2014 Players Amateur: Vandy's Hunter Stewart back to defend his title

sfastenau@beaufortgazette.comJuly 10, 2014 

Players Amateur 2013 champ Hunter Stewart watches his tee shot on No. 1 during Wednesday's Contestant-Am at Berkeley Hall's South Course. Tournament play for the 2014 Players Amateur begins on Thursday at 7:30 a.m.

JAY KARR — Jay Karr Buy Photo

Hunter Stewart sat chatting in a hallway tucked away inside Berkeley Hall's lordly clubhouse when a man walked past, glanced at Stewart and then down at his Players Amateur program.

"Hey, that's you," he said, pointing to a photo of the visored Stewart, posing with his trophy after his victory here in 2013.

The recognition is becoming harder to avoid for the Vanderbilt golfer, a Kentucky native who played in the RBC Heritage presented by Boeing in April and qualified for the U.S. Open held this past month at Pinehurst No. 2, where he received some television airtime while missing the cut by only a stroke.

The 21-year-old will try this week to become the first to defend a Players Am title when the tournament begins Thursday on Berkeley Hall's South course. He returns with a similar game but a refined perspective after watching the pros.

"I don't necessarily hit it way better or chip it or putt it that much better," Stewart said. "I just feel like I pick the right shots more often and just leave it in better places."

Stewart feels the pull of professional golf, but it is still a ways on the horizon. He is entering his senior year at Vanderbilt, where he wants to finish strong, earn his degree, play another summer of amateur golf and earn a spot on the U.S. Walker Cup team in the fall.

But he will always have experiences from the past couple of months from which to draw. At Harbour Town Golf Links in April, he shot 74-73 to miss the RBC Heritage cut by a shot.

He shot 75-71 at Pinehurst No. 2 to miss the U.S. Open cut by a shot alongside names like Masters champion Bubba Watson, Luke Donald, Jason Dufner and Hunter Mahan.

Stewart's experience included staying with a family friend who has a house in the Southern Pines area. He stayed with the same friend at the U.S. Open in 2005, when he was 12, and later that summer played Pinehurst No. 2.

The friend told Stewart that when the U.S. Open returned in 2014, he should tee it up. Stewart thought little of it until surviving a five-man playoff for two spots at sectional qualifying in Memphis, Tenn.

The stage at Pinehurst was bigger than anything he had experience, but he had friends and family there for support.

"You learn a lot about yourself when you're a a little nervous out there and uncomfortable," Stewart said. "That part of it was great. Playing a major championship was probably one of the coolest things I've ever been able to do."

The Players Am victory was Stewart's first amateur win outside of collegiate events. He finished at 14-under-par 202 after rain shortened the tournament to 54 holes.

The runner-up was Michael Weaver, who has since turned professional. Bobby Wyatt, a runner-up in 2012, has also turned professional since his second top-five finish in 2013.

Weather has affected the finish both years the tournament has been held at Berkeley Hall since moving from Belfair, a hazard of the summer date. Rain and thunderstorms are again forecast through the weekend.

Stewart, who arrived in Bluffton on Saturday and is again staying with Vandy teammates, said the course has been softer early in the week but that he expects it to toughen if the weather cooperates.

"You can kind of see it coming," Stewart said. "The course is about where it always is on Tuesday. Friday or Saturday, I think if we don't have any rain, things will get interesting out there."

Follow assistant sports editor Stephen Fastenau at twitter.com/IPBG_Stephen.

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