Torrey Pines. It also was a birdie-free 66. Herman made three eagles and 15 pars. ... Phil Mickelson has played in every Phoenix Open dating to 1991. ... Yani Tseng won the Taifong Ladies Open on the Taiwan LPGA Tour last week for her first victory since March 2012 at the Kia Classic on the LPGA.

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STAT OF THE WEEK: For the second straight year, American players have won at least the first 10 events of the PGA Tour season.

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FINAL WORD: "It's still putting the golf club on the golf ball. And the end of the day, that's still what you have to do." — Rickie Fowler describing his work with Butch Harmon.

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