Joe Highsmith (Courtesy of Pepperdine Athletics)
A look at his eye-popping resume and his shiny NCAA Championship ring, one might think everything has always come easy for Joe Highsmith
Here's a news flash: Golf is hard, just ask Joe.
By the time he had arrived in Malibu in 2018 as the fifth-highest recruit in the nation, the sweet-swinging, bucket hat-wearing southpaw from Lakewood, Wash. had built up an enviable junior resume fitting of his Rolex Junior All-America status. In 2017 alone, he had three top-10 finishes in AJGA events, was a member of the victorious United States Junior Presidents Cup team and became the youngest winner of the Washington State Golf Association Men’s State Amateur championship.
Though he has been a steady fixture in the Waves lineup since his freshman year, it took Highsmith until his junior year to breakthrough with his first collegiate victory, which came at the prestigious Western Intercollegiate
at Pasatiempo Golf Course in Santa Cruz, Calif., where he defeated BYU’s Carson Lundell and San Diego State’s Puwit Anupansuebsai in a playoff.
The win came on the heels of top-10 finishes at the Goodwin Intercollegiate (6th) and the Augusta Haskins Award Invitational (t-8th). A tie for third at the West Coast Conference Championships gave Highsmith extra momentum heading into the NCAA Regionals.
Joe was on a roll and then golf raised its fickle head at an inopportune time.
The Waves advanced to the NCAA Championships by virtue of their fourth-place finish at the Cle Elum Regional, but Highsmith finished tied for 38th at 7-over despite opening the tournament with a 4-under 68.
With nationals on the horizon, Highsmith, much to his surprise, found himself in a three-man qualifier for the final spot in the Waves lineup. It didn’t go well and he was not in the Waves starting five for the beginning of the 72-hole stroke play competition at Grayhawk.
“Because of our outstanding depth, I told the guys we were going to be a six-man team going into the tournament,” said head coach Michael Beard. “If one of them faltered, they would be subbed out.
“I’m sure it was a shock to his system that he wasn’t in the initial lineup, though.”
After R.J. Manke struggled to a 3-over 75 in the first round, Beard called upon Highsmith for the final three rounds. An even-par 72 in the second round was followed by a 6-over 78 in round three and the Waves found themselves one stroke off the cutline to qualify for match play.
It was time for a talk.
Beard and Highsmith covered a lot of ground in an hour-long conversation that evening following the third round, mostly how to block out the noise to successfully walk the fine line between focusing on the shot at hand and detaching yourself from the result.
“In the third round, I tried to play in a carefree manner which was new for me,” said Highsmith. “I had the detachment part down, but the focus wasn’t there. Our meeting reinforced some things for me.”
“It was a productive meeting – a heart-to-heart,” said Beard. “I told him he was going to help us win this thing but he needed to simplify things a bit and focus on the shot at hand.”
Call it tough love, but the student took heed and responded beautifully.
Behind 5-under rounds of 67 by Highsmith and sophomore Dylan Menante
, the Waves shot a 9-under 271 to jump from ninth place to third and advanced to match play for the first time in program history.
Pepperdine then dispatched Florida State, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma to win its second national championship
. Highsmith won all three of his matches and hit one of the most iconic shots in NCAA Championship history, sticking an eight-iron to eight feet from a fairway bunker some 180 yards out on the final hole to secure his point in the semifinals against Oklahoma State.
Highsmith picked up where he left off at Grayhawk, winning the Golf Club of Georgia Collegiate
individual title in October with a 19-under score of 197, breaking the GCOG record by four strokes to lead the Waves to a dominating victory in Alpharetta.
In this edition of a “Quick Nine,” Joe discusses his decision to go to Pepperdine, his experience at the NCAA Championships last season, his future plans, the origin of his bucket hat and his relationship with Fred Couples.
A Quick Nine with Joe Highsmith
Why did you choose Pepperdine?
I had originally committed to SMU early on in high school which might have been a bit premature. The big thing for me was to go somewhere with good weather all year around and Malibu is pretty tough to beat in that sense. I grew up in the Seattle area, so I was pretty sick of the rainy weather. My family bought a place in LaQuinta in 2008 and that was pretty much it for me. Plus, Coach Beard and I really clicked. I also knew the Putman family. They also live in Seattle and Andrew played there from 2007-11. They had nothing but good things to say about Pepperdine.
What influence has your head coach Michael Beard had on you?
He has helped me probably as much if not more than any other person in my career. He has a great understanding of what the game is all about. He’s played on a high level and his dad, Frank, was an 11-time winner on Tour. We just click. He’s really helped me focus on the mental side of the game and has taught me how to block out all of the noise around me. I think I’ve always had pretty good mechanics but there was something that was missing. His advice has really freed me up on the course.
