LOS ANGELES – Statistically Max Homa had a 99.57% chance of converting the 3-footer for birdie on the 72nd hole of the Genesis Invitational, but then there is no room for statistics in the chambers of the human heart.
In 11 events this season on the PGA Tour Homa, who is as L.A. as palm trees and Dodger dogs, had been predictably automatic, like most Tour types, from that distance. But not all 3-footers are created equal and the slider for birdie and victory at the event that means more to him than any other might as well have been 30 feet.
Homa, who grew up 30 minutes north of Riviera, admitted he was “shaking like a leaf” over the game-winner on the iconic 18th hole and the only saving grace was that the empty pandemic gallery wasn’t there for a collective gasp.
“I was just a little nervous, honestly,” Homa admitted. “This tournament means a lot to me. I was a little shaky.”
This was about much more than a second Tour victory or a fat winner’s check. Homa has been coming to the old L.A. Open since “basically I was a baby.” His father first brought him to the event when he was 2 years old and he grew up devouring soft pretzels and prowling the rope line for hours hawking autographs.
As the winning putt grazed the edge of the cup before trundling away there was an eerie hush. Careers have been derailed by less and "Missed a 3-footer to win the big one" is a title that doesn’t easily wash off.
But this felt different. Despite the nervy miss, there appeared to be an outward calm to Homa that belied how important the Los Angeles stop is to the 30-year-old.
It wasn't that way a year ago when he began the final round at Riviera just three shots off the lead. Getting so close to a childhood dream took a toll and he closed with a 70 that included untimely bogeys at Nos. 16 and 18. But from 2020’s failure came 2021’s conviction.
“I truly think last year helped, seeing my name up second place with Adam Scott on 15, I had that seared into my memory,” Homa said. “I kind of came into this event, especially today and yesterday, knowing that I handled myself really well last year, I just needed to clean up one or two mistakes.”
The ultimate “mistake” at the 72nd hole loomed and the grueling walk up the hill to Riviera’s clubhouse did little to calm Homa’s racing mind following his two-putt par at the last to finish at 12 under par alongside Tony Finau, who was dealing with his own Sunday demons.
The pep talks came quickly.
“This is our city. This is your tournament. This is your golf course. This is our tournament to win,” Homa’s caddie and longtime friend, Joe Greiner, told him.
Homa called his wife, Lacey.
“I think I choked a little bit,” he stammered.
She quickly reminded Homa that he’d just converted a 7-footer for birdie at the 17th hole and he was still bound for a playoff. She also reminded him of the day’s message she sent before he teed off: “Forgive quickly.”
Homa seemed to forgive and forget his miscue at the 18th hole in the playoff. Starting on the par-4 10th hole both Homa and Finau hit fairway woods left of the green, it was, again statistically, the correct play, but Homa’s ball ran up against a tree.
“He was very calm for what I thought that we couldn’t hit the green [from beside the tree],” Greiner said. “He goes, ‘I got it.’ He thought he could actually hit it closer than that and I was thinking just hit the fringe 15 feet away.”
Homa hooked a hooded 50-degree wedge onto the green to 12 feet for a two-putt par and a push. On the second extra hole his tee shot at the par-3 14th rolled to 12 feet and he won with an anticlimactic two-putt and a Finau miss.
Homa, a lifelong Dodgers fan, would have preferred the walk-off on 18, but he's plenty happy with the extra-innings win. As his boyhood hero Tommy Lasorda once said: “I love doubleheaders. That way I get to keep my uniform on longer.”
He’ll also take a healthy amount of confidence from the resilience he needed following the miss at the 72nd hole and the unlucky bounce on the first playoff hole. Asked where this victory ranked Homa offered a predictable assessment, “1-A, 1-B, 1-C.”
That it was tournament host Tiger Woods handing him the trophy after a marathon day only added to a dream that he admitted the 6-year-old version of himself likely couldn’t have imagined.
“I don't know if I could ever do anything cooler in golf than this,” he said. “Just for me, for my caddie Joe, we were raised 25 miles north of here. I mean, Tiger Woods is handing us a trophy, that's a pretty crazy thought. We grew up idolizing him, idolizing Riviera Country Club, idolizing the golf tournament. To get it done, it's almost shocking.”
No, what was shocking was the uncharacteristic miss on the 72nd hole, but that only made Homa’s emotionally charged victory more satisfying.