PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. – This was quite a show. Playing in one of the premier groups Tuesday at the NCAA Championship was Texas freshman Jordan Spieth, the No. 1-ranked player in the country, and No. 2 Justin Thomas, a freshman at Alabama. A few dozen fans gathered around each hole at Riviera Country Club to watch what, presumably, will be the next generation of PGA Tour stars. Even more intriguing: How that duo performs this week likely will sway a lot of Player of the Year voters. Thomas won Round 1, 70-73.
Oh, wait. Sorry. Don’t forget California’s Brandon Hagy, the third player in the group. He shot even-par 71. Already, though, he’s getting the Tiger Woods treatment – that is, contending with a moving crowd while trying to hit a tee shot. Then he unleashes yet another titanium-denting drive, another tee ball of 315-plus yards, and off he goes.
Said Cal junior Pace Johnson, “Brandon is a guy who just has his head on straight.”
These days, any discussion about Spieth and Thomas is in the future tense. When Thomas wins Player of the Year, he will … when Spieth turns pro, he will … when both make millions on the PGA Tour, they will …. Apparently, if you win a few times in your first year on campus, people predict big things for you. Go figure.
Well, Hagy, 21, has his eyes on the future, too. The 21-year-old redshirted during the 2010-11 season to work on his short game and, more importantly, pursue admission into Cal’s prestigious Haas School of Business. (Junior Michael Weaver is following the same path, redshirting this season.) An analytical player and student, Hagy, a business administration major, boasts a team-best 3.76 GPA. High marks, for sure, but Hagy reserved his best numbers for the course during this breakout campaign.
After finishing the fall ranked No. 247 in the country, he has soared 207 spots, to a career-best 40th, as he plays the national championship in the No. 1 spot for the third-seeded Bears. During that stretch, Hagy has propelled Cal to one of its best seasons in program history: six victories, a Pac-12 title, an NCAA regional crown … and one proud coach.
“Brandon is the best of the best,” Cal coach Steve Desimone said.
Hagy has finished in the top 20 in all but one of his 13 stroke-play events, and he owns a 6-1 record in match play – a good statistic if the Bears, tied for 15th after a 11-over 295 in Round 1, can reach the final eight here.
In 2010, Hagy tied for 135th at the NCAA Championship. Oh, how things have changed since then.
Start with the 2010-11 season. A degree from the Haas School of Business is one of the most coveted at Cal – “Let’s put it this way,” Johnson said. “It’s a really hard school” – so Hagy made an investment in his future. He took the school’s prerequisite classes during the morning. Then he minored in short-game improvement in the afternoon. Always a solid ballstriker, in recent years his wedge game and work around the greens have been the main reasons why he hasn’t made the transition from good player to great. Well, it’s starting to come around – Hagy chipped in twice during his 71 Tuesday.
“As his short game gets better,” Desimone said, “we’re seeing the emergence of one of the dominant players in college golf.”
Fervent college-golf followers already know of Hagy’s prodigious length. The stories are legendary.
Consider last month’s Pac-12 Championship. During the playoff to decide the team title, Desimone sat in a cart with a rules official, about 155 yards from the green, on the long par-4 16th at Trysting Tree Golf Club in Corvallis, Ore.
Hagy stepped to the tee, so Desimone suggested they move out of the way, lest they get tattooed by his tee shot. The rules official laughed. “He might be able to roll it here,” he said. But, nonetheless, he stepped on the gas, moving the cart behind a tree, out of danger.
Desimone peered through his binoculars: “Keep an eye on this one,” he said. Sure enough, Hagy ripped his tee ball some 30 yards past them, leaving him only 123 yards for his approach. “I’ve been here a long time,” the official said, “but I’ve never seen one there.” From there, Hagy wedged onto the green, rolled in the birdie putt and clinched Cal’s first conference title.
During Monday’s practice round at Riviera, Johnson smoked his tee shot on the tough finishing hole. He had 165 yards left. The guy killed it. But as he walked to his ball, he could only shake his head: 60 yards ahead, in the middle of the fairway, practically in another ZIP code, was Hagy. He had only a sand wedge left.
Last month, Oregon’s Eugene Wong and UCLA’s Patrick Cantlay approached Desimone and asked: “This is just stupid, Coach. Is Brandon always this long?”
The answer, of course, is a resounding yes. His 5-foot-11-inch, 170-pound frame somehow creates angles and speed and all those things you only hear about in infomercials.
“He’s not going to slow down,” Johnson said. “He’s constantly trying to improve.”
The best part, Desimone says, is that Hagy “balances what’s important in life.” Hagy knows that academics are important. He knows that cleaning up his short game was the only way he was going to improve. He knows that to be a good leader, he must set an example.
“Whatever Brandon wants to do,” Desimone said, “he’s going to be eminently successful. He’ll do what it takes to get there. I’m not sure there’s another player in college golf who embodies the big picture like that.”
That first round at Riviera? Oh, the parallels were striking. Spieth and Thomas and all that pro potential. Hagy with his bazooka driver and clear mind.
“If you look at those guys,” Hagy said, “what, they might turn pro after this year? That’s definitely not in the cards for me. I’m staying here for the long haul.
“Getting a degree from Cal, it almost takes the pressure off of me in a way. It kind of eases my mind a little bit; it’s something I can fall back on.”
And the best part? Hagy’s pro prospects never have seemed brighter.