The merchant banker who could win the Masters

Stewart Hagestad is in the Masters after winning last year’s U.S. Mid-Amateur. ILLUSTRATION: WSJ, REUTERS
Stewart Hagestad is in the Masters after winning last year’s U.S. Mid-Amateur. ILLUSTRATION: WSJ, REUTERS

Summary

Stewart Hagestad has built a career in finance. At the same time, he is one of the best amateur golfers in the world.

AUGUSTA, Ga.—Stewart Hagestad had a compelling reason to ask the merchant bank where he works for some time off this week: He was going to the Masters.

What separates him from everyone else on Wall Street jetting down to Augusta National is that he’s not there to take in the action at the first major of the season.

Hagestad is actually playing in it.

In the 89-man field at golf’s most prestigious tournament, Hagestad is a player unlike any other. He has a business degree and works a full-time job as an associate at BDT & MSD Partners, an investment and advisory firm that has more than $60 billion of assets under management. But once he shuts down his computer at the end of the day, he finds time to play golf.

And the 33-year-old defies every shred of conventional thinking about athletic achievement because he’s playing perhaps the best he ever has even as he spends just a fraction of the time his competitors do on sharpening his game.

As it turns out, that’s exactly how he likes it. Unlike almost every other amateur who finds his way into the Masters, Hagestad has no ambition to play the game professionally. He has known for over a decade that the life of a pro golfer wasn’t for him.

Instead, he has reverse-engineered the system. There are athletes who dream of making it in the business world. Then there’s Hagestad, who has managed to do the opposite. He has a career outside of the sport but still gets to play in the biggest events and on the most hallowed courses on the planet.

“Part of the reason I love amateur golf is simply because it gives you the opportunity to miss it," Hagestad says. “If you don’t play for a while, after a couple of months, you begin to kind of get the itch."

Hagestad, who recently moved to his firm’s Florida office, got here by winning last year’s U.S. Mid-Amateur, a competition for players 25 or older where he has established himself as the dominant performer of his generation. That was the third time he has won the event, a feat that has helped him rack up six major appearances before this week’s Masters. The first time he competed here in 2017, he finished tied for 36th as the low amateur.

Hagestad has also competed four times in the Walker Cup, the biennial amateur team competition that pits the U.S. against Great Britain and Ireland. He’s won all four times, including last year at the Old Course at St Andrews. But that’s not what makes Hagestad such an outlier. All nine of his U.S. teammates from the 2017 match have turned pro. Two of them—world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler and Collin Morikawa—have won majors.

Hagestad, meanwhile, has built a career in finance. At the same time, he’s the 11th-ranked amateur in the world. Everyone else in the top-15 is at least a decade younger than him.

Those close to Hagestad say his game hasn’t improved despite working a day job. It’s improved because of it. He has an uncanny capacity to be intentional about everything he does—whether that’s personally, professionally or his obsessive pursuit to hone his golf skills during his off-hours.

“I think him doing this while he’s working is part of his superpower," says his friend AJ Ferraro, who’s caddying for him this week. “There’s something beneficial about having a fulfilling workday and being excited to hit golf balls when you get out of the office at night—he’s forced to be more focused in both arenas."

On a typical day, Hagestad wakes up and gets in a 40-minute putting session, often inside his living room where he rearranges mats to practice on. After he leaves the office around 6:30 p.m., he’ll hit balls, often on a simulator. Then he gets ready to do the same thing the next day.

His relationship with golf also fluctuates with the calendar. He throws himself into his work even more when there isn’t a big tournament coming up. But for the Masters, he began training more intensely around January. Since March, he’s asked the teams he works on to let him sneak out closer to 5:30 p.m.

“They’ve been incredibly supportive," Hagestad says. “Obviously, it’s a unique situation."

Unlike other golfers who established themselves as surefire pros in college, a future in golf looked far beyond Hagestad when he played at Southern California. As a seniior, he finished tied for 116th in the NCAAs, 18 strokes behind winner and current world No. 11 Max Homa. (A Spanish kid who finished third will also be at the Masters this week. His name is Jon Rahm, and he’s the defending champion.)

Once Hagestad left school, he was the rare graduate who knew exactly what he wanted to do for work. And it wasn’t golf.

“I wasn’t good enough," he says. “Coming out of school, I had very much reached the conclusion that I was going to go on a different path."

Hagestad moved to New York, where he confronted a phenomenon he’d never experienced in his native California. For long stretches, playing golf wasn’t viable because of the weather.

If he couldn’t always be on the course, Hagestad did find he had time to work out and access to a launch monitor. He got stronger and smashed balls into a screen over and over.

During the warmer months, Ferraro remembers times they’d head out to golf courses on weekends. He would play as many as 36 holes, but Hagestad trained the entire time. While his buddies were on the course, Hagestad would do a morning on the driving range and an afternoon around the green. He simply loved to practice.

“He’s found a way to get the most out of every second he spends practicing," Ferraro says. “An hour or two a day for Stew might be a few days or a week’s worth of practice for the next person."

His breakthrough came in 2016, when he was competing in the Mid-Am for the first time. Hagestad left with a victory—and a berth into the next Masters. When he arrived at Augusta National, he didn’t show up merely to savor the experience. He walked away with the silver cup given to the lowest-scoring amateur who makes the cut.

That award reflects how golf’s celebration of amateurs is unlike that of any other major sport. It’s also why Hagestad feels no need to go pro. If he were obsessed with football, he couldn’t play in the Super Bowl. But as a golf nut, he plays in the U.S. Open, the Masters and other events that lovers of the game fantasize about.

There are still occasions when Hagestad has to pinch himself. He was at the Masters a couple of years ago when he found himself hitting putts next to another player. When he looked up, it was none other than Tiger Woods.

That’s when he truly felt like an amateur.

“He said my name," Hagestad says, “and I was kind of like, ‘Oh my gosh, how do I talk?"

Write to Andrew Beaton at andrew.beaton@wsj.com

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