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The year was 1977, and Jay Sigel, having just gone 3-0 in his Walker Cup debut for a winning U.S. side, was driving from Shinnecock Hills back home to Philadelphia when he said to his wife, “We need to do this again.”
He did – eight more times, in fact, while becoming the American record-holder for not only Walker Cup appearances but also matches played, matches won and points secured.
“It’s not easy to make a Walker Cup team,” Sigel said, “but it’s reachable and achievable for a good player.”
Stewart Hagestad is that type of player and more. At 30 years old, the decorated mid-amateur from Newport Beach, California, is a generational talent, a Tour-caliber player who never really blinked at turning pro and who still has every bit the power, touch and confidence to hang with – and beat – the young studs of the amateur and college games. Former U.S. Walker Cup captain Spider Miller, an accomplished amateur in his own right, called Hagestad “one of the best amateur golfers who didn’t turn pro in my lifetime.” Miller is 71.
Hagestad still has a long way to go to catch Sigel, and doing so, realistically, would be somewhere between extremely difficult and impossible. But Sigel last represented his country in the storied biennial matches in 1993, and there’s no question it’s tougher to make the American side these days, with every two years bringing along a refresh of dozens of hotshot future Tour stars.
That’s why, in that context, Hagestad’s third straight Walker Cup appearance this week at Seminole Golf Club is so extraordinary.
In the early days, legends such as Francis Ouimet, Bobby Jones and Charlie Coe were Walker Cup regulars. But just three other players this century have competed in three Walker Cups – John Harris, Trip Kuehne and Nathan Smith – and not one of them played a fourth.
On the eve of his third Cup, Hagestad, who was part of victories at Los Angeles Country Club in 2017 and Royal Liverpool in 2019, knows he’s fully capable of bucking that trend. He’s currently 14th in the World Amateur Golf Ranking and just a few months removed from a quarterfinal run at the U.S. Amateur. Yes, it’s a big commitment to chase these national teams, but Hagestad, and those around him, know that if he wants to keep the pedal down, he’s not slowing any time soon.
Fittingly, Smith, now 42, occasionally offers this advice to his friend: Enjoy the ride.
“It was a ton of fun and a time in my life where I look back and smile. Stew will do the same,” said Smith, who last teed it up for the American squad in 2013. “How many more teams can he make? That’s up to him. I will say that I don’t know if anybody will be able to do what he’s doing again. It’s just too hard and you have to be too good.
“I don’t think people truly realize just how good Stew is, how much time he puts in and what he’s sacrificing.”
• • •
As a teenager, Hagestad attended the International Junior Golf Academy in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, and brushed elbows on the junior circuit with major winners Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas. But after graduating from USC, Hagestad never made the leap to the play-for-pay ranks. His feet firmly planted on the ground, he remained amateur, soon taking his finance degree from the Marshall School of Business and moving to New York City, where he worked for two real-estate investment companies, KTR Partners and then Oak Tree Residential.
At the time, Hagestad’s current USGA championship resume – 21 appearances, including 11 U.S. Amateurs and three U.S. Opens, plus a U.S. Mid-Amateur victory in 2016 – seemed “unfathomable” for a recent college grad beginning to chart out a career on Wall Street. But then he got the itch. Wanting to compete again, Hagestad dialed Brian Mahoney, executive director of the Metropolitan Golf Association, and picked his brain about entering some local events.
It wasn’t until after that call that Mahoney looked up Hagestad’s handicap: plus-6 (!!!).
“I remember saying to myself, Oh, my goodness,” Mahoney recalled. “He came onto the scene here like gangbusters.”
In his first MGA start, the 2015 Ike Championship at esteemed Friar’s Head, Hagestad finished runner-up to Wake Forest standout Cameron Young. Later that year, he won the Mittelmark Invitational, advanced to the semifinals of the Met Amateur and represented the section in his first of two Carry Cups. In 2016, Hagestad was named MGA Player of the Year, as he won two more section titles, including the Met Amateur, and at one point logged 22 straight rounds of par or better.
“He got on a roll,” said John Doherty, a longtime caddie in the Met area who has looped for Hagestad in several big events.
That summer, Miller, a year away from his second Walker Cup captaincy, was at Los Angeles Country Club scouting the host course when a member, John McClure, told him about this rising star in New York who was back home visiting and wishing to earn his way onto Miller’s 10-man roster.
