The epic slumps and epic comebacks of Max Homa and Michael Kim
6 Min Read
Cal teammates reunite at Fortinet Championship after enduring similar mid-20s swoons
Written by Cameron Morfit @CMorfitPGATOUR
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Ah, the college years. Homa and Kim were part of a surprising Cal powerhouse that dominated college golf in the 2012-13 season, winning 12 of 14 events before losing in the semifinals of the NCAA Championship.
Kim won the Haskins Award that year as college golf's top player. Homa won the Pac-12 and NCAA individual titles.
Their head coach didn't like his players to hit the weight room, but it was Homa who took Kim to the student recreation center to guide him through clandestine offseason workouts that would add muscle to his lithe frame.
Homa said Kim was "like my little brother" during their college days, adding, "I always root for Michael."
But what followed for the former collegiate stars was no laughing matter. Each made it to the TOUR only to fall apart in his mid-20s, lose his TOUR card, and slog through a bewildering odyssey in the golfing wilderness.
The game, once so simple, got complicated. Homa missed 15 cuts in 2015, played on the Korn Ferry Tour in ’16, and missed 15 cuts (in 17 starts) again in ’17, when he dropped to 244th in the FedExCup.
“He’s way too good a player to lose his card,” Rory McIlroy said of Homa at the Wells Fargo Championship in May.
True enough. Homa, the defending champion at the Fortinet, is still in the afterglow of a career-best two-win season and fifth-place finish in the FedExCup. Last week U.S. Presidents Cup Captain Davis Love III named him among his six picks to help round out the team that will take on the Internationals at Quail Hollow Club next week.
Now it’s Kim’s turn to come back after earning his return to the TOUR through the Korn Ferry Tour this year.
He parted ways with longtime swing coach James Oh to go with John Tillery just three weeks before the 2018 John Deere Classic, which he then won by eight shots. It was a happy day, with Kim having shot 27 under to lap the field, but when asked in his press conference afterward about the recent coaching change he burst into tears.
“You feel like you’ve gone to war with a guy for years,” Kim said Wednesday, “and I started seeing (Oh) when I was 15, and he’s the one who had really helped me get on TOUR. That was three weeks after I had told him, and it felt like 90 percent of the work we had done for that win was with James, and maybe the last 10 percent was with J.T., but it was going to be looked at as J.T. came in and fixed everything. I felt bad that people were going to look at it that way.”
What’s more, as Kim sat there before the press, the trophy won and a life goal realized, he harbored a bizarre secret: Other than that one week at TPC Deere Run, he wasn’t playing well.
“I was still struggling even that year,” he said. “I wasn’t playing great, I just got hot at the perfect moment and the stars aligned for me. I got caught up in the trendy thing in the golf swing and tried to quote, unquote take the hands out of it. Growing up, a lot of my feel was in my hands. Tiger Woods talks about his hands. I lost that.”
Kim’s freefall was dizzying. He made a 36-hole cut just once in the two seasons following his Deere win, at one point missing 25 consecutive cuts. He fell outside the top 1,000 in the world. By abandoning the right-to-left tee shot that found fairways and allowed for the fullest expression of his above-average wedges and short game, he became utterly, hopelessly lost.
“It might have been a technical thing at first, but I think it became a mental thing,” said Michael Weaver, a Cal teammate who was runner-up in the 2012 U.S. Amateur and joined Homa and Kim on the United States' 2013 Walker Cup team. “I was a fill-in caddie for him at the 3M Open in 2019, and he played with Smylie Kaufman and Austin Cook, and I felt bad for Austin because Smylie and Michael were hitting it all over the place.”
Kaufman is now a golf broadcaster, and for a time it was anything but certain Kim would make his way out of the williwags. He parted with Tillery and tried his luck with various other coaches, including George Gankas, but nothing stuck. His friends tried to buck up his spirits, telling him they still believed in him even as the cuts piled up.
“Every time I asked him, ‘Where are you playing next?’ I was prepared to hear, ‘I might not play for a while,’” Weaver said. “You work so hard to build up your confidence and then it all goes badly and you’re like, I used to be good at this and now I suck. I wouldn’t fault anyone for shutting it down; it’s a natural reaction to not being able to find your way out.”
Kim saw flashes of form, but they could vanish even as he made the turn. “I was really dejected because on the front nine you have that hope,” he said, “and then it’s a crash all over again.” He got a slight reprieve from Covid, the pandemic extending his status a year and saving him from a return to Korn Ferry Tour Q School.
After Monday-qualifying for the Fortinet last year, he tapped Weaver to caddie for him again.
“He hit it in the condos on one,” Weaver said.
It looked like the same old stuff, but just a few weeks earlier Kim had begun working with was Sean Foley, who diagnosed the problem: Kim had gotten away from his swing DNA and what made him great in the first place.
“Sean said, ‘We needed to get you swinging a little more like you did as a kid, with similar feels and tweaks here and there,’” Kim said, “and that’s how we started. We were still making the transition last year. It was all very new.”
Slowly, methodically, Kim clawed his way back. He started the 2022 Korn Ferry Tour season with a pair of missed cuts, but a T15 at The Panama Championship in February provided hope. He texted Foley: This was going to work.
Kim racked up 12 top-25 finishes in 25 starts to regain his PGA TOUR card. He closed the campaign by making 10 consecutive cuts, including three top-5 finishes, and averaging 67.7 in those 40 rounds. He also shared the first-round lead at the Puerto Rico Open (T16) and finished seventh at the Barbasol Championship. Today, he feels like he has a new lease on life.
“I mean obviously it would be great if I went to see Sean first,” he said. “I’ve come to believe it’s more about your fit with your instructor and does his swing philosophy fit with what you have.”
Without the last four years, though, he added, he might not be the same player he is today.
“I don’t think I’d be as excited and have a fresh perspective on playing the PGA TOUR,” he said. “You go through the ups and downs and you appreciate it more.”
Homa could say the same. His eyes got a little teary Wednesday as he talked about the journey from his very first PGA TOUR start to making his first U.S. Presidents Cup Team, and the ups and downs along the way.
For the two Cal Bears who will reunite at Silverado, the struggle makes it all the sweeter.
Cameron Morfit began covering the PGA TOUR with Sports Illustrated in 1997, and after a long stretch at Golf Magazine and golf.com joined PGATOUR.COM as a Staff Writer in 2016. Follow Cameron Morfit on Twitter.