Cal's golf program is in full swing 

click to enlarge Max Homa
  • Kohjiro Kinno/@USGA file photo
  • Cal's Max Homa will look to follow up his NCAA individual title with a solid showing in the U.S. Open.

As Cal's Max Homa prepared for an 8-foot putt with his hopes of qualifying for the U.S. Open on the line, one thought popped into his head: "You want this putt."

Homa had missed a similar putt two days earlier in the NCAA championships and it crushed the Bears' aspirations of winning a national title.

But this time, Homa drained the putt, advancing to a second playoff hole at U.S. Open sectional qualifying in Newport Beach, and less than 30 minutes later, he became the third member of the Cal men's golf team to qualify for this year's national open at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa., joining teammates Michael Weaver and Michael Kim.

"I told myself, you might be waiting months or years for another putt to put these demons behind you," Homa said. "To have that happen so fast — that's what kind of hit me."

Cal is believed to be the first NCAA golf team to qualify three members for the U.S. Open in one year, the latest achievement in a season of record-shattering accomplishments for the squad.

The Bears set a modern-era NCAA record this year by winning 11 out of 14 tournaments. They finished with a 203-4-1 head-to-head record, shooting more than 6,000 strokes ahead of opponents.

In addition, the team racked up a number of individual accolades with Homa, a senior, snagging Pac-12 Conference and NCAA individual titles and Kim, a sophomore, winning the Jack Nicklaus Award, college golf's Heisman Trophy.

Bears coach Steve Desimone describes Homa and Weaver as power players (300-yard-plus drives) who are also excellent course managers.

"They're really good at making decisions," he said.

Kim, on the other hand, is the opposite, relying on finesse, accuracy and a second-to-none short game.

"He's the best [college] putter in the country," Desimone said.

The trio helped the Bears win the 54-hole stroke play portion of the NCAA championship at Captial City's Crabapple Course in Milton, Ga., by six strokes last week, but they ran into trouble against Illinois in match play in the semifinals.

Weaver and Brandon Hagy both notched victories for Cal, but Kim and Joel Salter lost and Homa's 7-foot putt to decide the best-of-five contest lipped out of the hole.

Desimone said the loss was an anomaly.

"There's no choking with these guys, not with everything they've done," he said. "Match play is one damn round — it doesn't identify the best player or the best team."

Homa and Kim showed their mental toughness two days later, bouncing back and qualifying for the U.S. Open at sectionals. Kim earned one of three spots in a field of 51 golfers at Hawks Ridge Golf Club in Ball Ground, Ga., shooting rounds of 67 and 66. Homa put together a 66 at the Newport Beach Country Club and followed it up with a 72 at Big Canyon Country Club, where he qualified after a two-hole playoff.

Both Kim and Homa said they used the previous weekend's disappointment as motivation at sectionals.

"After NCAA's, as a team, we decided we're not going to let this one tournament ruin our whole season that we had," Kim said.

Weaver, who also competed in the Master's this year, qualified for the U.S. Open by virtue of finishing as the runner-up in the 2012 U.S. Amateur.

When Homa tees off at Merion on Thursday, he'll be wearing his childhood friend David Stroud's No. 25 high school basketball jersey underneath his shirt. Homa wears the jersey every time he plays competitively; he marks every ball with No. 25 and sports a green bracelet that says, "Stroud Strong," a tribute to his friend who passed away less than two years ago from Hodgkin's lymphoma.

"I feel like I get to go to this tournament with him," Homa said. "I know he's never been to a U.S. Open before, so I guess he's going to be my special caddie for the week."

Desimone calls Homa the team's "spiritual leader" and he said the experience of losing a close friend probably helped him bounce back from his disappointing finish at the NCAA tournament.

"He realizes the experiences that his friend lost, so every moment is precious," Desimone said.

Homa, Kim and Weaver each said they're excited to rub shoulders with the likes of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy at the U.S. Open. But the best part of the experience, they said, might be doing it together.

"Getting to hang out and kind of enjoy the moments with them," Homa said. "We'll be able to talk about the cool things that went on in person, not just on the phone."

Tee time

WHEN: Thursday to Sunday

COURSE: Merion Golf Club

WHERE: Ardmore, Pa.

Length: 6,996 yards

Par: 36-34–70

Cut: Top 60 and ties and anyone within 10 strokes of the lead after 36 holes.

Last year: Webb Simpson closed with a 2-under 68 at the Olympic Club for a one-shot victory over Graeme McDowell and Michael Thompson

U.S. Open champions at Merion: Olin Dutra (1934), Ben Hogan (1950), Lee Trevino (1971), David Graham (1981)

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Paul Gackle

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