Max Roberts
Journeys

From the brink of homelessness to a high school state golf champ: The story of Max Roberts

June 21, 2019

Max Roberts was supposed to be practicing for the state tournament. Instead he was in his room, packing his belongings and whatever childhood innocence remained.

The memory is fresh, only two months old as Roberts tells the story days before the inaugural High School Golf National Invitational in Florida. It’s also a blur, a clash of frenetic energy with disbelief. It’s hard for the 19-year-old to articulate what he was feeling as he loaded box after box into his mother’s truck. Roberts does remember one thing, and that part is quite clear: Those packages, sitting exposed in the back of a pick-up, had no destination.

“All of the sudden, we didn’t have a home,” Roberts says. “We didn’t know what to do.”

• • •

Max Roberts’ love with golf began in junior high. It was 2014 and his father, Justin, an avid player, started taking him to the local course, Oak Hills Golf and Country Club, in Ada, Okla. Quickly, Max became infatuated with the game. A baseball player in his early youth, he discovered the symmetry of movements between the two sports, using his athleticism to compensate for the differences in his swing.

The lefty’s success was immediate, winning junior tournaments within the year. And it wasn’t just his performances that caught the community’s attention. Ada High School golf coach Robbie Powell remembers Roberts stood out just as much outside the ropes.

“He carried himself in a professional way,” Powell says. “At that age, most kids don’t know how to dress; not Max. He was courteous and polite. There was this sense he knew he was good, but it wasn’t cocky.”

“I had a knack for it,” Roberts said. “I liked competing, but nothing felt as good as having a club in my hand. It’s all I wanted to do.”

Though Max enjoyed playing at Oak Hills, his favorite golf spot was his backyard. Max’s dad installed a range and short-game facility at the house. Roberts would hit balls for hours at his family’s 10-acre ranch. He loved carving trajectories through the Oklahoma wind, watching the little white spheres dance at his direction. It was that feeling of control, he says, standing over a ball, knowing where it was going to go and how it was going to get there, that consumed him.

“Max has been so at ease when playing golf,” says Jackie Roberts, his mother. “As a parent, you always hope your child finds something they are passionate about. That he excelled at it too probably helped.”

Golf was also his refuge. Max says he grew up in a loving home, but there was always tension between Jackie and Justin. Roberts insists he was happy, although he says the mounting discomfort heightened his focus on his game.

“It was peaceful,” Roberts says. “Something about golf just seemed right to me.”

Roberts continued his rapid ascent through the Oklahoma amateur ranks. He gave Oklahoma State All-American Austin Eckroat a run for his money in the state amateur championship's Sweet 16 last summer. By the time school started again in the fall, Roberts was inundated with college offers.

His potential was “off the charts,” says Powell, and Roberts knew it. Entering his senior season, Max had one goal: Win the state championship, something that hadn’t been done at Ada High School in decades.

Little did Max know his world was about to crumble.

Courtesy of the Roberts Family

It was Sept. 5, 2018. Jackie says that after an argument in front of the kids, she told her husband to leave if he was going to act that way. Justin counters that he was forced out. What’s not in question is that he didn’t come back.

“I knew things weren’t the best, but I never in a million years would have guessed he would have left,” Max says.

Communication was minimal, keeping Max further in the dark. In October, Jackie filed for separation; Justin came back wanting a dissolution of marriage.

Though Jackie’s own world was spinning, what gave her some equilibrium was her kids. Knowing the trauma that separation can have on children, she did her best to keep the spirits up of her 12-year-old son, Jody, especially with Christmas around the corner. And she was adamant that the situation not affect Max or his future.

“My biggest thought was he’s got golf coming up in the spring,” Jackie says. “Whatever damage was being done, I couldn’t let it spread.”

In Oklahoma, the high school golf season begins in December. Max viewed it as a welcomed distraction. It worked, somewhat. Roberts’ opening rounds weren’t sharp, not compared to the level of golf he knew he could play. His ball-striking was still proficient, yet his short game, and patience, were scattered.

