May 05, 2019: Max Homa said he was shaking when he stepped to Quail Hollow’s first tee Saturday afternoon.
He was playing with Charlotte’s adopted son, one of the biggest names in golf, on his birthday. The crowd serenaded Rory McIlroy on the first tee, while Homa just stood and watched.
“I felt like a sideshow out there,” he said.
Both players are atop the leaderboard after fighting out of the depths of a deep slump. They share the lead with a cancer survivor, Joel Dahmen.
The trio is tied at 11-under 202. Pat Perez is one shot back, and several big names are still close enough to cause concern. McIlroy, the man whose record at Quail Hollow is unmatched, is two back. The reigning FedExCup champion, Justin Rose, is three behind. Paul Casey is at 7 under, while Sergio Garcia, Rickie Fowler and Patrick Reed are among the names who are five back.
Sunday nerves aren’t some overblown storyline. They’re very real. But the co-leaders have all been steeled by hardship.
Dufner is a major champion who has struggled to break par this year. The Wells Fargo is his ninth event of 2019. He was 27 over par in the first eight. He made it to Sunday just once. And he didn’t finish under par in a single event before this week. He is 188th in the FedExCup standings.
He has five PGA TOUR victories, including the 2013 PGA Championship, but hasn’t won since the 2017 Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide. That experience will be invaluable come Sunday, though.
“I felt good out there and I expect to feel good tomorrow,” Dufner said.
He has converted three of his seven 54-hole leads into victory. Dahmen and Homa are in this position for the first time.
The two first-timers have taken different paths to get here. Homa won the NCAA individual title in his senior year at Cal and was a contemporary of Justin Thomas. They played on the same Walker Cup team and both played their first PGA TOUR event as a pro at the 2013 Safeway Open. Homa finished ninth. Thomas missed the 54-hole cut.
Dahmen, meanwhile, fought testicular cancer in the midst of a five-year stint on the Mackenzie Tour-PGA TOUR Canada.
Homa and Thomas only needed one season to graduate from the Web.com Tour. They were both PGA TOUR rookies in 2015, but their careers went different directions. Thomas has become a FedExCup champion and major winner, while Homa has bounced between the PGA TOUR and Web.com Tour. Homa fell for the lie that he had to get substantially better to have a long PGA TOUR career. His driver became a liability, though.