It could be said that the Torrey Pines golf complex now represents something of a life-and-death circumstance for Max Homa when he competes in the Farmers Insurance Open. Not literally, of course. But on the same grass, the popular Californian has both absorbed the loss of his childhood idol, NBA star Kobe Bryant, and the joys of cooing at his two-month-old baby boy, Cam, as the newly crowned tournament champion.
As Homa fiercely battled a handful of major champions and a hopeful journeyman late in the fourth round of a Saturday conclusion on the Torrey Pines South Course, he said his mind did drift to thoughts of Bryant, of Kobe’s competitive tenacity, and of his tragic death three years ago this week in a helicopter crash. That day, on Sunday at the Farmers, news of the Los Angeles Lakers great’s passing drifted out to players either during their rounds or when they’d signed their cards.
“This place … I have a weird feeling towards it,” Homa said. “I love it, and it has like a weird sadness to it.”
The emotional balance of that played out again and again for Homa during this Farmers week, with his wife, Lacey, walking a couple of rounds with their son in a baby carrier on her chest. And the happiness was never more palpable than after Homa made a short birdie putt on the 72nd hole to finish off a stirring final-round comeback. Five shots behind leader Sam Ryder at the start, Homa applied early pressure by shooting four under on the front, and he then birdied two of the harder par 3s on the PGA Tour, Nos. 11 and 16, to pull away with a six-under-par 66 for his sixth career victory and second in three months.
Homa finished with a total of 13 under, two strokes better than former PGA Championship winner Keegan Bradley, who charged with his own 66. Collin Morikawa, the two-time major winner who did his best in the same group with Homa to push his fellow Cal alum, managed a 69 and finished solo third, three back.
Ryder, who is winless on tour and was trying to become the first wire-to-wire champion in this tournament since Johnny Miller in 1982, stumbled with a back nine of 38, scored three-over 75 and tied for fourth. Jon Rahm, going for a victory in his third straight tour start and only two shots off the lead at the outset, suffered a bogey at 1 and a double-bogey at 5 and never recovered in scoring 74 to tie for seventh.
As he waited to try his final putt on the 18th, Homa broke his competitive concentration and looked around for Lacey and Cam. Once they made eye contact, he waved and smiled. When he’d made the four-foot birdie and retrieved his ball, the 32-year-old accepted congratulations and made a beeline to them and put his bearded face close to Cam’s.
“[Cam] has no idea what I did,” Homa said, “but I will tell him this story ad nauseam and he will probably think I’m the worst for it. But this will be my corny dad story that I will tell every Thanksgiving or something.”
At this rate, Cam Homa is going to have plenty more chances to see his father lift a trophy. Max Homa had his share of tough times on the PGA Tour, twice losing his card, only to regain it. He got his breakthrough win at the Wells Fargo Championship in 2019, but there was a dry spell in 2020 and he seemingly became as well known for his podcast and entertaining tweets as he did for his game.
That changed in 2021, when Homa won his own ‘fifth’ major by capturing the Genesis Invitational at LA’s Riviera Country Club, only miles from where he was born and grew up. It was as if that triumph infused him with a confidence he didn’t yet possess. Homa has since won back-to-back titles in the Fortinet Championship in Northern California, securing the second one last October at the start of this current season, and he scored a second Wells Fargo win in ‘22.
There’s a pattern here. Similar to Tiger Woods, he’s got his favoured tracks, and he’s got a great affinity for the tournaments in his home state.
Homa didn’t play Torrey Pines well in the beginning, missing his first three cuts here. But his fortunes changed on the Sunday that Bryant died, as Homa closed with a 67 on the South to tie for ninth. His caddie, Joe Greiner, saw a different look in his eyes that day.
“When we came off the green that day, I said he was going to win this,” Greiner said. “I’ve told so many people there are five or six tournaments that he’s going to win, and this was definitely one of them. It just suits his eye. Anytime 12-under is around the lead, he’s going to play well.”
“That T-9 I think gave me some confidence. ‘All right, I can play this golf course,’” Homa said. “I think I came in here, got a little psyched out just because of how difficult it could be, and I started to realize that you don’t need to hit every fairway. If I play my game, it actually does kind of suit me pretty well.”
For the week, Homa found eight of 14 fairways in each of his three rounds on the two-time US Open South Course, but the win came on the strength of iron play, where he was No. 1 in the field in strokes gained/approach (plus-8.38 for the week). It didn’t hurt that he was ninth in strokes gained/putting, where he was plus-3.44 shots just on Saturday.
The key birdies in the final round both came on onerous par 3s that Homa attacked with his 4-iron. When he birdied the 213-yard 11th by making a 12-foot putt, Greiner said to him, “That’s a Tiger 2 right there.” What he did at the 227-yard 16th was even more impressive because the pin position was almost impossible to reach and played as the toughest hole of the day. Homa, though, striped his shot to 15 feet and made one of only three birdies there. “Obviously, that was a huge shot,” the caddie said. “Every shot he hit felt huge today.”
In the thick of the back-nine fight, Homa said he drew inspiration from thoughts about Kobe Bryant.
“I’ve always had a bit of a chip on my shoulder, just grew up a huge Kobe fan,” he said. “He just seemed to play basketball like that and I’ve always loved trying to play golf like that and work at it like that. So when I get in these moments, I feel like all of it combined eases me a bit.”
In Greiner’s opinion, Homa has evolved into a very different player, both physically and mentally, from just a few years ago. The golfer rebuilt his swing with instructor Mark Blackburn and has worked on the mental side with sports psychologist Julie Elion.
“Knowing how hard this game can be, you need to give yourself a break,” Greiner said. “He was always so hard on himself. Now he knows he can make a bogey and still win a golf tournament. He can still make a mistake and win. Knowing that he’s good enough, it’s a lot easier for him to walk down fairways. He knows he doesn’t have to be perfect.”
It was quite the week for Homa. Beyond the victory, his son “saw” his first birdie on Friday, and he became the first player to wear a mic (for CBS) during an official competitive round. In that, he will be noted as a pioneer in what figures to be a growing trend. Known for being a droll jokester on social media, Homa spoke eloquently about the highs and lows he’s experienced.
“I think I have a great perspective towards my love for this game. I’ve seen kind of all of it,” he said. “I remind myself most days too, when I’m getting nervous coming down the stretch or things are getting wobbly … I just kind of always remind myself you’ve seen the darkness of this game—enjoy this, enjoy the beauty of it. People chanting my name, things I could never have imagined.”
It’s not life and death. But then again, it is.