Stewart Hagestad (Players Amateur photo)
BLUFFTON, S.C. – Stewart Hagestad almost holed out with a driver on a par 4 Thursday at the Players Amateur. That’s Happy Gilmore stuff for a 28-year-old in a world that’s largely occupied by college players and teenagers.
When Hagestad tapped his putt in for eagle off that killer driver at No. 14, it pushed him to 7 under at Berkeley Hall Golf Club. He birdied the par-4 15th and then he had to take a step back to check himself.
“It was great but it’s been a minute since I was 8 under at a tournament,” Hagestad said. “So then at that point I tried to say, ‘Whether you make it or whether you miss it, nobody cares.’”
The kids absolutely cared. After his eagle, Hagestad made four consecutive birdies coming in for a course-record 11-under 61 and a four-shot lead. Several more solid red rounds went up on the board as the day progressed, but they all seemed to pale in comparison to Hagestad’s.
When a pop-up thunderstorm drove players with later tee times into the Berkeley Hall clubhouse, a small group gathered around the scrolling scoreboard outside player dining. Hagestad’s legend grew. He is that
player who once played the Masters (indeed, a true story – Hagestad made the cut at Augusta after earning an invitation courtesy of his 2016 U.S. Mid-Amateur win).
In reality, Hagestad isn’t that much older than the guys who frequent this circuit. He’s only six years removed from his undergrad years at USC. Lots of things feel different to him, though. Putting the 61 in perspective was quite easy.
“I decompress a little quicker than when I was younger,” he said, laughing. “I’m not as juiced up as I may have been 10 years ago.”
Hagestad grew up in Newport Beach, Calif., but attended the International Junior Golf Academy in Bluffton as a kid. He hasn’t been back to this area for 10 years, and was a late add to the Players Amateur. One of his former coaches from the academy, Matt Cuccaro, followed him around Berkeley Hall on a suffocating Lowcountry day.
Hagestad wrote off the 61 as “just a good start, that’s really all it is.” He pointed to the strength of field to support that statement. But there is a fine line between being too cavalier and grinding yourself out of it. Part of what has allowed some of Hagestad’s recent success is understanding that.
“Any event you play in, just play to win,” he said of his mental approach. “Don’t just be there. Make every swing have a purpose, stay engaged and commit to every swing and every shot and add them up at the end of the day.”
Hagestad is a Walker Cup veteran from 2017, when he was 26 years old and fresh off that U.S. Mid-Am win and subsequent Masters start. There must be one mid-amateur on the 10-man team, and this year, you might as well just call that the Hagestad rule. He is No. 8 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, the highest-ranked mid-amateur by 21 spots and with the best track record against the younger players.
Last month, Hagestad qualified for and played in his third consecutive U.S. Open (missing the cut) then finished runner-up at the Northeast Amateur. He calls that “contingency plan A.” Plan B would have been to play the Amateur Championship (i.e., the British Amateur) and follow it with the European Amateur. He has been prepared to go that route each of the past three years, but has always gotten through sectional qualifying instead.
As the Walker Cup approaches, there are no guarantees and Hagestad just hopes to get that magical phone call next month that he’s made the squad which will compete at Royal Liverpool in Hoylake, England, in September.
In reality, Hagestad has sacrificed a lot for this opportunity. He is on a five-month leave from his work as a financial analyst and even though he’s found success in golf, he admits it’s an odd feeling watching friends his age advance in their careers and take on more responsibility in all aspects of life.
“I’d be totally lying if I told you there was no apprehension of if what you’re doing is the right decision,” he said.
Hagestad’s mentors come in the form of older men who have navigated similar paths – particularly men like Seth Waugh and Jimmy Dunne, businessmen who have carved out a unique place for themselves in golf, too.
For better or worse, Hagestad is committed to the path he has chosen, and he jumps at any chance to compete at the top level. When he got an email about the Pan American Games earlier this year, he did a little research. The event, played in Lima, Peru, next month, is “the closest thing to the Olympics you can play in” as an amateur golfer. Hagestad jumped at the opportunity to represent his country, and will compete alongside fellow Americans Brandon Wu, Lucy Li and Rachel Heck.
But that’s where it gets tricky. The games end the day before the U.S. Amateur starts. Hagestad and Wu will have to fly all night to make it to Pinehurst on time for the nation’s championship. They’re more than willing.
Hagestad’s path certainly isn’t the traditional one for a 28-year-old amateur athlete, but is it the right one?
“Check back in 30 years whether I made the right decision or not,” he said, smiling.
Something says the verdict will come much sooner.