All of the signs were there for Stewart Hagestad’s plan to earn a berth in his second consecutive major championship.
First, there was the advantage of having one round of the U.S. Open sectional qualifier played at his home course, Big Canyon Country Club. Then there was the text to his caddie, Jason Beach, that read, “I’m going to be medalist,” followed by a fine opening round on the much less familiar Newport Beach Country Club down the street.
That 4-under-par 67 was followed by a sterling 4-under-68 on his home course – a round punctuated by a marvelous approach to the par-5 18th in which Hagestad bounced his approach shot off a knoll to the left of the green and watched it roll within 20 feet. Not even a flock of ducks waddling onto the green as Hagestad lined up his eagle putt could prevent him from a two-putt birdie and one of the six qualifying spots.
“That was kind of adorable,” quipped Hagestad, 26, about the ducks.
The triumphant scenario was capped when he asked his parents: “Want to go to another major?”
Hagestad’s first major came when he was the low amateur in the Masters Tournament in April, earning his berth by capturing the 2016 U.S. Mid-Amateur. Hagestad is one of five amateurs of the six players who advanced from the 103-player field, joining medalist John Oda (Honolulu), Mason Anderson (Chandler, Ariz.), Sahith Theegala (Chino Hills, Calif.) and Cameron Champ (Sacramento, Calif.), who emerged from a 2-for-1 playoff by vanquishing Brandon Wu on the first playoff hole with a 20-foot birdie putt.
Hagestad joined Scott Harvey, who advanced from the Summit, N.J., sectional, as U.S. Mid-Amateur champions in the field at Erin Hills. This marks the first year that two Mid-Amateur champions qualified for the same U.S. Open since the championship was founded in 1981.
“I felt like I was always a pretty good player and maybe capable, but until it comes to fruition, you really don’t think about it,” Hagestad said. “Even after the Masters, whether it’s self-doubt or you second-guess how good you are, I just try to keep very specific goals in mind.
“I’ve been given a really good opportunity and I’m just trying to make the most of it and commit to putting everything I have into it until the Mid-Am. It’s been an amazing run and it’s been a lot of fun, but at the same time, I’m really trying as hard as I can to stay process-oriented and to try to find things to work on and improve upon.”
That process involved putting business school on hold while Hagestad seeks to become the next great American amateur golfer. The likes of Buddy Marucci, Spider Miller, George Zahringer and Jim Holtgrieve loom as his golf Mt. Rushmore more than Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Phil Mickelson.
When it comes to confidence, Hagestad isn’t going to duck anything or anyone. His comfort at Big Canyon, where he is – not surprisingly – the reigning club champion, guided his tactics heading into one of the toughest mental tests in golf.
“I don’t want to sound too cocky in this, but the way I feel is best to go about these things is to go out and try to win medalist,” Hagestad said. “If you play great and come up a little short – as was the situation – you’re still in good shape.”
Also finding himself in good shape was Kevin Dougherty of Murrieta, Calif., the lone professional to survive the longest day in golf – Newport Beach edition. Dougherty, 26, not only grew up in the same Southern California town as Rickie Fowler, he also received a motivational text from his fellow Murrietian and Oklahoma State Cowboy this morning.
“It said ‘I’ll see you at Erin Hills,’” Dougherty said. “Hopefully, that’s the plan.”
It was, courtesy of a near-miraculous approach to the duck-blind 18th hole at Big Canyon. Dougherty pushed his approach to the right and watched it somehow avoid cascading down the bank into the water. Instead, it stayed perched on the right fringe, allowing Dougherty to fashion an up-and-down par, rounds of 64-72 and a tie for fourth with Theegala, who had his own adventures at Big Canyon.
The Pepperdine University player, who joined Dougherty in the PGA Tour’s Genesis Open at Riviera in March as a Monday qualifier – eventually finishing T49 – opened his afternoon at Big Canyon with a birdie, before dunking his tee shot on the par-5 second into the water. The ensuing double bogey would have sunk many a player’s chances.
Instead, Theegala parred No. 3, getting up-and-down from the bunker and sinking a 20-foot par putt.
“I thought I’d have to go stupid low after that,” Theegala said.
More prophecy. Theegala birdied seven of the next eight holes. His “stupid low” 7-under 65 was the afternoon’s low round at Big Canyon and the second-lowest on the day, following recent high school graduate Andersen’s morning 64.
That takes us to Oda, who turned in “calculated rounds” of 64-68 to earn medalist honors by two shots over Andersen. The Hawaii native and UNLV senior-to-be not only has the second-best career average at a program that produced the likes of Adam Scott, Ryan Moore and Charley Hoffman, but also brings ukulele skills to the proceedings.
“Growing up in Hawaii, it’s pretty standard for elementary classes to play the ukulele and I kind of went that route,” he said. “Growing up there, that was our instrument and it’s a very friendly instrument. It has a sweet sound to it.”
Even if Don Ho was playing it, it probably wouldn’t make as sweet a sound as the phrase “John Oda, U.S. Open qualifier.”
Brian Robin is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.