Inside Max Homa's mind
How the TOUR player whom Twitter loves has learned to better love himself
May 03, 2021
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
When Max Homa’s game was at its worst, he knew hard work was the only answer.
That’s always been the easy part. He remembers the many nights his father, John, came home at 1 a.m. from his second job. Max worked his way to the PGA TOUR despite growing up on a short and scruffy par-61 public course. And he’s long idolized Kobe Bryant and his Mamba mentality.
Homa has the word ‘Relentless’ tattooed on his right wrist. In college, he kept quotes from naysayers affixed to his door to serve as inspiration.
“I need somebody to say, ‘You can’t,’ and I will be like, ‘Yes I can,’” he said recently on the podcast of the recording artist mike. There was one problem.
“But if no one says it, I’m like, ‘Can I?’”
Long range sessions and a refusal to give up got him out of the well-documented slump that could’ve derailed his career. Now he has reached new heights – he’s a top-50 player in the world after winning his hometown Genesis Invitational in front of another of his heroes, Tiger Woods – thanks to a different type of work.
The TOUR pro that Twitter loves had to learn to better love himself.
This week, Homa returns to the site of his first PGA TOUR victory: the Wells Fargo Championship at Charlotte’s Quail Hollow Club. It’s a title defense two years in the making, after last year’s tournament was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Homa beat his good friend Joel Dahmen by three shots that week. Justin Rose, then the reigning FedExCup champion and No. 2 player in the world, finished four back. Sergio Garcia, Paul Casey, Jason Dufner and former Wells Fargo champ Rickie Fowler all tied for fourth. Rory McIlroy, who’s twice set the course record at Quail Hollow, started the final round two back before fading with a 73.
Beating some of the game’s biggest names on a major-championship venue was a destiny many envisioned for Homa after he closed his college career by winning the Pac-12 and NCAA titles. He was on the Walker Cup team with Justin Thomas. And Homa finished ninth in his first PGA TOUR start as a pro.
It could be an understatement to call the intervening years ‘unexpected.’
He bounced between the TOUR and the Korn Ferry Tour in his first four seasons, winning in each of his KFT campaigns but struggling in the big leagues.
Things really went awry in 2017, his second season on TOUR. He made just two cuts in 17 starts. He earned $18,008 and joked that the Monday pro-ams were a bigger source of income.
The same intellect that makes him so popular on social media started to become his worst enemy. Fans loved his self-effacing humor but it also was a mirror into his own struggles with confidence. He didn’t believe he belonged on TOUR, which sent him searching.
“He got too far in his own head,” said his childhood swing coach, Les Johnson. “He’s so darn smart, so when he gets in his head, he can get going in too many directions.”
In his final event of that season, the Wyndham Championship, he shot 75-79 to finish last by five shots; he estimated that he hit nine provisional tee shots because of wayward drives. But he was on the range that Friday afternoon after missing the cut. He was there while players started their afternoon rounds and still there when they made the turn.
“His season was over. He had already lost his card. Normally, people would be like, ‘All right, let’s get out of here,’” recalls Dahmen. “It’s like 100 degrees out and he’s still hammering away after a missed cut at the last event of the year.
“’Guys were like, ‘Dude, what is this guy doing?’”
Homa was back on the Korn Ferry Tour the following year, but that provided another opportunity for him to display his grit. He birdied his final four holes to make the cut at the Korn Ferry Tour’s regular-season finale, the WinCo Foods Portland Open, without a shot to spare.
Had he failed to qualify for the weekend, he would have fallen $96 short of qualifying for the Korn Ferry Tour Finals. Instead, he posted a pair of top-10s in that four-event series to regain his PGA TOUR card for 2019. That set the stage for his Wells Fargo win.
“I fought my way out of a hole,” he said.
Homa returns to Wells Fargo this week ranked 16th in the FedExCup and 39th in the world ranking. The win at Riviera was another victory at a major-championship venue. He’s also playing the most consistent golf of his career.
He’s finished in the top 25 in more than half his starts this season, including a sixth-place finish at last week’s Valspar Championship.
He missed the cut in each of his three previous Valspar starts and had a 74.2 scoring average on the Copperhead Course, so last week’s showing was further proof of his progress. He now rolls his eyes at what used to intimidate him.
“When I come to a course like this one,” he said, “and I have a hole that used to bug me, I’m like, ‘What were you bothered by?’ It’s almost like now it feels easy.”
The key moments in Homa’s improvement took place away from the spotlight. In a hotel gym after the U.S. Open. In a hitting bay in Birmingham, Alabama, far from Homa’s West Coast home. And at a rental house in Augusta, Georgia, after missing the cut in his Masters debut.
Homa has said he struggled with impostor syndrome. The struggle to believe he belonged alongside the best players in the world was one of the reasons his swing went awry. He emulated aspects of other players’ swings and the tinkering sent him in circles.
After missing the cut at Winged Foot, he wanted to find out what worked for him. He met with a new instructor, Mark Blackburn, in the tiny gym of the Westchester Marriott for a physical evaluation.
Homa was trying to get his hands high at the top of the backswing, a la Justin Thomas, but Blackburn’s analysis showed that wasn’t a good move for Homa’s body. A few weeks later, Homa traveled to Birmingham for long, uninterrupted practice sessions that often stretched past sunset with temperatures in the 50s.
Blackburn appreciated his student’s desire to understand the reasons behind the changes instead of simply following directions. It showed Homa’s inquisitive side.
