He was among the best as an amateur, winning a prestigious national title and moving onto the PGA Tour. While he never thought it was going to be easy, making it tougher was seeing so many peers from his college days collecting trophies as he wondered when, if ever, his turn would come.
So there was great satisfaction, and a small measure of relief, when former NCAA champion Max Homa won at Quail Hollow.
Mark O’Meara fits the same description.
O’Meara won the 1979 U.S. Amateur over John Cook, who won the previous year over Scott Hoch. They were part of a strong generation of young stars that included Hal Sutton (who won the 1980 U.S. Amateur), Gary Hallberg and Payne Stewart.
All of them won within a few years on the PGA Tour.
O’Meara, now in the World Golf Hall of Fame, didn’t win until his 129th start, late in his fourth year.
“You’re happy for your buddy to get the win, but it’s like, ‘Hey, I need to do this.’ It pushes everybody,” O’Meara said Tuesday. “That was a driving force. Just because you’re a top amateur, top college player, there’s no guarantee it’s going to carry on. It gives you an edge. But that edge goes away when you have to step it up on the next level. And all of us put tremendous pressure on ourselves to succeed.”
Curtis Strange hit 1-iron to 6 feet on the final hole to win the 1975 NCAA title at Wake Forest and tied for 15th at the Masters the following year as an amateur. He didn’t make it through Q-school on his first try. In the three years and 83 tries before winning, he watched Gary Koch, Jerry Pate and Jay Haas win tournaments. Pate won the U.S. Open.
“Do you have patience to lose and to learn?” Strange said Tuesday. “It was hard. I hit that practice tee every single day.”
It’s been that way for years, even as each generation gets a little better and a little deeper.
Justin Thomas, as honest as his drives are long, spoke about the mixture of joy and jealousy toward the end of 2017, after he won his first major at the PGA Championship. He grew up in golf with Jordan Spieth, who won so often so quickly that for the longest time, Thomas was known on first reference as Spieth’s buddy. His first year on tour, he lost out on rookie of the year to Daniel Berger.
“We’re all excited and happy for each other,” Thomas said. “But it definitely puts a little bit of fire in us.”
Early in his rookie year, Thomas played a practice round at the Valspar Championship with Spieth, Berger and Ollie Schniederjans, a Georgia Tech senior and the No. 1 amateur in the world. They all were 21, separated by 111 days, and so they lined up youngest to oldest. Spieth was the youngest. He had just crossed the $9 million mark in career earnings. Thomas and Spieth reached No. 1 in the world at age 25 or younger. Berger joined those two on the Presidents Cup team in 2017.
Schniederjans is in his third year and still looking for his first win.
So is Patrick Rodgers, another former No. 1 amateur who in three years at Stanford won 11 times to tie the record set by Tiger Woods. He is in his fifth year on tour, with 123 starts and no wins.
Homa can relate.
He won the NCAA while at Cal in 2013, qualified a few weeks later for the U.S. Open at Merion and spent one year in the minor leagues before making his PGA Tour debut. It was the same path as Thomas, his Walker Cup teammate who is a few years younger.
Homa considers Thomas to be a better player, though he’s certainly close enough to make some fair comparisons. And what Homa saw was that one guy was winning and the other was missing so many cuts that he played only one round on a Sunday in 2017 on the PGA Tour.
“You feel a little inadequate because you think to yourself, ‘Why am I not doing that?'” Homa said at Quail Hollow, two days before he won. “But it’s not, ‘I can’t.’ Justin Thomas is still one of my best buddies out here. I never envied it. I envy that he was able to just keep being him, because that’s who he is. He’s very good.”
Homa realizes now he fell into a trap of thinking he had to be better.
“I thought I had to get a lot better, which is crazy,” he said. “I’ve heard that 50 times in college: ‘Don’t try to be anything more.’ As you get older, you think about all the hours you put in and it only gets greater.”
He was happy to see Thomas do so well, and in some respects, it showed him what could be done.
“I know Justin is far superior, but I also knew that my good golf was somewhat similar,” Homa said. “I doubt that he has gotten incredibly better because he was already an incredible golfer. It was kind of the reminder for me to be like, ‘All right, just got to get back to being me five years ago.'”
It brought him back to winning again.
Players like Schniederjans and Rodgers no doubt were watching. It’s a hard game.