Max Homa took off his cap, wiped his brow and shook hands with his two playing partners on the 18th hole.
Not much of a celebration.
For Homa and his Cal teammates, there’s more important work to do.
Winning a championship they all can savor.
Homa shot a 4-under 66 to win the individual title at the NCAA golf championship Thursday, and his steady play carried the Bears to the top seed heading into team match play.
“I’ll probably celebrate for about 30 minutes, just hang out with my teammates, my best friends,” he said. “Then I’ll refocus on the real prize.”
The Bears’ senior leader birdied three of the first five holes, surging past second-round leader Jon Rahm of Arizona State, and didn’t make a bogey on the Capital City Club’s Crabapple course north of Atlanta.
Homa won the title by three strokes over Rahm and five others.
“This is the biggest accomplishment in my life, and it’s not even close,” Homa said. “Obviously, the team championship would be much better, but this feels very, very good.”
Cal teammate Brandon Hagy was in the mix until a double-bogey at the par-3 15th. He wound up four shots back and gave Homa a big hug after they both were done.
“I’m so proud of Max,” Hagy said. “He’s a great player. He works so hard. He’s definitely a deserving champion.”
Coming into the championship as the nation’s top-ranked team, the Bears lived up to their billing with a 16-under total.
Cal’s Michael Weaver shot a 69 and the two other scoring players, Hagy and Michael Kim, both finished at 70 to leave their team 5 under for the day.
The Bears entered the NCAAs as the overwhelming favorite after losing only two of 13 tournaments this season.
“We wanted to put in a good score,” Hagy said. “We wanted to show everyone why we’re No. 1.”
Homa began the day two strokes back. A brilliant lob wedge at No. 2 set up a 4-foot birdie putt, a booming 3-wood at the par-5 fourth set up a two-putt from 50 feet for birdie, and a nifty chip from behind the green at the short par-4 fifth left him with a 5-footer for his third birdie in the opening run.
But the key hole may have been the eighth, where Homa rolled in a 40-footer to save par. After that, he was in control.
“That really settled me down,” he said. “That really made me feel like everything was going to be all right.”
Coming down the stretch, Homa knew he had a lead but didn’t know how large it was. Finally, after putting his tee shot just off the right side of the 18th fairway, he asked coach Steve Desimone to check the scores. Learning he was comfortably in front, Homa knocked his second shot safely on the green to set up an easy two-putt par.
“When I got to 18, I asked where I stood,” Homa said. “I wanted to have a number going into that shot.”
UNLV was the only school to post a lower score on the day, putting up an 8-under total that pushed the Rebels into a four-team playoff for the final three spots in the team competition.
Defending national champion Texas and second-ranked Alabama tied for third, nine strokes behind Cal but easily good enough to advance. Illinois also moved on, another two shots back in fifth.
The last three spots were finally decided just before sundown. UNLV, Arizona State, New Mexico and Texas A&M finished 18 shots off the pace in a tie for sixth, forcing a playoff to eliminate one of them. The season ended for A&M when the Aggies made a couple of bogeys on the first round of extra holes.
The Friday quarterfinals will be Cal vs. Arizona State, Georgia Tech vs. UNLV, Alabama vs. New Mexico and Texas vs. Illinois. The winners advance to the semifinals the following day, with the championship match Sunday.
“When I came in as a freshman, I couldn’t even imagine contending for a national championship,” Homa said. “This gives me some extra confidence going into the summer, hopefully to compete in Walker Cup and then move on to my professional career.”
Defending individual champion Thomas Pieters of Illinois closed with a 71 and wound up six strokes behind Homa. There hasn’t been a repeat NCAA men’s champion since Phil Mickelson in 1989 and 1990.