“He asks good questions,” Blackburn said. “Some guys don’t care. They say, ‘Just show me.’ He needs to know the why.”
When they returned to Blackburn’s home after hours of hitting balls, Homa played Super Smash Bros. with Blackburn’s 11-year-old son, Rex, and was on the floor playing telephone with Blackburn’s 5-year-old daughter, Nila.
Homa is learning to extend that same gentleness and grace to himself. That was the topic of conversation with his wife, Lacey, and longtime caddie/friend, Joe Greiner, after last fall’s Masters.
Homa’s hard work led to high expectations for himself. They thought working on his mental game would help him handle the game’s inherent frustrations.
“I’ve always been determined, but I’ve never been super positive,” he told Golf Digest in 2019. “The negativity was corrosive.”
Dahmen saw it last summer at the Workday Charity Open, the first of two consecutive events at Muirfield Village Golf Club. He, Homa and Mark Hubbard rented a house for the fortnight in Columbus, Ohio. None of them made the cut. Dahmen, who shot 79-81, laughed it off, as did Hubbard. Homa did not.
“For the next day, you could tell he was still pissed off he didn’t have a tee time on Saturday,” Dahmen said. “He didn’t let it go very easily.”
John Homa is a successful acting coach in Los Angeles, having worked with the likes of Kirsten Dunst and Brie Larson. He understands the importance of words, which is why he told his son to listen closely to his favorite golfers’ interviews.
“He taught me to pay attention because he realized you learn a lot from those things,” Max said. “I’ve always appreciated those moments where I could talk about what I’ve gone through.”
When his game was at its worst, the opportunity to motivate others served as an inspiration. Perhaps getting out of his slump could serve as a beacon of hope for someone else enduring a difficult time.
Now he’s open about his journey to a healthier mindset, speaking freely about his path on his podcast with Golf Channel’s Shane Bacon and in interviews. He knows there could be another kid listening, just like he did years ago.
Homa used to think being hard on himself was the only way to push himself toward excellence. One of the quotes that hung above his door in college said, “They don’t believe you’re good enough.” There was one problem. Sometimes Homa thought it, too.
“I was not having faith in myself unless I was seeing results,” he said. “I’m trying to be a lot more calm and patient with myself.”
That’s why Blackburn preached “position over perfection” early in the week at Riviera. He wanted Homa to emphasize where the shot ended up over the quality of the strike.
Homa has been attending the tournament at Riviera since he was a young boy. On the 72nd hole, he had an opportunity to win in a way that would make Woods proud. Homa hit a sand wedge to 3 feet. He could clinch the title with one last birdie, but the short putt missed the hole.
Before the playoff with Tony Finau, Lacey reminded her husband to “forgive quickly.”
Homa’s first tee shot in the playoff – at the drivable 10th hole – wasn’t far from his target but ended up in a tricky lie next to a tree. He saved par to stay alive, then won with a par on the next hole.
“Golf is hard,” he said after his victory. “I make it look especially hard at times but fortunately I played some solid golf in the playoff and got it done.”
Now when Homa is nervous, he names three things he’s grateful for. He’s read “The Power of Now” and Matthew McConaughey’s “Greenlights,” a memoir about finding satisfaction. He’s more focused on each moment. And he wants to be honest about his abilities instead of downplaying them.
“There’s a very small difference, but important difference, between being calm and being at peace. Not going up and down, but being peaceful and accepting,” Homa said. “Standing over a shot and being OK with what happens.
“If a putt doesn’t go in, I can get annoyed, but I’d rather hit the putt I was trying to hit than hit a bad putt because I’m worrying about what could go wrong. That’s where the peace and comfort comes from.”
After the third round of this year’s American Express, Home said he’s trying to be “a happy dude.” He shared the 54-hole lead but shot 76 on Sunday to finish 12 back, in a tie for 21st. When he won at Riviera a month later, he was asked how that failure prepared him.
“I didn’t fail,” he replied. “I learned a lot.”
That’s the answer of someone exhibiting a growth mindset. He flew back to Arizona shortly after his Genesis win and, in the midst of the celebration, provided Dahmen with guidance that led to a victory of his own.
Homa referenced the Stonecutter’s Creed in their conversation. It used to hang next to Bryant’s locker, and says: “Yet at the 101st blow (the rock) will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”
The motto? Not to judge yesterday’s practice by today’s results. Or to let one bad shot impact your self-belief.
“He’s like, ‘(Practice) is not about today,'” Dahmen recalled. “It’s about me being on the Ryder Cup team in the fall, this is about me winning a major, this is about me getting to the TOUR Championship. It’s building for something and always getting a little bit better.
“I woke up and I was ready to get back to work.”
He won his first PGA TOUR title, the Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship, in March.
That Homa finished in the top 25 in a World Golf Championship immediately after his victory and was 10th at Bay Hill a week later were a testament to his self-belief. He was a last-minute addition to the WGC field but didn’t let his late arrival lessen his confidence like it may have before.
“I wasn’t walking around thinking, ‘Oh, I have no chance,’” he said recently. “I was thinking, ‘OK, we’re still playing some of the best golf in the world and that doesn’t change because I got here Tuesday afternoon.’
“It’s having just a bit more faith in myself. It sounds so simple, but it’s just one of those things that just isn’t for some people.”
For Max Homa, that faith is starting to pay off.