You weren’t in the lineup for the first round of nationals last year but ended up going 3-0-0 in match play. What effect did that experience have on you?
I was really shocked and disappointed I wasn’t in the lineup to start the NCAAs. I had a pretty good spring, finishing sixth at the Goodwin, eighth at Augusta, third at conference and I won the Western Intercollegiate, but I had to go through a qualifier. It was a huge disappointment.
I got into a bit of a funk towards the end of the season. I was playing just alright but not at the level I knew I could be at. I wasn’t too worried though. I was a second-round substitution at Grayhawk and shot even. In the third round, I tried to play more carefree and detach myself from the result. That approach didn’t work out too well and I shot a 78. Coach Beard was upset and so was I and we sat down for about an hour that night and talked some things through. Basically, he encouraged me to get back to what had worked for me for a long time. It’s a fine line to have an intense focus on every shot but be detached from the result, but it worked.
Take us through your iconic bunker shot into the 18th in the semifinal match against Oklahoma State.
I was 1 up against Aman Gupta
heading into the 18th. My tee shot landed in the right bunker and Aman was in good shape on the green in regulation. I wasn’t really nervous about the shot even though there was a lot of trouble around the green and a lot of things could have gone wrong. I had a pretty good lie and was confident I could carry the lip of the bunker. I blocked out all of the negatives and picked a target on the right side of the scoring tent behind the green. I wasn’t expecting to hit it to eight feet, but I made a committed swing and it turned out pretty well.
Your thoughts on Pepperdine’s chances of repeating as NCAA Champions this year.
I think our team is just as good as last year. We have four of the five players back from last year’s NCAA lineup and Derek Hitchner
had a great summer and is playing great this year. It’s all about peaking at the right time. We’ve had our ups and downs this year but all that matters is we’re all playing well late in the season. If we are, we’re going to be tough to beat. And I think experience goes a long way, too.
Fred Couples has called you his favorite college golfer. Tell us how that relationship came about.
We have lots of mutual friends from Seattle and La Quinta, where he’s a member of the Madison Club. I first met him in 2017 when I was on the Junior President’s Club team and he was an assistant captain to Steve Stricker on the big team. Our teams had some time to spend inside the ropes and we just kind of hit it off. He’s an awesome guy and our personalities are similar in that we are both pretty chill. We even have the same back issues. We’ve probably played 20 times together over the last four years. I can keep up with him off the tee but his short game is so good.
He texts me words of encouragement and we stay in touch. He doesn’t give me a lot of advice because that’s not him. But he always tells me ball-strikers win tournaments and you can wear out your opponent in match play by hitting a lot of fairways and greens.
What’s the origin of your bucket hat?
I was at the AJGA Junior Polo tournament in New Jersey back in 2017 and a family friend of ours, Aaron Pace, who’s a dermatologist, told me the importance of taking care of my skin, which was something I never really thought about. I took his advice and bought a bucket hat prior to the tournament. I played pretty well and week and ended up finishing second, which got me on the Junior Presidents Cup team. I’ve worn one ever since and think I look a little funny wearing a traditional cap now.
Aspects of your teammate’s games you wish you had?
Derek Hitchner has a tremendous demeanor on the course -- he never gets too high or low. Though he may disagree, Dylan (Menante) is a great putter. When he gets it rolling, it’s really special. Joey Vrzich
just bombs the ball off the tee. When he gets his driver going, he’s as good as anyone.
What are your plans after the season?
My goal is to finish in the top five of PGA Tour University which gets you eight starts on the Korn Ferry Tour and automatically into the final stage of Q School, which is huge. Finishing 6-15 has its perks, too, but I really want to get into the top five. If it works out, I’ll turn pro after the NCAA Championships but I also have an option of playing one more year at Pepperdine because of COVID.
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The Joe Highsmith File
Chris and Anne Highsmith
Bellarmine College Preparatory
Oakmont Country Club
Course bucket list:
Augusta National, Pine Valley, Old Course at St. Andrews
Favorite musical artist:
Favorite sport other than golf:
2021 Western Intercollegiate champion
2021 Golf Club of Georgia Intercollegiate champion
2021 Golfweek and GCAA/PING All-American (honorable mention)
2021 All-West Coast Conference (first team)
2018-19 West Coast Conference Freshman of the Year
Three-time U.S. Amateur qualifier (2018, ’19, ’20)
2017 Rolex Junior All-American
2017 U.S. Junior Presidents’ Cup participant
2017 Pacific Northwest Golf Association Junior Boys Player of the Year
Two-time Washington State Golf Association Junior Boys Player of the Year
2017 Washington State Golf Association Men’s State Amateur champion
2017 World Junior Golf Association Players Open winner
2016 AJGA Ryan Moore Open winner
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