Hunter Stewart's ascension through the ranks of men's golf could reach new heights this weekend when the Lexington native concludes his career at Vanderbilt by making a run at an NCAA championship.
Stewart is ranked No. 4 nationally and his Vanderbilt team is No. 5. The tournament begins Friday in Bradenton, Fla.
The 2011 Lexington Christian Academy graduate will be attempting to complete a Kentucky double. Alabama's Emma Talley, a native of Princeton, Ky., won the women's NCAA individual championship on Monday..
Stewart, the 2015 Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, has already cemented his status as one of the greatest golfers to take to the greens at Vanderbilt. This season, he is averaging 69 strokes per round, which is the lowest in the SEC and best in Vanderbilt history. His 4-under-par 66 during the final round of the New Haven Regional last Saturday helped propel the Commodores to their fifth NCAA Championship appearance.
"I got off to a nice start and my ball striking was great all week," Stewart said. "It was just nice to see a 3-footer go in the hole on 12. it was my first birdie of the day after parring my first 11. I kind of stole one on 14, which is nice, and I stole one on 12 after missing my target there. I missed a lot of opportunities early, but stole two on 12 and 13 and holed nice putts on 14 and 16, which was nice. I just had to hang in there and continue to be positive."
Stewart enters the championship ranked behind only Cheng Tsung Pan of Washington, Jon Rahm of Arizona State and Maverick McNealy of Stanford. All four players' teams will compete this weekend.
Last year, Stewart finished tied for 35th and the Commodores tied for 16th.
Stewart, Kentucky's Mr. Golf during his senior season at LCA, has already enjoyed success beyond the college game. He became the first Vanderbilt golfer in nearly a decade to play in a PGA event when he competed in the PGA Tour's RBC Heritage Classic in 2014. He missed the cut by one stroke. He earned an exemption to the event in Bluffton, S.C., by winning the Players Amateur in 2013.
"It was a great experience, a unique opportunity and I was very fortunate to be able to go and do that." Stewart told Bluffton Today in 2014. "It was a really fun experience and I had a really good time."
Stewart began making headlines during his time at LCA when he was named Kentucky's Most Outstanding Senior and Athlete of the Year in 2010. He helped his team claim the 2010 Kentucky state championship after being the runner-up in 2009. He began his Vanderbilt career in 2011 and posted the second-best scoring average on the team. As a sophomore, Stewart led Vandy to three team titles and led the team with a 72-stroke average.
Stewart had five top-five finishes his junior season and played in the U.S. Open at Pinehurst in North Carolina where he finished one stroke back of the cut.
Though Stewart's journey at Vanderbilt will conclude this weekend, his journey as a golfer has only begun.
"I'll graduate from Vanderbilt next May and that's pretty special," Stewart said in 2014. "It's a great school and it's a big deal to me to stick around and get that degree. I plan to be an amateur next summer and will probably play in the Players Amateur once more. I'd like to play for the U.S. Amateur and see where I stand for the Walker Cup, which has always been a goal of mine."