Three Bears to roam around Merion
On May 30, Max Homa won the NCAA Division I men's individual golf championship at the Capital City Golf Club in Atlanta.
"I felt like I was on top of the world," said Homa, a graduating senior out of the University of California, Berkeley. "It was a dream come true. I felt invincible."
Yet Homa's work was unfinished. He still needed to help Cal win the team championship. The Golden Bears had good reason to feel invincible themselves as they sought the program's second national title. They had won a record 11 of 13 tournaments this season, and their five starters each had won at least once.
If it could win two matches for the title, Cal could argue for its place in college golf history. The 1975 Wake Forest team that included Jay Haas, Curtis Strange and Scott Hoch is one of the greatest in college history. That group won nine tournaments, the ACC title and the national championship, beating second-place Oklahoma State by 33 shots. The 1985-86 Oklahoma State team had 10 victories, but did not win the national title. In the NCAA semifinals, the Bears met Illinois, which had five victories this season.
With the teams tied 2-2 on Saturday, it came down to Homa's match against Illinois' Thomas Pieters. On the second extra hole, Homa missed a 12-footer for par that would have continued the match, ending one of the most dominating runs in college golf history.
"I was beyond devastated," said Homa, 22, who is from Valencia, Calif. "At least in my sports career, that was about as low as I had been."
But he had to pick himself quickly. He had a U.S. Open sectional qualifier two days later in Newport Beach, Calif. Teammates Michael Kim and Brandon Hagy were headed to the sectional in Georgia. A fourth teammate, Michael Weaver, was already in the U.S. Open field after finishing runner-up in the 2012 U.S. Amateur.
Homa shot 66 in his first round at Newport Beach Country Club, followed by a 72 at Big Canyon. He would end up in another two-hole playoff, this for the fifth and final spot into Merion from the Newport Beach sectional. This time he closed the deal.
"In the qualifier I just tried to regain some focus and redeem myself if I go out and play well," Homa said. "I had an opportunity to go into another two-hole playoff. It seemed like fate.
"It may not make up for not getting through to the final round of the match play, but it sure felt really good and it brightened up my spirits quite a bit."
Meanwhile, two thousand miles across the country in Ball Ground, Ga., at Hawks Ridge Golf Club, Kim and Hagy were trying to deal with their own disappointment about the NCAAs as they sought one of the three spots at that sectional. They both were in good shape after the first round, but only Kim, who won four times during the season, came out of the grueling 36 holes with a spot at Merion.
No one can recall when there were three players from the same team at the U.S. Open. It's all the more evidence why Cal's 2012-13 squad may be the greatest collection of players on one golf team in college history.
"It's been an unbelievable season," said the 19-year-old Kim, who received on Sunday the Jack Nicklaus Award as the nation's best collegiate golfer. "You never really go into a season thinking 11 of 13. But we got on a roll. One of our strengths was that we didn't really have a No. 1 guy. We had five No. 1 guys."
Both of Cal's losses came in Arizona tournaments. In the first, the Arizona Intercollegiate, the team was rusty coming out of winter break and finished third. At the Arizona State Thunderbird Invitational, where it lost to UNLV by a shot, the Bears didn't have Michael Weaver in the lineup -- he was playing in the Masters that week.
Their coach, Steve Desimone, is going to have a difficult time juggling his players' tee times at Merion, a quandary he certainly doesn't mind.
"It doesn't surprise me at all that these guys are playing in the U.S.Open," Desimone said. "They have been great players ever since they stepped on the campus."
When Desimone took over the program in 1979, it was a club sport. Since men's golf was reinstated at the school in 1982, the program has been completely financed through fundraisers, an endowment and donors.
In 2004, the program took its first national championship, but it's only been in the past couple of years that it's become a national power. Desimone recruits players who plan to complete their eligibility and earn their degrees. Kim, a sophomore from San Diego, is one of the two or three best amateurs in the country. He's seen another 19-year-old, Jordan Spieth, have success on the PGA Tour. But he has no plans of turning pro until after his senior year.
Homa is trying to make the U.S. Walker Cup team for the matches this September at the National Golf Links. So he plans to play a full schedule of amateur events. He is the only one from the starting five who will not be back next year.
"We are seeing more good young college players who are ready to play on tour," Desimone said. "So, as a consequence, that pressure to turn pro is growing. And it's understandable. The agents and golf manufacturers are more involved in golf than they have ever been."
These Cal players have more immediate concerns than turning pro. Kim, Hagy and the fifth member of the top five, Joël Stalter, a rising senior from France, are in the Palmer Cup this weekend at Wilmington Country Club in Delaware. Homa didn't qualify for the Ryder Cup-styled matches between the U.S. and Europe.
At Merion, Kim, Homa, and Weaver are looking forward to spending time together, but they plan to play practice rounds with some of the more experienced tour players in the field. Homa already has lined up time with Russell Henley, who won the Sony Open in January in his first career PGA Tour start.
To many of the pros on the Merion range, it will feel like a college tournament with the three blue-and-gold golf bags in a neat row. Perhaps, the Cal players can draw upon that same positive energy they get from each other in their spirited and competitive practice rounds.
"We are all going to have a great time at Merion," Weaver said. "It should be a great experience playing in the Open against the best players in the world. I think having my teammates there will keep me relaxed throughout the week."