“He walked up to me,” Miller recounted, “and Stew’s this big, tall guy, and he tells me, ‘I’m going to work hard and try to make your team.’ And I look up at him and said, ‘Well, you can start here pretty soon by winning the U.S. Mid-Amateur.’”
After that meeting, the red-hot Hagestad trundled into Stonewall Links in Elverson, Pennsylvania, that September and secured himself a spot in the final against Scott Harvey, the 2014 U.S. Mid-Amateur champion. He then rallied from 4 down with five holes to play and defeated Harvey on the first playoff hole to become the second youngest winner in championship history behind only Smith, who won his first of four U.S. Mid-Amateur titles in 2003.
The following April, Hagestad made more history, not only becoming the first mid-amateur to make the cut at the Masters since the U.S. Mid-Amateur winner began being invited to Augusta National in 1989 but also capturing low-amateur honors, tying for 36th and clipping then world No. 1 Curtis Luck by three shots.
Those moments of self-validation proved to Hagestad this: Maybe you are as good as you always thought you were.
“Stew’s afraid of nobody,” Doherty said. “He puts his pants on one leg at a time, and he goes out and competes.”
A few months later Hagestad got through U.S. Open sectional qualifying, his first of three straight years accomplishing that feat, and then earned the clinching point in his Walker Cup debut at his home club. In recent years, he’s climbed as high as fourth in the world rankings. He returned to the semifinals at the U.S. Mid-Amateur in 2018 and ’19. He made it to the Round of 16 at the 2018 U.S. Amateur at Pebble and last summer at Bandon did one round better, reaching the quarters before falling to eventual champion Tyler Strafaci on the 18th hole. Mixed throughout have been top-5 finishes in several of the nation’s elite amateur events, such as the Northeast, Players and Terra Cotta amateurs, the latter of which he finished fifth in just two weekends ago.
“He’s following in the footsteps of some of the all-time greats,” Mahoney said. "And I'm talking about shooting for the stars. Guys like Bobby Jones."
• • •
Mahoney had the honor of introducing Hagestad before he was presented the Jerry Courville Sr. Award as the MGA’s player of the year. As he spoke, Mahoney touched on a few qualities that made Hagestad great: class, sportsmanship, tenacity. But one characteristic stood out among the rest.
“Hard work is synonymous with Stew,” Mahoney said. “No one has dedicated as much time, energy and passion in my 20-year career as Stew.”
Hagestad didn’t set the world on fire in college, but then again not many of his peers were balancing business school and a fraternity, either. He played just three events – all postseason starts as a senior – in his last two years with the Trojans, but just because his priorities had shifted didn’t mean that Hagestad didn’t practice hard. He’s still never failed to qualify for a U.S. Amateur, a streak that began in college, and he credits much of his current training habits to former USC coach Chris Zambri.
After switching coasts, Hagestad set up a home base in at Deepdale Golf Club in Manhasset, the Long Island club frequented by titans of industry and accomplished amateurs such as Jimmy Dunne and George Zahringer. He also joined Golf & Body NYC, a specialized gym for golfers that also had seven hitting bays and a few TrackMans. With his boss giving him the autonomy to compete in tournaments while still working, Hagestad really dug in.
“While my friends were going to bougie brunches, I was practicing,” Hagestad said.
Doherty and Mahoney each brought up a story from Hagestad’s Met Amateur win in 2016, where he shot 61-64 to win stroke-play medalist honors by 10 shots. After the record-setting, 36-hole day at the Country Club of Fairfield, Hagestad offered up one of his trademark lines to Doherty – “It’s a good start” – and headed to the range and then to the practice green, where he struck putt after putt from 15 feet, the same distance he had three-putted from for the lone bogey in his opening round.
“Most people would just go to the bar,” Doherty said. “Stew went and hit an hour’s worth of balls and putted until dark.”
These days, it’s not uncommon to find Hagestad, who moved back to the West Coast a few months after his U.S. Mid-Amateur win, out at LACC or Big Canyon in Newport Beach grinding into the late evening hours. Only now he has to once again balance schoolwork. He started the MBA program at USC last summer and has about a year remaining. He estimates he spends about six hours a day between school and other phone calls trying to line up post-grad work (and during Walker Cup week, he'll have two finals and a project due). The rest of his time is mostly devoted to practicing, stretching and working out, so that he’s ready to perform when the lights turn on.
