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Hope is contagious: How Max Homa's journey inspires his peers

14 Min Read

Tour Insider


    Written by Kevin Prise @PGATOURKevin

    How would you define the relentless grind of professional golf?

    Max Homa’s mind quickly darts to a meme known as “Never Give Up,” commonly circulated in the 2010s, which displays two men digging for diamonds in the underground dirt. There’s one man, after some thousands of strikes hammering the rock, who dejectedly turns away. He’s likely one strike away from gold. There’s the other man, who is maybe still a few dozen strikes away – but he keeps going.

    Homa represents that second man, the dark valleys of his career path giving way to glorious peaks. The path is uniquely his own. The two-time defending Fortinet Championship winner is the first player to twice fall back from the PGA TOUR to the Korn Ferry Tour, regain his TOUR card both times and ultimately ascend to a top-10 position on the Official World Golf Ranking.

    It's a path of resiliency that may never be replicated, but perhaps it will be. That’s because Homa’s trademark grit has inspired his contemporaries across the PGA TOUR and Korn Ferry Tour ranks, helping them believe in a greater potential.

    “Everyone is this close to being really, really good and a superstar, and you just have to really believe that,” said TOUR winner Adam Svensson, who recalls playing with Homa in his younger years, when the latter was “hitting it everywhere, struggling and missing cuts.”

    Svensson has followed a similar trajectory – earn TOUR card, lose it, regain it and win – one of many pros who draw inspiration from Homa’s tale.

    “Obviously when people are struggling, they’re getting frustrated,” Svensson continued. “But he’s always had a great attitude, in life and in the game. … You just never know in this game. That’s why you’ve got to keep pushing.”

    The Fortinet Championship marks the 10-year anniversary of Homa’s professional debut, and the Cal-Berkeley alum’s story has been told ad nauseum: He won the Pac-12 Championship and NCAA title as a college senior, starred in the Walker Cup and turned pro in late summer 2013, then earned his TOUR card the following year. He bounced between the TOUR and Korn Ferry Tour before hitting rock bottom in 2017, making just two cuts and earning $18,008. He then strung together four consecutive closing birdies to make the cut at the Korn Ferry Tour’s 2018 Regular Season finale, keeping his job and earning back his TOUR card within a month. Homa then proceeded to win six TOUR titles – including the last two Fortinet Championships – and automatically qualify to represent the U.S. Team at this month’s Ryder Cup in Rome.

    Max Homa adds to list of accomplishments in 2022

    That story will continue to be documented, and deservedly so as Homa’s career unfolds. But it’s Homa’s path to the TOUR – one that serves as inspiration for his peers – that also will likely feature prominently in his legacy.

    After Kobe Bryant’s tragic passing in January 2020, Homa expressed these sentiments on X (formerly known as Twitter): “He didn’t know it but Kobe made me tougher. It’s always been “what would Kobe do?” when it came to golf. Put in the time and keep ur head down. Don’t let anyone outwork u. I’m forever grateful for him and I know I’m not alone. RIP #8 #24”

    Homa might not realize it, but his journey of hard work and mental toughness has resonated across the golf world – and has made his fellow pros tougher as well.

    “It's just the way the game is. … It can bring you down, and it can bring you super, super high,” Jordan Spieth said. “He's somebody who is willing to ride out the ‘down’ because he knew his potential and then went and worked for it. … You just have to be willing to risk it like that for it to pay off.

    “So that's what makes it such a cool story.”

    Spencer Levin has known Homa since the latter’s first TOUR stint in 2014, and Levin can relate to Homa’s career arc in certain ways. Both are California kids who have spent ample time in their adulthood in Arizona. Both had promising amateur careers and competed in the U.S. Open before turning pro. Both have earned their TOUR card and then lost it.

    Levin reflected on Homa’s journey after Monday qualifying for the Korn Ferry Tour’s Veritex Bank Championship earlier this year, where he was a conditional member on the TOUR’s premier developmental circuit at the time. At age 38 and with three kids, Levin admitted to often hearing the question, “Why keep going?”, and said his response in part is because of an innate self-belief that his good golf is enough to compete at the highest level – akin to the fire that kept Homa going through the lean times.

    “We had talks back then, when he wasn’t quite playing at the level he’s at now, where you know you can do better,” Levin said. “Even when he wasn’t playing well then, he was one of those guys that I knew was always going to be a good player. You could tell by the way he thought and the way he swung and all those things. He was very hard on himself, and now he’ll probably tell you that he’s learned to not be hard on himself. … But if a guy is like that, to me, that means they expect a lot.

    “If he had never been that hard on himself and he didn’t really have that self-belief, I think that at the time, it might have hurt him, but deep down it’s actually something that’s a positive for a guy … as long as they learn how to deal with it, which obviously he’s done.”

    Levin spoke in reflective tones, thinking of Homa’s journey and what he could take from it, knowing that he also had the self-belief and was willing to put in the work – that one of these weeks, something would click.

