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Hunter Stewart knocks off the rust and Lee McCoy in U.S. Amateur

OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. – If Hunter Stewart goes deep into this week’s U.S. Amateur at Olympia Fields – and he’s quite capable – it won’t take him long to tell you why he advanced as far as he did. After two days of medal-play qualifying during which he made very few putts, he faced a 12-footer for par on the 10th hole of Olympia Fields’ dewy South Course first thing Wednesday morning.

The consequences were black and white: Make it, and move on in the playoff, which involved 18 players vying for 10 spots. And if he missed? He was headed home. That simple. He took the putter back, his ball vanished, and Stewart was on to something.

“That was really the first putt I’d seen all week go in,” he said. “I made mostly nothing. A lot of lipouts. So it was good to see that one go in, especially with my tournament life on the line.”

A birdie at the par-5 18th hole, and it was on to match play, where another difficult challenge awaited: Stewart drew his Palmer Cup and soon-to-be Walker Cup teammate, Lee McCoy of Georgia. The two were pretty much exchanging jabs until Stewart, the SEC player of the year and an All-American at Vanderbilt this spring, decided to put on a show with his iron play.

“Yeah, you know, when you’re playing Lee McCoy,” Stewart said, “you just got to kind of have to go for it, and you can’t play cautious and you can’t just try to par your way around here.”

McCoy was 2 up early, but Stewart answered with birdies at the sixth (8-iron from a bunker to 4 feet), seventh (5-iron, 8 feet) and eighth holes (pitching wedge, 6 feet). He was particularly pleased with the curling, left-to-right 8-footer at the seventh. Standing in the fairway at the par-4 ninth eyeing a 210-shot into a strong headwind, he “chipped” a 5-wood through the wind to about 20 feet. He knew a par in his pocket would be big, and it was, as McCoy made bogey.

McCoy would win the next hole, but soon Stewart simply pulled away, winning 3 and 2.

“Lee is definitely somebody you don’t want to draw,” said Stewart, of Lexington, Ky. “We’re going to be Walker Cup teammates, and he’s an incredible player. I knew it was going to take my best stuff today. He still played pretty well; I just happened to get the better of it today.”

Stewart laughed. “He gets the better of me plenty of times,” he said.

On a day of great matchups at the 115th U.S. Amateur, it was a heavyweight battle, even if the feisty McCoy tips the scales at no more than 140 pounds. McCoy, 21, of Athens, Ga., shot 66-70 to position himself as the fourth seed, but that didn’t mean a whole lot when a player of Stewart’s caliber sneaked in late at No. 61.

It’s been an interesting summer for Stewart. He won the Northeast Amateur in Rhode Island, locking up his Walker Cup spot with the victory, then decided to take a little time off, knowing he’ll have a busier autumn than usual. He hadn’t touched a club for eight days when he showed up during the second week of July to play a friendly tuneup round with Duke Delcher at the Players Am in South Carolina. When Stewart struggled to 43 on his first nine holes, Delcher stopped him and asked incredulously, What are you doing?

Stewart didn’t play well at the Western Am, and knew he needed to start sharpening his game once he got to Olympia Fields. He has a busy stretch ahead. After the Walker Cup, he plans to turn professional and hopes to land two or three starts in the PGA Tour’s Fall Series. Whereas his college season at Vandy would end in mid-October, he’ll be playing into December if he qualifies for Web.com Q-School.

“It’s kind of nice to knock the rust off this week,” he said. “I’ve gotten a little bit better every day. I have momentum on my side now. The 61 seed doesn’t mean anything anymore. It’s just about playing the next guy and giving my best tomorrow morning, whoever I get. Once you get this far, it’s all good players here. You’ve just got to play great.”

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