In a game of inches, Cal men’s golf falls just short in the NCAAs

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Max Homa stood just seven feet away from the 20th hole, but to the senior golfer, the cup seemed a light-year’s length away.

As Homa readied himself to putt the ball, his mind raced, and pressure came flooding in. While serene in his exterior appearance, Homa was under siege inside.

The Cal men’s golf team’s season — the historic campaign in which the Bears won a record 11 tournaments — stood on the brink on Saturday. Homa needed to make this putt to push the NCAA Championship semifinal match against Illinois to the 21st hole.

Homa putted the ball. It creept slowly toward the hole. But the ball never landed inside the cup.

Homa stood frozen in disbelief, his head bent to his stomach and face cupped in his hands.

In a dramatic stunner, No. 5 seed Illinois toppled No. 1 Cal, 3-2.

Minutes later after missing the putt in the 20th hole, Homa faced reporters at the Crabapple Course in Milton, Ga., for the last press conference of his Cal career. At the thought of his teammates, his second family, Homa struggled to hold back his tears.

“I let my whole family down,” Homa said. “It sucks not being the one to move us on to tomorrow.”

Cal coach Steve Desimone, like Homa, couldn’t believe the season’s premature end.

“It’s hard to believe it’s over,” Desimone said. “To have a season like this — I just don’t know the next time a season like this is going to happen.”

And thus, Cal’s season, arguably the greatest season in collegiate men’s golf history, ended without a national trophy. The NCAA title went to No. 3 Alabama on Sunday, who defeated Illinois, 4-1.

Unlike most tournaments Cal participated in and won this season, the NCAAs were run on a match-play format in which five players from each team play a counterpart from another team.

In contrast to the usual stroke play, which aggregates the players’ scores over the course of many days into one team score, the match-play format emphasizes individual performance on a day-to-day basis.

Cal struggled in the new change of scenery. The Bears edged past Arizona State, 3-2, in Friday’s quarterfinals. Saturday was no different.

“It’s not beneficial to finding the best teams,” Homa said. “The match-play format is more exciting, though.”

The battle between Homa and Illinois’ Thomas Pieters was neck-to-neck from the first hole and eventually needed two extra holes to finish. Until the 20th hole, Homa never trailed behind Pieters. At the end of the ninth hole, Homa had a three-stroke lead, but the match was back to square one by the 12th hole.

Pieters had a chance to win the match in the 18th hole, but his four-foot birdie attempt barely missed, sending the match to extra holes.

Starting back from the No. 1 green for the 19th hole, Homa nearly had a chance to win on a chipped shot 20 yards off the green. The ball stopped a few inches from the hole.

In the 20th hole, both Pieters and Homa, who were the 2012 and 2013 NCAA individual medalists respectively, missed their chances to win. Homa missed a long birdie attempt by about seven feet, and Pieters failed to seize the chance at a birdie and settled on a par.

Despite finishing first in 11 of 14 competitions this season, the lack of the grand prize in the Bears’ decorated trophy cabinet leaves some space to debate on whether this team is the greatest of all time.

However to Homa, there is very little doubt.

“If it leaves a dent, it should be a very, very small one,” Homa said. “We should be considered the best team of all time.”

Contact Seung Y. Lee at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @sngyn92.