To prepare for this weekend’s matches at Seminole, Hagestad teed it up at a club tournament at LACC – and won – before heading to Naples and playing well. Also, knowing how physically demanding Walker Cup weeks can be, he dedicated more time in the gym to his legs.
“My mind doesn’t turn off,” Hagestad said. “But I’ve always been good at setting a goal and putting blinders on. I know what it takes.”
• • •
You’ve put in so much work and made so many sacrifices to put yourself in this position, and you’ve earned your way to be here. Just go do what you’re capable of.
That was an excerpt from the impassioned speech that Hagestad gave to his Walker Cup teammates the night before the Americans’ final-day rally two years ago at Royal Liverpool. In a team room filled mostly with twenty-somethings and aspiring pro golfers, the impact of Hagestad’s message was effective because of where it came from.
Chasing Walker Cups isn’t easy. To do it year after year like Hagestad has is exponentially taxing. Prospective team members need to play a lot of tournaments, especially during the summer. If you’re not teeing it up in events like the Jones Cup, Sunnehanna Amateur, Northeast Amateur, Western Amateur and especially the U.S. Amateur, you can forget about representing your country. Smith calls it the "Johnny Cash Tour."
“It’s I’ve been everywhere, man, every summer,” Smith said. “I was trying to ride it as long as I could. When I didn’t make that team in 2015, that told me that it was time to quit running around and chasing that. You’re always trying to run it to the end, and then it’s like I can’t do another two years of this. You’re trying to work, trying to move on with your life, and it’s tough; there’s a dedication there where you’re really putting your life on hold.”
Miller understands the sacrifice, too. A husband and father of five, he qualified for his first and only Walker Cup as a player in 1999, at age 49, and then shut it down to focus on family and his beer-distribution business.
“You’re either all-in or you’re all-out,” Miller said. “I didn’t think I could win the U.S. Amateur anymore. I had no interest in playing three events a year and finishing middle of the pack. It’s just not in my nature. I either was going to work as hard as I always did and keep going, or I was getting off the train, and I chose to get off the train.”
Hagestad certainly has begun to think about life after Walker Cup teams. Yes, he’s still the best mid-amateur in the world – and it’s not particularly close – but he also just turned 30, is on the cusp of diving into the business world, is in a serious relationship and has dreams of starting his own family someday. He looks up to guys like Dunne, Seth Waugh, David Novak, Sam Reeves and Michael McDermott, among others, all leading figures who have had success on multiple fronts, from golf to business to family.
“I have a lot of respect for them,” Hagestad said. “They are people who are constantly volunteering to make the world around them better.”
Hagestad aspires to follow a similar blueprint, but he’s also got more to accomplish in golf. "At the end of your career," he said back in 2017, "everyone is going to be measured by a few things: how many USGAs you've played in, how many USGAs you've won, how many majors you've played in, and how many Walker Cup teams you've played on." Smith, who still has three U.S. Mid-Amateurs and five total USGA championships on Hagestad – remains the “poster on the wall,” and Hagestad still plans on building his schedules around the USGA championships. Making the cut in a U.S. Open and winning the U.S. Amateur are burning priorities.
As for Walker Cups, Hagestad says he’ll play this one and then take some time off for reflection.
“There’s a lot that you give up [trying to make these teams], whether it’s professionally, monetarily, as a family, a lot of different components of your life,” Hagestad said. “But I would never sit here and say I have no interest moving forward.”
Walker Cups are always relished because players never know if they'll play another one. Chances are, though, that Hagestad gives himself at least another crack or three. He’s too good not to, even with the influx of young talent every two years. Forget just being a veteran presence in the U.S. team room this week; Hagestad is very much a guy that no Great Britain and Ireland player wants to draw out of the hat. For other mid-amateurs, they know that if "Big Stew" is in the field, the trophy runs through him and his broomstick putter. When you’re the best at what you do, it's hard for fierce competitors to give that up.
But when it finally comes time to let up on the pedal, whether that's a year from now or 10, it’s a safe bet that Hagestad will be 100-percent committed. It's in his D.N.A.
“When people call others underachievers, that’s one of the biggest insults that there is,” Hagestad said. “I want people to be like, ‘Listen, Stew’s the best mid-am. That guy worked the hardest, put more into it, did everything in his power to do everything he possibly could to get as much out of his game and his experiences as possible. He threw everything he had at being as good at this as he possibly could have.’ As long as you do that, it’s all you can do.”
Oh, and don’t forget to enjoy the ride.