April 17, 2014

Amateur Stewart enjoys first chance at PGA Tour golf

Halfway through the first round of the RBC Heritage presented by Boeing, Hunter Stewart was 1-under par and looking as cool as his professional counterparts.

Halfway through the first round of the RBC Heritage presented by Boeing, Hunter Stewart was 1-under par and looking as cool as his professional counterparts.

Nine rugged holes later, after three barely missed putts and a tough bogey on 18, Stewart left the scorer's trailer at 3 over, slightly disappointed but excited to have completed his first 18 holes at a PGA Tour event.

One of two amateur golfers participating at Harbour Town Golf Links this week, the Kentucky native earned his spot at the Heritage by winning last year's Players Amateur and looked at home in the early going. Bolstered by his family and friends, the 20-year-old Vanderbilt University junior soaked in the atmosphere and finally got a taste of the big time.

"I was really pleased with how I kind of got off to a nice start," Stewart said after posting an opening-round 74. "It was a lot of fun out there. Learned a lot about the game today."

Stewart was closely shadowed throughout the day by his family. His father, Jon, admitted to being a little anxious before the start of the round. His mother, Melissa, said she was relieved to get that first tee shot over with. Still, each of them said this weekend was more about the experience, about acknowledging Stewart's outstanding achievement, rather than sweating over the intricacies of every approach shot.

"We don't live and die by his score," Jon Stewart said as he watched his son on the 10th hole. "We're just having fun. He really doesn't have anything to lose."

While Stewart faces the long odds of any amateur player hoping to make a professional cut, he and his family remained confident. His father said their bags were packed with enough clothes to take them through Sunday afternoon.

"He wants it so bad and he works so hard for it," Melissa Stewart said.

Thursday morning, Annie, Hunter's 18-year-old sister, provided a little pep talk for her brother, whom she says is a great role model.

"I said, 'You're not having to feed the family. We're fine! It doesn't matter what you do. We're just having fun watching, having a little vacation,' " she said. "That's one of the good things about golf. He takes me all the fun places."

She describes her brother as having a strong character and possessing a sense of calm that is reflected in his game. He never throws his clubs or curses, she said. The only indication of a bad shot is when he stares for just a fraction longer after a wayward swing.

Two such shots, each of which met the unwelcoming branches of a tree, derailed his efforts on No. 12 and culminated in the second of back-to-back bogeys to put him over par. Another slip on the last hole of the day rendered his first round bittersweet.

"Obviously doesn't make dinner taste as good," Stewart quipped.

But despite scrambling his way through much of the back nine, Stewart put in a performance he said he will learn from, and all with the unwavering backing of those closest to him.

"It's been great having a lot of support," Stewart said. "I'm really fortunate to have a great family."

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