SLEEPY HOLLOW, NY – With a march seemingly as ruthless and inexorable as that of the Headless Horseman himself, amateur golfer Stewart Hagestad has powered through five well-decorated USGA veterans and Met Golf Association stars at Sleepy Hollow Country Club, and galloped his way into the finals of the 42nd USGA Mid-Amateur Championship.
You’ll recall hapless Ichabod Crane, the doomed protagonist of Washington Irving’s iconic tale The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Tall, yet scrawny, socially awkward and – most importantly – gullible, Ichabod and his old mare Gunpowder never stood a chance when the Horseman came riding down in all his fury on his Steed of Vengeance. Ichabod was never seen or heard from again.
That’s exactly how dominant Stewart Hagestad has been thus far in the USGA Mid-Am here at historic and venerable Sleepy Hollow. He’s been all the Furies of the Golf Gods riding down on the field’s heads on his Steeds of Vengeance. First, he summarily dispatched Houston’s Matt Van Zandt 5&3 posting seven birdies against no bogeys. Then in the afternoon came the match that very well had all the trappings and feel of a semi-final or even a final – the heavyweight bout against Mark Costanza, the Met Golf Association uber-star and two-time player of the year. These two locked horns once before – in the final of the 2021 Mid-Am at Sankaty Head in Massachusetts, won by Hagestad.
“That’s like one of those old time Dallas-San Francisco NFC title games,” stated one member spectator. “Only it was in the second round!” Such are the slings and arrows of a match play bracket. To switch to a soccer metaphor, talk about a “Group of Death” where early on a favorite is bound to be eliminated, the winner of this titanic clash had to face Nathan Smith winner of four Mid-Ams: 2003, 2009, 2010, and 2012, the only four-time winner in the event’s history.
Again, Hagestad was flawless – three birdies against no bogeys and a 2&1 victory that the USGA touted as “epic” and Hagestad called one of his most “special” in this event.
“That one, and the one against Nate,” he confided earnestly, referring to yesterday morning’s early match where he defeated Smith 3&1. Once again, the march was inexorable – 17 holes, only one bogey, along with four more birdies.
Then came the quarter-final match, against the Cinderella and feel-good player in the bracket, Parker Edens, the South Dakotan with the huge, loyal, and charming family that invaded the slopes of Sleepy Hollow en masse and stole the hearts of so many of the members. The plucky Edens hung tough – more Bram Bones than Ichabod Crane, that’s for certain – but when the Horseman comes for you, is there any hope of escape?
Edens hung tough; it took 17 holes for Hagestad to finally ride him down. After a 1-up lead swelled to two at the 11th – Edens’s tee shot hooked into grass as high and thick as the Serengeti and led to a bogey – Parker had one last sprint in his stride, and, like Ichabod, nearly made a desperate escape.
Back-to-back birdies at 14 and 15 suddenly tied the match late. How does the Legend go? If you make it to the Covered Bridge before the Horseman catches you, you’ve escaped? The Bridge was in sight! They were there! You cross it at the third hole and the 16th!
And sure enough, Edens hit his wedge approach – to a hole so beautiful it could have been painted by an Italian master – to five feet. Hagestad was 28 feet away. Like Ichabod in the story, he had crossed the bridge, and now stopped to look back at the Horseman.
And like Ichabod, he got hit in the face by the flaming pumpkin.
In this instance the flaming pumpkin was that 28-foot putt across the green that was going in center cut all the way. Edens missed his short putt, went 1-down instead of 1-up, and then made chopped salad of the 17th to bow 2&1.
For the Horseman, it was 17 more holes, yet zero bogeys again, this time balanced against three birdies, including the cinching birdie in the clutch – the twisting, testy 28-footer to wrest back the lead.
“He was in there five feet. I needed to make that birdie. “Wow he was a great ball striker.
In the semi-final against Sam Jackson of South Carolina Hagestad took an early lead, but suddenly the Steeds of Vengeance needed a change of horseshoes. Hagestad’s stretch of 32 holes without a bogey came to an end at the 13th when his 3-wood came to rest in a thick spinach patch of grasses and his recovery shot flubbed, failing to reach the green. He couldn’t match Jackson’s par. Then both men three-putted the Alps hole 15th, with its Brobdingnagian punchbowl green.
But it was self-inflicted wounds that ultimately doomed Jackson. With Hagestad seemingly certain to lose the 16th after landing in the greenside bunker and blasting to 35 feet, Jackson inexplicably three-putted from 20 feet straight uphill. Shocking! They were still tied.
Jackson hit himself in the face with a flaming pumpkin on that one…
Finally on 18, the Horseman did what the Horseman does every time the tale is told, employ his supernatural powers to spirit victory away from his opponent. In this case with his approach in the worst place around the 18th green – long and left on the rough, playing downhill to a pin perched on the edge of an insidious false front, Hagestad feathered the ball to within inches. Jackson’s 30-foot attempt at a par saving sandie missed by a fraction on the right.
Call it the “Summer of Hagestad,” as he’s been incendiary of late. He won two singles matches in last week’s Walker Cup at St. Andrews, helping the USA win its fourth consecutive time. His match play record in this event lifetime is a scintillating 27-4. As a two-time former champion of the event and a five-time semi-finalist, he has plenty of experience to draw upon for his match against Evan Beck.
But what has made this event worthy of being stylized the Second Legend of Sleepy Hollow with Hagestad starring as the unconquerable Horseman is both the quality of his play – as nearly perfect as any amateur in any amateur event I’ve covered in two decades of these amateur and mid-amateur events, but also the quality of player he’s mowed down with such unstoppable ferocity and tenacity.
Hagestad has the steely nerve and iron will of Kevin Hammer, the great amateur turned USGA Championship Committee Chair. As an aside, both of them have Hollywood good looks. Whereas Hammer could be played by Robert Redford, Hagestad would be portrayed by Viggo Mortensen of Lord of the Rings fame. (You’re welcome, Mrs. Hagestad…)
So now it’s up to Evan Beck – the last rider through the haunted forest. They’ll play 18 holes today followed by 18 more tomorrow morning. It will take near supernatural ability to fend off the Horseman, with his devilish thunder and lightning – in Hagestad’s case bombing drives into the center of the fairway coupled with a sorcerer’s touch around the greens. But either way, the USGA is rewriting an iconic story into a sporting masterpiece of their own. Call it the Second Legend of Sleepy Hollow. And like both the story and the golf course, it will resonate throughout the ages.