“I like to think I’m usually calm when I play,” Roberts says. “That wasn’t the case anymore. I was getting mad at myself for the smallest, dumbest things.”

Despite the kinks, Roberts was still good enough to lead the team to early victories in the first months of the season, and his confidence persisted. All he needed was a low round to get everything firing in sync. But it never came. He saw everything he had worked for slipping away; nothing he did seemed to be stopping that inevitability.

“Max is such a positive guy, on the outside, he didn’t show much,” says his friend Rylee Gray. “But what was going on at home started to affect his play.”

Worse, the divorce proceedings were underway, during which Max discovered things no child should about his parents.

Courtesy of the Roberts Family

Roberts on the tee with his high school coach, Robbie Powell.

Max says he and his father were never tight, but he always held him in high regard. “We weren’t buddies, you know, but he was still my dad,” Max says. “When I did things, I did them trying to do right by him.”

That relationship, Max says, was damaged in April. A Pontotoc County court ruled Justin would receive the house. In a phone conversation with Golf Digest, Justin says that was in the bargain. “I would get the house, she would get the business,” he said, alluding to Jackie’s AdvoCare venture from home. “She proposed it to me. It was all arranged and everyone was fine with it. Then the day comes and everyone gets all upset.”

For her part, Jackie says she didn’t want to surrender the home but gave it up to reduce property alimony. She also contends it wasn’t losing the house, but the timeline that threw her a curveball. “I thought we would have 30 days to find somewhere, not five,” she says.

The court would later give her 15 days to be out of the premises. The court did not, however, order Max to leave; as a 19-year-old, he had the option to stay.

“There are rumors, and I know what he tells people, but he wasn’t forced out,” Justin says. “I don’t know why he would leave. There are a thousand balls here, a place to hit and to work on his game. It was a choice.”

Max says there was never a debate.

“I wasn’t going to leave my mom,” Max says. “That’s when she needed me the most.”

Justin said he has not had contact with Max since the divorce was final.

• • •

In an instant, two weeks before the Oklahoma high school state regional tournament, Max faced the prospect of homelessness.

“I don’t know if ‘shocked’ is the right word,” Jackie says. “To have all that taken away was devastating.” Jackie had been a stay-at-home mom since the kids were born, and the side business was failing. They were broke and now had to scramble to find a place to live.

Max says that next week was the worst of his life. He couldn’t sleep, sick at the thought of … well, everything. Would they have to move into a shelter? Would the family be split up? Max was months away from college; what would happen to his 12-year-old brother when he left? (Justin has visitation rights with Jody.)

Roberts kept the news to himself, embarrassed at what others would think.

“We knew something was going on, but not the extent of it at the time,” Powell says. “There was animosity between him and his dad, but you never know what’s going on in someone’s personal life.”

The situation reached its nadir during the state’s 36-hole regional tournament at Firelake Golf Course in Shawnee, Okla. A golf course is supposed to be a sanctuary, where life’s ills can be paused, if only for a few hours. That afternoon, the real world came crashing in.

Roberts, who was the defending regionals champ, didn’t care to tee it up and it showed, his score card littered with numbers no player wants to see. As he trudged up the 18th hole, Roberts saw his mom standing near the green. In that moment, every emotion harbored over the past eight months spilled out.

Roberts wept, uncontrollably, in front of his friends, teammates, coaches and competitors. His mom embraced him, keeping him upright and telling him it would be OK. Roberts could feel everyone’s gaze upon them, but paid it no heed.

“I just couldn’t hold back,” Roberts said. “I had a complete breakdown. … At that point, I just wanted to be with my mom, my brother, I wanted off the course. I was so depressed. Golf was the last thing from my mind.”

There were 18 holes left to play as bad weather rolled in, forcing a delay. Coach Powell went to Roberts to try and get his mind right. They sat down and talked, trying to refocus. Powell encouraged him to just go out and enjoy himself.

The moment proved cathartic. Roberts realized so much had already been taken from him; he wasn't going to let golf suffer a similar fate.

