AUGUSTA, Ga. – Since 1989, the Masters has awarded an invite to the winner of the U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship. A gracious invitation, yes, but also one that a mid-amateur has yet to turn into 72 holes at Augusta National.
Twenty-eight years and no made cuts for the Masters’ U.S. Mid-Am invitee; that’s how the Masters record book reads. (Nathan Smith came close in 2004 before a double bogey on his 36th hole to miss the cut by a shot.) But that could change in this 89th edition of the year’s first major championship.
Stewart Hagestad, a tall and lean 25-year-old Southern Californian, put himself in great position to make history Thursday. Not only did he card a opening 2-over 74 that put him comfortably in the top half of the leaderboard, but he did it in blustery conditions that made an already difficult Augusta National layout even more arduous.
“I can’t emphasize enough: it’s really, really playing tough,” Hagestad said. “If you told me I was going to shoot 74 this morning I’d be like, ‘Great. Let’s go have a beer with the boys at home with the family, play some pool, maybe get some practice in. Totally cool with that.’ ”
In a field where nearly every participant spends the majority of weeks traveling from event to event on Tour, beating balls on range after range, searching for paycheck after paycheck, Hagestad stands out.
Once a hotshot junior, Hagestad signed with USC to play college golf. But he quickly realized he had other interests. He joined a fraternity, and he never saw a great deal of time in the lineup in four years as a Trojan. While his teammates dreamed of playing at the next level, that wasn’t one of Hagestad’s goals.
“He’s kind of legendary,” USC head coach Chris Zambri said. “He really had diverse interests while he was at school. I think he made up his mind pretty early in school that he didn’t want to pursue professional golf. … It’s very impressive. It doesn’t happen with tons of golfers in that Stewart didn’t turn pro and he’s still getting better at golf.”
After graduating from USC in 2013, Hagestad moved to New York City to work as a financial analyst for a real estate firm. But when he won the U.S. Mid-Amateur with a stunning comeback against Scott Harvey last September, a victory that also put him on the radar for the 2017 Walker Cup, Hagestad opted to take a leave from his job at Oaktree Residential and Management to focus on his Masters debut.
When he told his boss he was leaving to go work on his golf game?
“He couldn’t have been more supportive,” said Hagestad, who has spent much of this year back home in California, where he is a member at Los Angeles Country Club. “He actually sent me an email last night congratulating me and wishing me luck.”
Hagestad has a lot of support this week. An “eclectic mix,” Hagestad called it, one that includes his parents, three siblings, and many friends from Orange County, Los Angeles and New York City.
“It’s magical. It’s an out-of-body experience,” said Hagestad’s mother, Merry Anderson. “We’re all just so proud of him. It’s been a fantasy of his since he was a little boy (to play the Masters). It’s surreal. I’m really proud of how he’s been able to manage his time and maintain his focus in golf while still keeping his priorities in order. He’s kept it all in perspective.”
Anderson remembers Hagestad’s junior-golf days when her son would play American Junior Golf Association events with his good buddies Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas. Hagestad played a practice round with Spieth on Wednesday and really picked the brain of the 2015 Masters champion, who hasn’t finished worse than T-2 in three career starts at Augusta National. Hagestad also learned valuable information from practice-round arrangements with Adam Scott (and his caddie Steve Williams), Matt Kuchar, Thomas Pieters and Ben Crenshaw.
Oh, and Crenshaw’s longtime Augusta caddie, Carl Jackson, went through every hole on Hagestad’s yardage book and drew arrows on each of the greens to show the pull of the greens.
“I’m sure it saved me a couple of shots,” a thankful Hagestad said.
Traditionally a sound ballstriker, Hagestad handled the gusty winds Thursday better than many of the pros. His putter did its part, too, especially at the difficult par-4 18th hole, where Hagestad, using the Bernhard Langer style of putting, netted a crucial two-putt par from 90 feet.
Not bad for a mid-amateur, huh? But Hagestad doesn’t really consider himself a mid-amateur. He’s single. He doesn’t have kids. Right now, it’s all golf. (Of course, until grad school, which Hagestad hopes to enroll in after the Walker Cup.)
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for them, but as far as mid-amateurs go, I don’t yet consider myself (one),” Hagestad said. “With the family and with the other obligations like work and just everything that those guys have to put up with, I’m in a very, very unique spot.”
Hagestad, a mid-amateur in name only, could find himself in another unique spot after Friday – an unprecedented Saturday tee time at Augusta.