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College golf: Great to the party

Valencia graduate Homa is coming on strong, and Cal is reaping the benefits

Posted: May 28, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: May 28, 2012 1:55 a.m.

Valencia High graduate and University of California, Berkeley golfer Max Homa hits a shot at the Alister MacKenzie Invitational on Oct. 18 in Fairfax. Homa and the Golden Bears will compete this week at the NCAA Division I Championship, after having won the first Pac-12 title in school history earlier this season.

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Right off the bat, Max Homa made a name for himself at the University of California, Berkeley — literally.

About halfway through his freshman year at Cal, the Valencia High graduate was bestowed the nickname “Final Round Max” by his head golf coach.

The nickname is pretty self-explanatory — Homa delivers in the clutch — but the implication sent the bigger message.

Homa, now a junior, had already begun his rapid ascension as one of the top amateur golfers in the nation.

This week, Homa will finish off his third collegiate season by competing at the NCAA Division I Men’s Golf Championship, which begins Tuesday and runs through Sunday.

It’s his third straight appearance in the national championship tournament, but this year’s is special because it takes place at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, just 30 miles from Valencia.

“Just the fact that it’s basically in my hometown is an added bonus,” Homa says.

Both of his parents will be attending, along with a few of his friends who have never seen him in competition before.

But this isn’t Homa’s first rodeo. He’s come a long way since the first time he competed in a national championship as a freshman.

That year, 2010, Homa finished tied for 86th individually, but he followed that up with a T-17 in the 2011 finals.

Now making his third trip to the big show, his attitude has changed slightly.

“I definitely know what I’m getting myself into,” says the former All-Santa Clarita Valley Boys Golfer of the Year.

While Homa has trained himself to remain calm in pressure situations, the same can’t always be said about one certain spectator this week.

“I’m a wreck,” says Homa’s mom, Bonnie Milstein. “Sometimes I have to stand behind a tree when I’m watching him putt and only watch with my right eye.”

Under the NCAA Championship format, 30 teams will compete in three 18-hole rounds of stroke play for the first three days.

After that, the top eight teams remaining will take part in a three-day match-play tournament, where an overall champion will eventually be crowned on Sunday.

Homa, who is 32nd in the latest World Amateur Golf Rankings, has his sights set on a collegiate title.

Given his reputation as a strong closer, Cal men’s golf head coach Steve Desimone has a lot of faith in the junior.

After all, Desimone was the one who gave Homa his nickname.

“There are special players that have that ability. When the game’s on the line, the tournament’s on the line, they find a way to win,” Desimone says. “They find a way to perform, and Max is that guy.”

This season, Homa’s scoring average is 72.2, tied for best on the NCAA No. 3-ranked Golden Bears.

He was a scoring member of six team victories for Cal this year, including a second-place individual finish at the John A. Burns Intercollegiate with a three-round score of 7-under 209 in February.

That same month, he was named Pac-12 Men’s Golfer of the Month.

Two weeks ago, he earned All-Pac-12 second-team honors for the entire season, which was right after the Golden Bears hauled in their first conference championship in school history.

A week later, Cal won its NCAA Regional in Stanford, which is how the team earned a spot in this week’s nationals.

Like the rest of the team, Homa has been playing some of his best golf lately.

“He really is analytical when it comes to the game,” Desimone says. “He understands how to play the game. We talk to the guys all the time. The reality is it doesn’t matter how good you are mechanically if you don’t know how to play the game and you don’t know what kind of shots to hit.”

Homa could be classified as a power hitter given his distance off the tee and strong long-iron game, but Desimone said his biggest improvements have come around the green.

He made significant strides with putting and chipping in the past two years, but at a long, challenging course like the par-71, 7,292-yard Riviera this week, Homa knows he’ll need to be as solid and creative as ever.

Fortunately for him, creativity is one of his specialties.

“He is so much fun to watch,” Milstein says. “He could be behind a tree and come out of it with something. Oh, my God, He’s crazy good.”

It’s one thing to hear the praise of a proud mom, but at the rate Homa’s moving in his game, a promising professional career might not be such a far-fetched concept.

“I think at some point, we’ll be watching him on TV on Sundays,” Desimone says.

Some point could come as soon as mid-June, as Homa will try to qualify for the U.S. Open right after he finishes up at Riviera.

After that, Homa has a list of five or six amateur tournaments scheduled for summer, likely concluding with the U.S. Amateur Championship in August.

“I really want to be the best at what I do,” Homa says. “And whether people think it’s realistic or crazy or whatever they think it is, that’s always been my goal, and I’ll keep working for it until I get there.”

But first, he’s going to try to bring an NCAA title back to Berkeley.

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