    “As long as I go out there and believe in myself and tell myself that I can do it, I can play well, and that’s why I keep playing,” Levin continued.

    That week, Levin won. It marked his first TOUR-sanctioned victory in 18 years as a pro, cementing full Korn Ferry Tour status through 2024. He’ll also have a chance in this fall’s Korn Ferry Tour Finals to earn a return trip to the TOUR, where he could rejoin Homa next spring.

    “I love that guy, and I’m so proud of him and I’m so happy that he’s been continuing,” Homa said. “Because he’s such an amazing golfer. … Anyone that’s seen him touch a golf club knows he’s got a gift, and I’m so happy that he knocked that door down, because he deserves it.”

    Kevin Dougherty counts Homa as a longtime friend. The Southern California natives were junior golf contemporaries and played together on the 2018 Korn Ferry Tour. When Homa guest-hosted the circuit’s podcast that spring, he invited Dougherty as his guest. They recorded from a storage shed adjacent to the clubhouse at The Landings Golf & Athletic Club in Savannah, Georgia.

    Fast forward to that summer and the final event of the Korn Ferry Tour’s Regular Season, the WinCo Foods Portland Open, the same week where Homa made his famous four straight closing birdies Friday to make the cut and keep his card. It’s a moment that Homa often harkens back to, whether to draw energy (like while driving to the course for a third-round pairing with Rory McIlroy at the 2019 Wells Fargo Championship, which Homa proceeded to win) or to contextualize the journey (like after setting a course-record 62 at Olympia Fields at last month’s BMW Championship).

    Two days after Homa’s clutch Friday finish to keep his job, Dougherty faced a 15-foot birdie chip from just in front of the 18th green at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club outside Portland, Oregon, with the stakes clear: If he made it, he would earn his TOUR card. He struck the chip well, but it narrowly missed on the left side, blades away from dropping. Dougherty’s knees buckled as his head fell into his hands.

    A few weeks later, Homa earned back his TOUR card. Dougherty has remained on the Korn Ferry Tour ever since.

    This season though, Dougherty is approaching his first TOUR card. He ranks No. 15 on the circuit’s season-long standings with three events remaining in the Korn Ferry Tour Finals, after which the top 30 will earn 2024 TOUR membership. He feels his game has evolved in recent years. He isn’t sure that he was quite ready for the TOUR’s demands back in 2018, but now he believes he is.

    “I was talking to (former TOUR pro) John Mallinger, and we both agree Max has always been the player he is today; he just figured it out,” Dougherty said. “That’s what I take from him. We’re all trying to figure out that one thing that makes us great. … I know he’s a huge Kobe Bryant fan, and obviously Kobe was one of the hardest workers and most competitive and always striving for greatness. And that’s in Max’s DNA.

    “It’s a marathon and we’re looking five, seven, 10 years down the road of where we want to be. One season, one chip isn’t going to derail me. … A buddy of mine texted me and reminded me about Max and how he birdied his last four and got in the top 75 and got his card, and now he’s an absolute world beater. Little stretches and stuff like that can take your career in different paths.”

    Dougherty intends for his path to meet Homa’s once again on the 2024 PGA TOUR.

    The memory lingers in Ryan McCormick’s mind.

    It was a nondescript Saturday at the 2018 North Mississippi Classic, a one-year event on the Korn Ferry Tour, and he was paired with Homa for the third round. Homa wasn’t far removed from his 2017 struggles – in which he recorded three FedExCup points – and from McCormick’s vantage, Homa was still working his way back from those depths.

    McCormick was still new to the Korn Ferry Tour, having Monday qualified for the prior week’s event and finishing top-25 to earn a spot in Mississippi. It was a rough Saturday for both – McCormick made a quadruple bogey at the fourth hole en route to a 77, and Homa made two double bogeys in his final six holes for a 76.

    “I learned from him that day,” McCormick said. “I could tell that he was so good, and you could tell from a mile away, anyone who was watching could tell that he was getting in his own way. … When he talks about the end of that season and how he turned it around, it makes sense to me from a mental perspective where he was at. I think that’s what the game can do to you. He’s been an awesome player his whole life, and then when you have some adversity, especially out here, you can get beat up because everybody’s so good.

    “In that way, it’s inspiring to see, getting beat down and beat up, and then come back and start playing to his level of talent and potential.”

    McCormick has played the Korn Ferry Tour ever since and is nearing his first TOUR card, as well. He ranks No. 19 on the season-long standings with three events remaining in the Korn Ferry Tour Finals, eyeing the all-important top 30.

    Homa’s regimen resonates.

    Korn Ferry Tour pro Patrick Flavin frequently sees Homa around the TPC Scottsdale practice facility during weeks off. Whenever Flavin arrives, chances are Homa is likely there – and he’s likely around the chipping area.

