Max Homa Takes His Star Turn at the U.S. Open

new balance

For a decade now, Max Homa has had regrets.

A gettable birdie on the Los Angeles Country Club’s sixth hole had eluded him. On No. 8, it took him three putts to find the cup.

He finished that round in 2013 with a course-record 61. In his mind, his scorecard could have read — should have read — 59. The U.S. Open, which began Thursday at the course that still haunts one of its one-round masters a little, could allow him to cast just about all of that aside by Sunday night.

If Homa can move beyond the past. If he can ratchet down his internal insistence on flawlessness when he plays golf’s most formidable tests. If he can tolerate the pressures and distractions and expectations of being a guy from Los Angeles County who is positioned to star at a U.S. Open just a few traffic nightmares away from the public course he grew up playing in Valencia.

“I am good enough to win whatever I want — I’ve decided that,” Homa, who finished Thursday with a two-under-par 68, said in a recent interview. “I need to go out and do that.”

Few players have been as good during this PGA Tour season. Homa has won twice, most recently in January at Torrey Pines, and had seven other top-10 finishes, including a runner-up showing at the Genesis Invitational, played at the nearby Riviera Country Club.

But the major tournaments have been the scenes of stumbles. He tied for 43rd at the Masters Tournament and fared even worse at last month’s P.G.A. Championship. Last year, the P.G.A. Championship had been the site of his best major tournament outing, a tie for 13th.

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Entering this week’s Open, though, Homa saw the course as favorable to his game, given his particular skill at high shots and comfort, dating back a decade, with the four- and five-irons that L.A.C.C. can demand.

No, he knew, his problem this week would probably not be technical or mechanical. His most pressing dilemma was to settle his mind well enough that he could play a major without punishing himself for this error or that one.

“It just feels like at the majors when I’ve done a poor job, I feel like I’ve been trying to be perfect,” he said. “I don’t need to feel and play perfect to contend.”

The approach worked well enough on Thursday, the day that has so often frustrated Homa on the biggest stages. His performance tied his best opening round at any major tournament; he first played one in 2013, when he missed the cut at the U.S. Open at Merion.

In more familiar environs, Homa notched his first birdie on the third hole. At the sixth hole — a par-4 of 330 yards that can thwart players with a blind tee shot and a green that can feel remarkably tight for a region so familiar with sprawl — Homa made the birdie that did not happen during his fabled Pac-12 Championship round. A bogey at the seventh hole brought him back to one under, before he birdied No. 8, the other source of his could-have-been-better misery. He played the back nine to even par.

When he stepped off the course early Thursday afternoon, he was near the top of the leaderboard but trailing Rickie Fowler, who shot a 62, the lowest single-round score in U.S. Open history, by six strokes. (Xander Schauffele soon after turned in the same score: 62, tying Branden Grace’s major tournament record from the 2017 British Open at Royal Birkdale.)

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Scottie Scheffler, the world’s top-ranked player and a member of Homa’s group, finished his round at three under par. Collin Morikawa, the two-time major tournament winner and another star from Southern California, was one over.

Bryson DeChambeau, the 2020 U.S. Open winner, who was in another group, finished his day tied with Scheffler, Paul Barjon and Si Woo Kim.

“There are going to be times that people hit it in the rough, and I think the person that’s going to win is going to hit the most fairways and going to make the most putts and also hit it on the greens,” said DeChambeau, who won the Open at Winged Foot the same year Homa went eight over par in the first round. “It’s a simple formula, obviously. But again, you have to execute it, right? That’s the whole point of a U.S. Open.”

It is, DeChambeau added, supposed to be rigorous.

Homa, of course, reveled in his Thursday even as he cautioned that it was much too early to declare anything close to a victory. He had a Thursday morning tee time, when the course was in the realm of soft, to start. By Friday afternoon, he warned, the place could be hellish.

The U.S. Golf Association is hardly known for indulging easy Opens.

The association’s devilish concoctions will be Friday’s problem, though. Thursday, with greens that were not exacting and a course receptive to strong iron play, was merely a start.

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“From the first tee to the last putt, I was very accepting and just looked at today as just a round of golf that will set me up toward the rest of the week,” Homa said after he had finished his round. “I think that they have the old cliché that you can’t win it the first day, you could lose it, and I lose a lot of these things on the first day.”

Maybe something clicked these last few weeks as he contemplated how to manage the atmospherics that accompany playing a major tournament close to home.

“There’s obviously, in ways, more pressure, but that’s coming from outside expectation that because a championship is in my backyard, quote-unquote, that I should now be a favorite to win,” he said in the interview. “On the inside, it’s just cool.”

So he was concentrating on the simple things, like smiling. What would happen, he wondered, if he treated preparations for the Open as if they were as pleasurable as those for an ordinary tour event with lower stakes?

He could do nothing, he acknowledged, to combat what everyone else would think, the cheers that would rumble from the galleries, the groans that perhaps lurked, too.

Carefree, or at least as carefree as a professional golfer can get at a U.S. Open, was the strategy.

After all, he said, “I’m getting to do something I would have lost my mind about as a kid.”

On Thursday afternoon, he recalled, that Pac-12 Championship in 2013 had felt like “the biggest thing in the world.”

“This,” he added, “is quite a bit bigger.”

new balance

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