By Sean Martin, Golfweek
The yellow shirt that Max Homa wore for the final round of the Pac-12 Championship represented the team he regards as family. The white tank-top underneath was in remembrance of a relationship that has shaped his life.
Homa, a Cal senior, arrived at the conference championship with only three opportunities remaining to earn his first college victory after a multitude of close calls. A course-record 61 in the first round at historic Los Angeles Country Club, No. 16 in Golfweek’s Best Classic Courses, led to a five-shot victory. He finished at 9-under 271 to win in front of his family – and with a childhood friend close to his heart.
Underneath his yellow Cal polo was the high-school basketball jersey of David Stroud, Homa’s friend who passed away at age 19 after a prolonged fight with cancer. Homa marks his ball with Stroud’s No. 25 and wears a lime-green bracelet that reads, “Stroud Strong.” Those reminders allow Homa to play with perspective.
“It’s about honoring him. It makes me smile because I feel like he’s with me,” Homa said. “He was so resilient and positive about everything.”
Stroud’s influence helped Homa stay calm while leading the Pac-12 Championship from start to finish. He was able to smile after following his first-round 61 with three bogeys in a four-hole stretch. Previously, Homa’s often-harsh self-criticism would’ve sent his round awry. This time, he rallied to shoot even par, turning “frustration into determination,” he said.
Homa had finished second four times this season before arriving at Los Angeles CC, including at the Western Intercollegiate, his last start before the Pac-12s. Homa is Cal’s hot hand as the NCAA postseason gets under way later this week.
The top-ranked Golden Bears’ title quest begins May 16-18 at the NCAA West Regional at Palouse Ridge Golf Course in Pullman, Wash., followed by the NCAA Championship on May 28-June 2 at Capital City Club’s Crabapple Course in Alpharetta, Ga.
The Golden Bears, who’ve won 10 of 12 starts this year, will try to cap one of the greatest seasons in college golf by winning their second NCAA Championship in less than a decade (2004).
Homa likely will be an All-American for a second consecutive season. He’s No. 20 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings and a candidate for this year’s Walker Cup team. Still, he’s not the star on this year’s impressive Cal team. Sophomore Michael Kim is No. 1 in Golfweek’s rankings and a favorite to win the Haskins Award as college golf’s best player.
But Homa’s role can’t be overstated, even though Cal’s roster overflows with talent. Head coach Steve Desimone refers to Homa as the team’s “spiritual leader.” He won the team’s Coaches’ Award, given to the player who has the biggest positive impact on the team.
“He’s as committed to this program as any player we’ve had,” Desimone said.
Stroud had the type of optimism and charisma that attracted a diverse group of people, something Homa has tried to replicate.
“Everyone loved him,” Homa said. “He didn’t try (to make people like him). They just did because of his attitude.”
Those attributes never faded during Stroud’s extended illness. He was diagnosed with stage IV Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2008.
Stroud, who played basketball for Valencia High School before becoming ill, became an inspirational figure in their hometown of Valencia, a suburb about 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles. NBA star Blake Griffin of the L.A. Clippers visited him in the hospital. Stroud was healthy enough in February 2009 to score an undefended layup at the opening of Valencia High’s Senior Night.
He died Aug. 20, 2011. Neon colors were the preferred attire at his funeral, a tribute to his fun-loving ways. “Team Stroud Strong” shirts were made, featuring the quote, “You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have.”
Homa has served as a Cal captain each of the past two years. Desimone already expresses concern about replacing him in next season’s lineup, even though the Bears are scheduled to return their other four starters and again be one of the nation’s top teams. Teammate Michael Weaver remembers Homa imploring the team on the season’s eve to “win every round.” It was an obvious idea, but also one that inspired this talented team to strive for perfection instead of doing just enough to win.
“He’s a true motivator,” Cal associate head coach Walter Chun said. “I think one of the things Max learned from David is that you live every day to the fullest.”
Chun uses Stroud’s legacy to motivate the team’s chief motivator. Homa was en route to his worst finish of the year, but Cal was still in contention, when he chunked a wedge shot on the second hole of the final round of this season’s Arizona Intercollegiate. Chun looked Homa in the eye and said, “The No. 25 is on your golf ball for a reason.” Homa responded to that triple bogey by playing the final 16 holes in even par to give the Bears a chance, though they would finish three shots behind New Mexico.
“(David) was dealt a hard card,” said Chun, who although he never met Stroud, read articles about him and often talked with Homa about his friend. “He fought for his life. He enjoyed his life and wanted those around him to enjoy their lives.”
Homa will remain an amateur after the NCAA Championship and put his pro career on hold to pursue a spot on this year’s U.S. Walker Cup team. He was one of four Cal players invited to a Walker Cup practice session in December. The race will be tight for spots on the 10-man squad that will face Great Britain & Ireland in September. That hasn't deterred Homa from pursuing a roster spot.
“You only get one chance at (the Walker Cup),” he said. “I’d rather go down swinging than say I never gave it a chance.”
Words his dear friend would be happy to hear.