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Max Homa feeds off Phil's energy, Phil putts like a kid again and Maverick McNealy overcomes sluggish start

September 18, 2021

Max Homa lines up his putt on the 12th hole during round three of the Fortinet Championship.

Meg Oliphant

Playing in front of a home crowd this week, California native Max Homa expected plenty of love. But on Saturday, even with his own mini cheering section following his every move, he was still second fiddle in his group. That's part of the deal when you're playing alongside fellow Cali native Phil Mickelson, who would draw a large crowd if he was playing on the moon.

Homa wasn't mad about it. In fact, he loved every second, feeding off the energy Lefty's legion of fans provided as he cruised to a seven-under 65 at the Fortinet Championship. The strong third-round move has positioned Mickelson in a tie for third heading into Sunday, and it's put him just two shots off the lead of Jim Knous and Maverick McNealy. If he could play with Mickelson again on Sunday, he would (he's not, unfortunately). 

"The crowd was awesome," said Homa, whose second career victory came in his home state last February at Riviera. "There were people out there with—obviously mostly Phil fans, but I had a few in the Cal gear and a couple guys wearing shirts, so it was awesome. Really fun coming to California for me, I have great support out here. And getting to play with Phil, too, you know you're going to get a big buzz, so it makes everything more fun." 

Homa loves a good buzz on the course, something he was quick to point out to the media at Silverado. On Saturday at the 2019 Wells Fargo Championship, which Homa went on to win, he played alongside World No. 1 at the time Rory McIlroy. Last season at the Genesis Invitational, where he defeated Tony Finau in a playoff, he played the final round with Dustin Johnson, also World No. 1 at the time. There were no fans for that one, but the juice was still there. 

"It just makes it fun," he said. "I believe in my game a lot more the last two, three years so it's fun to go out there and play with arguably one of the best golfers of all time and arguably the best golfer in the last 30 years. He's a great dude, it helps a lot. You get the crowds. When you're playing well with the crowds, you kind of feed off it, too. I don't really get that many people watch just me, so it's nice to have somebody help bring some people to the golf tournament." 

On Sunday Homa will play in the penultimate group with Scott Stallings, who is decidedly not Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson or Rory McIlroy, no offense to Stallings. Should Homa make an early run at the lead, though, there's no question there will be plenty of juice. The good news is, Mickelson's group will be a few holes ahead, so Homa will at least be in the vicinity of all that good energy. 

Phil Mickelson putts on the 12th hole during round three of the Fortinet Championship.

Meg Oliphant

Phil Mickelson is putting like a kid again

As we pointed out Friday evening, Phil Mickelson extended his arm-lock putter to 41 inches, and it's already yielding strong results in the 2021-22 season. Following a three-under 69 in the second round, Mickelson kept it rolling, literally, on Saturday, shooting a five-under 67 that included a stretch of five straight birdies late in his round. The putter was a big talking point for Mickelson once again afterward, as it should be. Through three rounds he's tied for fifth in the field in strokes-gained/putting, and Saturday was his best performance (+2.457 SG/P).

But as Mickelson went on to explain, it's more than just the club itself. It's the way he's actually putting—like a kid again. We'll let him take it from here. 

"For a while, yeah," said Mickelson when asked if he'd stick with this putter. "Because it's how I putted as a kid. Like I always had a lot of forward press and all it's doing now is getting in the same position as a kid, but it's getting to that same position every time. I'm not overpressing, I'm not underpressing, so my launch characteristics when I get on the Quintic system is very consistent and that's what I'm looking for." 

Believe it or not, the Quintic system is not something Mickelson made up or Mickelson doing a Bryson DeChambeau impression. It's a real system that's used for putter fittings, instruction, and, obviously, for the best players in the world to get all the feedback they need on how they are rolling it. Mickelson may have not had that type of technology when he was a kid, but it's certainly making him feel young again now. At 10 under par for the tournament, he's very much in the picture. 

Maverick McNealy reacts following round three of the Fortinet Championship.

Meg Oliphant

Undeterred by sluggish start, Maverick McNealy fights back to tie lead

Given the fact he could put his clubs away for good and be just fine financially for the rest of his time on earth, winning on the PGA Tour is not exactly a matter of life and death for Maverick McNealy. Yet, after piling up a number of close calls last season on tour, he's already back for more in Napa, and he's displayed some serious fight over the first 54 holes. 

Most of that fight was displayed in his third round, which McNealy began with the lead. But the former Stanford standout quickly vanished from the leader board with a front-nine two-over 38 while everybody else made there move. But McNealy was undeterred by the fireworks coming from all over the course, coming home in four-under 32 to regain a share of the lead heading into the final round. 

"It was a crazy day, I'm not going to lie," McNealy said. "That front nine got going pretty quick. Hit it in a few funny spots. We were on the clock I think on I want to say the ninth hole and it was just pretty hectic."

Despite the chaos, the calm, cool, collected McNealy regained his focus thanks to one good shot, which, as any tour pro knows, is sometimes all it takes to get the train back on the tracks. 

"Then got to the 12th fairway," he said. "I remember hitting a good tee shot down the middle on the 12th with a utility iron and everything seemed to slow down and calm down for me. I started seeing my lines with the putter and I was really proud how I finished." 

McNealy closed with three consecutive birdies, putting himself in the final group and in prime position to grab that maiden victory. It will be new territory, as a handful of his high finishes have come via him nearly chasing down the leaders on Sunday. Tomorrow, he's the one being chased, a challenge he's ready to accept. 

"I welcome nerves because it allows me to hit shots that I can't hit under normal circumstances," McNealy said. "That adrenaline, those nerves, that focus and intensity are states that I can't achieve in a normal round of golf. That tee shot on 18 was a great example, I was so locked in and zoned in, the few extra miles an hour clubhead speed from the adrenaline and it resulted in my best drive of the day. Like I said, the focus I had with my putter and seeing the lines, it's an exhilarating feeling and it's one that I can only get when I'm feeling those nerves." 

Fittingly, on a course Johnny Miller designed, there will be plenty of "NERVES" to go round on Sunday in Napa.