SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y.—You know you have a talented Walker Cup roster on your hands when the defending NCAA individual champion, and arguably your hottest player, isn’t slotted for the first round of competition.
That’s precisely what happened Saturday morning at National GL of America in Southampton, N.Y., when United States captain Jim Holtgrieve chose to keep Max Homa, along with former Cal teammate Michael Kim (himself the college player of the year) out of the foursomes lineup against Great Britain & Ireland.
Holtgrieve has often preached that the biennial competition is less about winning and more about the overall experience; how else do you explain sitting the NCAA champ and No. 2 amateur in the world?
Well, maybe he’s just a managerial genius. After benching Homa in the morning, Holtgrieve sent him off in the second singles match of the afternoon, hoping he would provide the fire the U.S. team needed after winning only just 1.5 points in the morning.
“Disappointed isn’t the word,” said Homa about how he felt watching from outside the ropes. “It’s a bit of a letdown when you’re so excited, and all of a sudden you have to wait four more hours."
And Homa did just that, jumping around from match to match, cheering on his teammates in morning foursomes. When it finally came time to play during Saturday afternoon singles, he delivered.
“I was so jacked up,” said Homa. “Very nervous on that first tee after not playing in the morning.”
Matched against England’s Max Orrin, Homa lost the first hole to Orrin’s birdie, but rebounded emphatically with an eagle at the 302-yard, par-4 second to pull even. The 22-year-old from Burbank, Calif., then rode the momentum to wins at the fifth, sixth, eighth and ninth holes, taking a 4-up lead into the back nine.
“The eagle was huge,” Homa said. “I didn’t play the first hole poorly, but to come back with an eagle really got me going.”
From there, Homa cruised to a 5-and-3 victory—earning the first of Team USA 6.5 points in the afternoon session that gave the Americans a 8-4 lead after Day 1—but not without showcasing a few of the skills that carried him to a three-stroke victory at the NCAA Championship in June. A nifty up-and-down par from the 11th hole’s back bunker preserved his 4-up lead, and an impressive approach from an awkward lie in a fairway bunker on 14 helped seal the victory.
“It felt great to get the first point of the afternoon,” Homa said. “I hit the ball about as well as I have all summer.”
It’s safe to say Homa’s decision to retain his amateur status at least until after the Walker Cup was a good one. Prior to graduating from Cal and winning the NCAA individual title, Homa contemplated turning pro at the end of the college season, but ultimately thought better of it, the opportunity to play on the Walker Cup squad weighing heavily on his mind.
But don’t expect professional golf to wait much longer. Homa has just what it takes, as one of his more seasoned Cup teammates has noticed.
“He’s going to be great at the next level,” said Nathan Smith, a four-time U.S. Mid-Amateur champion. “He hits the ball so solidly and chips well. And he’s been rolling the ball perfectly as of late. I’ve been losing money to him all week.”
Keep your eye out for Homa’s names on leader boards in the not-so-distant future. You probably won’t have to look very hard.