J.B. Holmes inspires young family

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- If you need someone to root for in this week's Players Championship, J.B. Holmes would be a nice place to start. Then again, I'm a sucker for guys who keep a chunk of their surgically removed skull in a closet at home.

Holmes isn't one of the favorites to win the Players. In fact, he's barely a longshot.

Holmes is ranked 111th in the world. His last tour victory came in 2008. He's fresh from a final-round 77 on Sunday at the Wells Fargo Championship.

Mr. Momentum, he isn't.

But you root for him not because of his form, but because of his kindness. And because of that piece of skull.

Early Wednesday afternoon, Holmes, Scott Stallings and world No. 2 Luke Donald walked down the 18th fairway of TPC Sawgrass. They were finishing up their practice round, and their gallery, such as it was, didn't come close to matching the numbers that Tiger Woods attracted earlier in the day.

But Holmes had a following that Woods didn't: 9-year-old Skyler Wendorff and Skyler's younger brothers, Brayden, 8, and Zachary, 5. Just in case you get confused, Brayden is the one with the Mohawk haircut and the chainsaw-sized pair of surgical scars on the left side of his head.

Think of it as the Holmes foursome. They walked together down that 18th fairway and then took turns taking practice putts on the green. I don't know who had more fun, Holmes or the kids and their grateful parents, Dan and Amanda.

Holmes, 30, had never met the Wendorffs until Wednesday. But he knew their stories, knew what Brayden and Zachary had been through because he had suffered from the same brain ailment -- Chiari malformation -- and had undergone the same type of brain surgeries.

In non-neurosurgeon terms, Chiari malformation generally occurs when the back of the skull isn't large enough to comfortably contain the brain. The cerebellum, which controls your balance, gets pushed down. The list of Chiari-related effects ranges from dizziness, hearing loss, motor skill difficulties … all the way to, in extreme cases, death.

You don't mess with CM.

Holmes didn't mess with it. He underwent surgery at Johns Hopkins in August. His doctors removed a piece of the back of his skull and later presented it to him. He keeps it in a closet back home in Campbellsville, Ky.

"I'm not going to put it on eBay or anything," said Holmes, as Skyler, Brayden and Zachary played a few feet away. "Get a nickel for it or something. Nah, just like in any day life you get stuff, you get going in the busy world today and you can forget a little bit. So I have that there to remind me how lucky and how fortunate I am to be doing what I do for a living."

Thing is, Holmes had to go in for a second surgery a month later (he was Medi-vac'd on a plane from Kentucky to Baltimore for the emergency procedure) when he had a severe reaction to the glue that held a mesh plate to his skull. Check that -- he thinks it was a plane that took him to Hopkins that September day.

"Pictures, flashes, four sequences … but I don't really remember that day," said Holmes.

He'll remember Wednesday. He'll remember the look on Dan and Amanda's faces as they watched their children tag along with a PGA Tour pro. He'll remember those intersecting scars on Brayden's head.

"I can't imagine the parents and what they had to deal with and everything," Holmes said. "And at such a young age for the kids to have to go under the knife and be in the hospitals. What a scary situation that must have been. I'm just really thankful that everything came out good for them. … Hopefully it won't [alter] their lives too much and they can have normal kid lives."

Normal? Kind of. They can't play contact sports because of the risk of any sort of head trauma. That's why golf makes sense. And when Dan and Amanda read about Holmes' condition and surgeries -- and his fight to return to the tour earlier this January -- that's when J.B. made sense.

"I literally was like stalking to find a way for the kids to meet him," said Amanda, who reached out to the tour, Holmes' agent and Wolfson Children's Hospital in Jacksonville.

Brayden was diagnosed in 2009, after a headache caused him to lay on the floor and scream in pain. Tests revealed CM. He has undergone a half-dozen surgeries, his most recent about two weeks ago.

Zachary and Skyler were later diagnosed with CM. Zachary has had a surgical procedure to treat the condition. Skyler is asymptomatic.

"They're kind of looking for somebody to look up to," Dan said.

Holmes is 5-foot-11, but that's tall enough. He treated Skyler, Brayden, Zachary and Cami (the 4-year-old sister has no signs of CM) like golf royalty. They walked the fairways with Holmes and even took turns taking some practice putts.

"It was awesome," Dan said. "It was awesome. I was glad to see that they could meet with somebody, an adult that's doing well and doing what he loves -- [despite] the misfortune of having the Chiari malformation."

Holmes got something out of it, too. His smile was just as big as the kids'.

And not that he needs another lesson in perspective, but Wednesday's meeting was a nice reminder of what matters.

"At the time, you think [bogeys are] the end of the world," said Holmes, whose neck muscles are still recovering from the surgeries. "And they really don't mean anything."

So what if Holmes is No. 111 in the world. He's No. 1 in the only rankings that matter.

The Wendorff rankings.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.