Hard part for Homa was wait­ing his turn to win

The News-Times - - SPORTS -

CHAR­LOTTE, N.C. — He was among the best as an am­a­teur, win­ning a pres­ti­gious na­tional ti­tle and mov­ing onto the PGA Tour. While he never thought it was go­ing to be easy, mak­ing it tougher was see­ing so many peers from his college days col­lect­ing tro­phies as he won­dered when, if ever, his turn would come.

So there was great sat­is­fac­tion, and a small mea­sure of re­lief, when for­mer NCAA cham­pion Max Homa won at Quail Hol­low.

Mark O’Meara fits the same de­scrip­tion.

O’Meara won the 1979 U.S. Am­a­teur over John Cook, who won the pre­vi­ous year over Scott Hoch. They were part of a strong gen­er­a­tion of young stars that in­cluded Hal Sut­ton (who won the 1980 U.S. Am­a­teur), Gary Hall­berg and Payne Ste­wart.

All of them won within a few years on the PGA Tour.

O’Meara, now in the World Golf Hall of Fame, didn’t win un­til his 129th start, late in his fourth year.

“You’re happy for your buddy to get the win, but it’s like, ‘Hey, I need to do this.’ It pushes ev­ery­body,” O’Meara said Tues­day. “That was a driv­ing force. Just be­cause you’re a top am­a­teur, top college player, there’s no guar­an­tee it’s go­ing to carry on. It gives you an edge. But that edge goes away when you have to step it up on the next level. And all of us put tremen­dous pres­sure on our­selves to suc­ceed.”

Curtis Strange hit 1iron to 6 feet on the fi­nal hole to win the 1975 NCAA ti­tle at Wake For­est and tied for 15th at the Masters the fol­low­ing year as an am­a­teur. He didn’t make it through Q-school on his first try. In the three years and 83 tries be­fore win­ning, he watched Gary Koch, Jerry Pate and Jay Haas win tour­na­ments. Pate won the U.S. Open.

“Do you have pa­tience to lose and to learn?” Strange said Tues­day. “It was hard. I hit that prac­tice tee ev­ery sin­gle day.”

It’s been that way for years, even as each gen­er­a­tion gets a lit­tle bet­ter and a lit­tle deeper.

Justin Thomas, as hon­est as his drives are long, spoke about the mix­ture of joy and jeal­ousy to­ward the end of 2017, after he won his first ma­jor at the PGA Cham­pi­onship. He grew up in golf with Jor­dan Spi­eth, who won so of­ten so quickly that for the long­est time, Thomas was known on first ref­er­ence as Spi­eth’s buddy. His first year on tour, he lost out on rookie of the year to Daniel Berger.

“We’re all ex­cited and happy for each other,” Thomas said. “But it def­i­nitely puts a lit­tle bit of fire in us.”

Early in his rookie year, Thomas played a prac­tice round at the Valspar Cham­pi­onship with Spi­eth, Berger and Ol­lie Sch­nieder­jans, a Ge­or­gia Tech se­nior and the No. 1 am­a­teur in the world. They all were 21, sep­a­rated by 111 days, and so they lined up youngest to old­est. Spi­eth was the youngest. He had just crossed the $9 mil­lion mark in ca­reer earn­ings. Thomas and Spi­eth reached No. 1 in the world at age 25 or younger. Berger joined those two on the Pres­i­dents Cup team in 2017.

Sch­nieder­jans is in his third year and still look­ing for his first win.

So is Pa­trick Rodgers, an­other for­mer No. 1 am­a­teur who in three years at Stan­ford won 11 times to tie the record set by Tiger Woods. He is in his fifth year on tour, with 123 starts and no wins. Homa can re­late.

He won the NCAA while at Cal in 2013, qual­i­fied a few weeks later for the U.S. Open at Me­rion and spent one year in the mi­nor leagues be­fore mak­ing his PGA Tour de­but. It was the same path as Thomas, his Walker Cup team­mate who is a few years younger.

Homa con­sid­ers Thomas to be a bet­ter player, though he’s cer­tainly close enough to make some fair com­par­isons. And what Homa saw was that one guy was win­ning and the other was miss­ing so many cuts that he played only one round on a Sun­day in 2017 on the PGA Tour.

“You feel a lit­tle in­ad­e­quate be­cause you think to your­self, ‘Why am I not do­ing that?’ ” Homa said at Quail Hol­low, two days be­fore he won. “But it’s not, ‘I can’t.’ Justin Thomas is still one of my best bud­dies out here. I never en­vied it. I envy that he was able to just keep be­ing him, be­cause that’s who he is. He’s very good.”

Homa re­al­izes now he fell into a trap of think­ing he had to be bet­ter.

“I thought I had to get a lot bet­ter, which is crazy,” he said. “I’ve heard that 50 times in college: ‘Don’t try to be any­thing more.’ As you get older, you think about all the hours you put in and it only gets greater.”

He was happy to see Thomas do so well, and in some re­spects, it showed him what could be done.

“I know Justin is far su­pe­rior, but I also knew that my good golf was some­what sim­i­lar,” Homa said. “I doubt that he has got­ten in­cred­i­bly bet­ter be­cause he was al­ready an in­cred­i­ble golfer. It was kind of the re­minder for me to be like, ‘All right, just got to get back to be­ing me five years ago.’ ”

It brought him back to win­ning again.

Play­ers like Sch­nieder­jans and Rodgers no doubt were watch­ing. It’s a hard game.


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