By Jerome Boettcher | Subscribe to Commodore Nation
As he boarded a plane to Hilton Head Island, S.C., the realization began to hit Hunter Stewart.
But if he hadn’t already experienced surreal feelings heading to his first PGA Tour event, the company on the driving range before the opening round of the RBC Heritage in April certainly changed that.
“Just seeing Tom Watson… sitting there, hitting balls next to him on the range,” Stewart said, still bewildered weeks later. “Just going up and shaking his hand and introducing myself to him in the dining area was pretty cool. Just someone I look to as one of the great competitors in our game. One of my favorites. That part was really cool.”
Meeting and striking a conversation with the 64-year-old Watson, a eight-time major championship winner, was just a small piece of Stewart’s memorable weekend.
The junior became the first Vanderbilt golfer to play in a PGA Tour event while still enrolled at school since Luke List played in the 2005 U.S. Open. Stewart shot a 147, five-over par over two rounds, missing the cut by just one stroke. He started off well on the first day, shooting one-under on the front nine before bogeying four holes on the back nine.
While Stewart conceded disappointment he also acknowledged that, despite not playing his best, he wasn’t far removed from some of the world’s best golfers.
“It is definitely encouraging,” he said. “It showed me the gap between the PGA Tour players and us as good collegiate players is really not as great as the general public would see it to be. Definitely have areas to improve and I have a long way to go to be there but it was encouraging to see the gap really isn’t huge.
“Those guys are good but that’s the thing I walked away with the most – it can be done. It was surreal but it was also really encouraging.”
Just over a month later, adding to his growing PGA Tour resume, Stewart qualified for the U.S. Open in dramatic fashion.
In the qualifying tournament, he shot a six-under par 137 and survived a five-man playoff in which only two U.S. Open spots were up for grabs. Stewart made a 15-foot birdie putt on the first playoff hole to claim the last spot. He joined former
Vanderbilt standout Brandt Snedeker at the U.S. Open in Pinehurst, N.C. Stewart missed the cut by one shot after shooting a one-over par 71 during the second round and finishing with a two-day total of 146.
Stewart was one of just two amateurs in the field at the RBC Heritage, earning an exemption after winning the Players Amateur the previous summer.
Playing on the PGA Tour has been a goal since Stewart was 11 years old. At that time, he was living in Somerset, Ky., and was introduced to golf by his best friend Daniel Snyder, who is a junior golfer at the University of Kentucky.
“That’s really where I started loving it,” said Stewart, who moved back to his hometown of Lexington, Ky., a couple years later. “(Reaching the PGA Tour) was definitely a dream of mine when I was younger,” Stewart said. “Started playing competitive golf right away and knew playing golf on the PGA Tour was kind of the pinnacle of competitive golf. That is the highest level of competition. Me being a competitive guy I really wanted to get there some day.”
Stewart could be back.
His college years have been promising after a heralded high school career at Lexington Christian Academy, where he was named Kentucky’s Mr. Golf in 2010 and twice finished as the state champion runner-up.
He heads into his senior season with 15 top 10 finishes in his career, eight top five finishes and a medalist honor (at the Samford Intercollegiate in 2013).
In May, he helped lead the Commodores to their first NCAA Championship since 2007 by shooting five-under par to finish in fourth place at the San Antonio Regional. In 2013-14, Stewart finished in the top 10 in seven tournaments during the 2013-14 season, placing in the top five four times.
Tasting the PGA Tour just stoked the fire for Stewart. But he also learned he must be patient and focus on the tournaments in front of him.
“That is in the back of mind,” he said. “That’s where I want to play. That’s what I want to do for a living. I don’t necessarily let that take up a huge portion of my thoughts on the game. Coach (Scott) Limbaugh has been a huge part of keeping me focused on what I’m doing today. Really just keep everything right in front of me and trying to get better each and every day so that one day I will be good enough to play out there.
“Instead of having a dream and, ‘Oh, it’s just going to happen some day.’ Not really. I need to be getting better each and every day so that really can become a reality.”