“At the end of the day, it’s a game,” Roberts says. “That might sound simple. I lost sight of that. I promised I wasn’t going to ever let that happen again.”

Courtesy of the Roberts Family

Roberts bounced back on the final 18 holes, shooting a 76 to guide his team to a second-place regional finish, good enough for a berth in the state championship.

Days later, Jackie received good news: Wanda Barnes, whose husband Frank had been somewhat of a mentor to Max when he was getting his start at Oak Hills, offered to take Jackie, Max and Jody into her home (Frank had recently died from cancer).

Before the state tournament, Max gathered his team and told them what was going on at home. As Max says, teenagers are not exactly known for being an understanding, tight-lipped bunch. He didn’t know how they would react. Those fears were immediately alleviated, his friends, to a person, telling them they had his back.

“I had already found my inner strength,” Roberts said. “To hear my teammates give me support, I knew there was no looking back.”

The Oklahoma Class 4A state tournament was the first week of May at Dornick Hills Golf & Country Club in Ardmore, Okla. Powell says that from the get-go Roberts was a new man, his happiness becoming contagious.

Dornick Hills is infamous for its tight confines, not a layout conducive to low scoring. That only intensified Max’s resolve. He had just gone through hell; a golf course was supposed to take him down? "No way," Roberts says.

He opened with rounds of 70 and 72, grabbing a two-shot lead. With 18 holes left, he would be teeing off 30 minutes before his nearest challengers. A good start could send an early message. There were no on-course leader boards at Dornick, but word at these events spreads quickly.

That included his teammates. Powell remarked the rest of the team didn’t play their best on the final day because they were so concerned about Max.

“I jump from group to group, seeing what I can do to help the kids, if they need a water or Gatorade,” Powell says. “No one cared about how they were playing. They just wanted to know what Max was doing and how they could help.

“Honestly, it cost us a higher finish. But as a coach, to see your team rally around one of its own, it does a number on your heart.”

Roberts was able to keep the ball straight on a windy day in Ardmore, turning in a 71. As the late groups came in, his teammates would shake his shoulders and slap him on the back every time a challenger came up short. Finally, the last numbers were posted, the clubhouse score board announcing with full alacrity: Max Roberts had won the Oklahoma State Championship by four shots.

“All I can remember is smiling,” Roberts says. “My teammates were mobbing me. It was the coolest thing ever.”

Gray says the entire school was jacked. "At that point, everyone knew [what was going on], so when he won, everyone went nuts," he says.

By the 18th green, a Roberts was crying again. This time it was Jackie, overcome with joy at her son’s perseverance.

“To do that, at such a young age,” Jackie says, her voice trailing off as the emotion of the day strikes again. Adds Powell, recalling the scene: “It was everything that is good about sports.”

Courtesy of the Roberts Family

It is not all sunshine at the Roberts household. Jackie is still looking for work; there are only so many opportunities in Ada. Staying with Wanda Barnes is not a feasible long-term option.

“This ordeal, it’s been a lot,” Jackie says. “It’s also all happened in a short time span. We are still figuring out the next steps.”

Nevertheless, the Roberts are viewing the horizon not through dark lenses but that of hope. Max has accepted an offer to play collegiate golf at Northeastern State, a Division II program in Tahlequah, Okla. Professional golf is still his ambition, but he also plans on studying psychology. Roberts knows his experience is not singular, and wants to discover a way to lessen and combat the feelings that plagued him.

“Max is such a positive person,” Gray says. “He feels like his story has a greater purpose.”

Before he heads to Northeastern, Max will play in one final high-school tournament. Roberts was invited to the High School Golf National Invitational at the Palm and Magnolia Courses at Walt Disney World Resort, which makes its debut on June 27. Knowing funds were short, the Ada community raised money so Max and his family could make the trip.

“I don’t know who donated, it was all anonymous,” Max says.

Though he’s enjoying being a kid again, Max knows tough days are ahead. But there’s a lesson that has sustained him the past few weeks, and hopefully through the obstacles to come.

“A house is just a house,” he says. “Your family, your friends ... that is your real home.”