    “I heard a quote from him that he always hits the 6-iron the same, so he chips a lot,” Flavin said. “Which is crazy (laughing) that he hits his 6-iron that good. … He’s super talented, and he works super hard. That ability to keep showing up every day, that resilience. It’s not really teachable, and it’s something I try to do as well. He’s also not a big freak-of-nature-looking guy; he’s a normal-looking guy. I love how confident he is, but also he’s humble as well.”

    Homa spent three full seasons on the Korn Ferry Tour before regaining his TOUR card for good. Twice, it came after a lost-card season on TOUR. His practice habits and demeanor, though, never wavered.

    “I feel like there are too many players that when they drop down from the PGA TOUR to the Korn Ferry Tour, they, like, hate their life,” said TOUR pro Dylan Wu, who counts a 5-wood striped by Homa on the ninth hole at Whisper Rock in Arizona as the best golf shot he’s ever seen.

    “They’re like, ‘This sucks.’ They’re just mad all the time,” Wu added. “You can’t have that mentality, because you’re still playing professional golf for a living. … And like Max said, you’re always one shot away from thinking you’re the best player in the world, and one shot away from thinking you’re going to quit the game. For golfers, being nice to yourself is a huge thing, … and I feel like Max had a really good mentality about it.”

    For those working up the game’s ladder, Homa will gladly lend an ear.

    Veteran pro Erik Barnes grabbed an early-week breakfast with Homa at this year’s THE PLAYERS Championship, Barnes’ PLAYERS debut after steadily ascending the Korn Ferry Tour ranks for the previous seven years – including a stint stocking shelves at Publix to help support his family during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic hiatus.

    Barnes roomed with Homa during the Korn Ferry Tour’s 2018 season-opening The Bahamas Great Exuma Classic at Sandals Emerald Bay, into which Homa entered with conditional status, every paycheck crucial to maintaining a playing schedule. Homa finished seventh that week to set up his season.

    Fast forward to breakfast at THE PLAYERS, and Barnes had one question for Homa: When he earned back his TOUR card, what was different?

    “It’s like, ‘My technique got a lot better, and then consistently I hit it a lot better,’” Barnes recalled, “’But then I got to a point where I started putting myself in position enough where I got confident, and all of a sudden, bang, I won, and now I can compete and now I feel I can win all the time.’”

    The message resonated.

    “Golf is a cruel game,” Barnes said. “Sometimes you have it, sometimes you don’t, but his story’s incredible. … We roomed together in the Bahamas; Max is a great guy. He’s exactly who he is now as he was back then. He’s the same guy. He’s funny, he likes to have a good time, but when it’s time to dial in, he dials in. He’s just a great guy, and he hasn’t changed a lick, which I appreciate that about him.”

    “I don’t think he’s changed his demeanor or anything over the years,” added TOUR pro Max McGreevy, recalling a week with Homa at the TaylorMade Pebble Beach Invitational a few years back.

    At the time, McGreevy was a wide-eyed, newly minted pro, and he’ll never forget Homa’s affability and hospitality throughout the week, noting: “Loved his presence … just a very nice guy overall.”

    “What has happened over these last four years or so now is pretty remarkable,” McGreevy continued. “It’s really cool to see, and I think there are going to be multiple guys that continue to do exactly what he’s doing, too. It pushes all of us to get a lot better.”

    Flashback to a pre-tournament presser at this year’s PGA Championship, where Justin Thomas is asked how he manages his emotions during the inevitable downturns at different stages of the career, when the preferred results are harder to come by.

    Homa is not mentioned in the question. But he’s highlighted in the response.

    “Just nobody, I feel like, is in a better place than Max Homa out here,” Thomas said. “There’s no other top player in the world that's gone through what he's gone through in terms of having a TOUR card, losing your TOUR card, having to earn it back and then becoming one of the top players in the world.

    “I've talked to him about it before because he's like, ‘Nobody out here really knows how bad it can be.’ It's like, I feel like everything is so bad and I'm ranked whatever in the world. … He's like, ‘Dude, I had to birdie my last four holes at Pumpkin Ridge to get in the Korn Ferry (Tour Finals).’ It's all relative, and it's all about making the most of whatever situation you're in.”

    Thomas admits the duo didn’t necessarily enjoy each other’s company at first – some light animosity perhaps simmering from their shared competitiveness and wanting to one-up the other, as two of the United States’ most promising amateur golfers of the day.

    They were teammates at the 2013 Walker Cup, though, helping lead the United States to a decisive 17-9 victory. They built mutual respect, and they broke bread afterward.

    “Maybe had a couple drinks and finally got over our little hatred,” Thomas laughed.

    Perhaps they’ll raise another glass in Rome – to the grind, and to the journey.

    Kevin Prise is an associate editor for the PGA TOUR. He is on a lifelong quest to break 80 on a course that exceeds 6,000 yards and to see the Buffalo Bills win a Super Bowl. Follow Kevin Prise on Twitter.

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