After his longest break from golf and time spent on safari, Max Homa felt anxious about the state of his game heading into the Nedbank Golf Challenge in South Africa.
He needn’t have worried.
Homa holed a 16-foot birdie putt on No. 18 to shoot a 6-under 66 on Thursday and join Nicolai Hojgaard, Dan Bradbury and Vincent Norrman in a share of the first-round lead in Sun City in the next-to-last event of the European tour season.
Homa was bogey-free around the Gary Player Golf and Country Club, which he barely knew after a shortened buildup that included a practice round on Tuesday being wiped out because of rain.
The No. 8-ranked Homa hasn’t played since the Ryder Cup in Rome that finished Oct. 1 and where he collected 3½ points to be the highest scorer for the United States in its loss to the Europeans. His last stroke-play event was the Fortinet Championship in mid-September.
No wonder he said it was “mildly shocking” that he went so low.
“I learned I can be uncomfortable and play well, which is cool,” said Homa, who went on what he described as a “life-changing” safari trip with Justin Thomas over the weekend to make the most of his time in Africa. “Sometimes golfers, and myself in particular, try to feel as perfect as possible going into events, and I felt far from that.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be perfect, so I think I had a nice game plan and tried to settle me into feeling a little bit off out there and almost dumb it down a little bit. That’s what I learned.”
Homa was happy to find the center of the green and take his chances with some long putts in the early holes. He made two of them, including from 25 feet at No. 6, made birdie from 4 feet at the eighth and picked up three more birdies in his final five holes.
“I’ve just got to keep the ball in front of me and do my best to limit mistakes, like I did today,” Homa said.
Norrman, a Swede with two wins since July, also had a bogey-free round containing six birdies while Bradbury rolled in a 75-foot putt for eagle at his last hole, No. 9, to join the lead.
“To be honest, I was just trying to get it onto the green and two-putt,” Bradbury said.
A year ago, Bradbury won the Joburg Open in South Africa for his first European tour title.
Hojgaard, who played against Homa at the Ryder Cup, had eight birdies and was the first to set the 6-under target at an event some label “Africa’s Major.”
Adrian Meronk, Ryo Hisatsune and Julien Guerrier were tied for fifth place, a shot off the lead, after 67s, while Tommy Fleetwood — seeking a third straight win at the Nedbank — double-bogeyed the last after hitting his approach into the water and shot 71.
Thomas received an invitation to play like Homa and shot 72.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.