Once at rock bottom, Homa emphatically trades shovel for trophy
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Breakthrough moments aren’t supposed to look this easy.
These kinds of milestones are normally filled with angst and uncertainty as a lifetime of trial and mostly error fill the expanse of time between shots. But for those watching from afar on Sunday at the Wells Fargo Championship, Max Homa might as well have been marching his way to his 15th PGA Tour title. Not his first.
The inexplicable calm that settled in around the 28-year-old was not how Homa would have imagined the moment – it was better.
“You picture it a lot, you dream of it, and then you get in the moment and you’re not quite sure how you’re going to react to that,” said Homa, who became the fifth player to make the Wells Fargo Championship his first Tour victory. “It’s a lot of buildup, but as we got going, I started to feel comfortable.”
After starting the day knotted in a three-way tie for the lead, Homa moved into the top spot with a 6-footer for birdie at the fifth, he slipped ahead again with a 14-footer for birdie at No. 7 and pulled clear of the field for good when Joel Dahmen, who along with Jason Dufner and Homa shared the 54-hole lead, bogeyed the ninth hole.
When play was suspended for the second consecutive day because of a heavy downpour just past 5 p.m. ET, Homa was three shots clear of the field and facing a tricky downhill par putt from 6 feet at the 14th hole. By the time he strolled up No. 18 with the same advantage, the scene had the appearance of a carefree coronation.
It wasn’t actually easy. It never is. But for a player who has plumbed the depths of the competitive abyss, this was not the standardized stress test so many make it out to be.
Homa’s caddie Joe Greiner, who is on loan from injured Kevin Chappell, reminded his boss of a simple truth earlier this week: “Quiet golfers are usually very mean to themselves.”
Before Sunday’s breakthrough, Homa had plenty of reasons for self-deprecation in recent years. Following a decorated career at Cal, which included the 2013 NCAA individual title, Homa struggled to find his way in the play-for-pay ranks. His rookie season on Tour included just a single top-10 finish and his second trip to the big leagues in 2017 was even worse, as Homa recorded just two made cuts in 17 starts.
“I used to say when I hit rock bottom I found a shovel and kept digging,” Homa said. “I went to some low places and there would be times when I would wallow [in self pity] and honestly just hate my golf game, dislike what I was out there in what’s supposed to be my favorite place in the world.”
When he returned to the Tour this season, Homa was a different player. Maybe even a different person. He reunited with his swing coach from college, Les Johnson, and focused on his driving after finishing the 2016-17 season ranked 188th – out of 190 players – in driving accuracy.
Rock bottom likely came at the 2017 Wyndham Championship. He missed the cut that week and estimates he hit nine “provisional” tee shots. He also took five penalty strokes, all from wayward drives. He ranked last in strokes gained: off-the-tee that week – by more than 15 shots.
“The foul ball doesn’t feel like it’s in play anymore,” he said. “I haven’t hit one in God knows how long and that’s where it’s hard because you’re just waiting for a really bad drive and then it gets embarrassing and your score gets a lot worse really fast.”
That wasn’t an issue at Quail Hollow Club, where he ranked 18th in the field in strokes gained: tee-to-green and never came close to hitting a “foul ball.”
Even a closing cast that included two-time Wells Fargo Championship winner Rory McIlroy, world No. 2 Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia didn’t rattle Homa, who until this week was probably better known for a social-media game, which, by the way, is second to none on Tour.
Rose pulled to within two shots of the lead with a birdie at the 10th hole and Garcia charged by playing Nos. 7-11 in 5 under. But neither could close the gap on Homa, who was flawless until making his first – and only – bogey of the day at No. 16.
“He said he felt calm out there. He was surprised at how calm he felt. If you can get into that environment and play really good golf and feel that way, then that’s great for him going forward,” said McIlroy, who was paired with Homa on Saturday and also won his first Tour title at Quail Hollow. “I was very impressed with him yesterday. He stayed level headed and he’s played really well this week.”
Since leaving Cal in 2013, Homa had watched – and maybe even wondered – as his contemporaries from the college ranks quickly ascended to success on Tour. After competing against Justin Thomas for years, Homa was relegated to watching from the couch as Thomas achieved great things at the highest level.
Perhaps that’s why his victory stroll appeared, at least outwardly, so stress free. For years Homa told himself he would get there eventually. He prepared himself for a day that just two years ago seemed wildly likely.
And when that day finally arrived, Sunday at Quail Hollow, there was no reason to be surprised.