LA QUINTA (California) — Scott Stallings isn’t a numbers guy, but when he saw PGA Tour rookies Harry Higgs, Maverick McNealy, and Robby Shelton qualify for the 2019 BMW Championship by placing in the top 70 in the FedEx Cup while he didn’t, he recognized they all had one thing in common: a stats coach.
Stallings informed the man behind the curtain, “I need to know what you did with them that will help me.”
When told the story of how Stallings came to be one of his clients, Hunter Stewart chuckles and simply explains, “Scott was pushing it when he shouldn’t and not pushing it when he should.”
It’s easy for Stallings, who is in his 12th year on Tour, to become stuck in a rut of repeating the same mistakes, such as missing the cut at the Fortinet Championship at Silverado Resort’s North Course. That was before Stallings met Stewart, who transformed the way he approached four of the holes, particularly off the tee.
“When I say, ‘Hey dude, I despise this hole,’ he responds, ‘OK, let’s fool about with it.’ Let’s pick and choose where we want to be forceful.’ “When those moments arise, he responds, ‘OK, gas pedal is on the right,'” adds Stallings, who earned $220,600 for finishing T-6 in Napa in September. “My bread and butter range is 150-175 yards, and he said, ‘Let’s shoot your greatest weapon the most of the time.’ “I’ll attempt to offer you four more 9-irons per day based on the hole locations,” he said, and he did.
Then Stallings adds this clincher, which is as irrefutable as some of the data Stewart unearths: “Do you have any idea what I admire about him?” There aren’t many statisticians who were world champions as amateurs.”
In the amateur and college categories, a force to be reckoned with
Hunter Stewart’s name should be familiar to Golfweek readers. On the amateur and college circuits, Stewart, 28, was a force to be reckoned with. In 2015, he became the first Vanderbilt player to be named Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, winning three individual awards during his senior year. He rose to No. 1 in the Scratch Players World Amateur Ranking after winning the Northeast Amateur that summer.
“At the time, I didn’t think anyone deserved to be No. 1 over me,” Stewart says. “I didn’t think anyone in amateur golf was truly better than me.”
Before going pro, he went unbeaten at the Palmer Cup, earning a berth on the 2015 U.S. Walker Cup squad alongside Bryson DeChambeau, Denny McCarthy, and McNealy, all of whom have amassed millions of dollars on the PGA Tour, including DeChambeau, who will win the 2020 U.S. Open.
Stewart made eight PGA Tour starts after turning pro in 2015-16, including a T-10 performance at the OHL Classic at Mayakoba. He appeared to be adjusting quickly to the pay-to-play ranks, earning $137,433 for a week’s effort.
“On the PGA Tour, I loved the excitement of playing in front of people,” he explains.
The start at the 2016 Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, where he shot 73-78 and missed the cut, left the most lasting impression.
“I simply remember pulling a drive and having a 6-iron out of US Open rough on Monday morning (during a practice round) and thinking, I’m not sure about this one,” Stewart says. “And that wasn’t even a deep chasm.”
He began retooling his unconventional swing in order to smash it farther and higher, a skill set shared by the golfers who won the most awards and cash. He was able to increase his speed, but he went crooked off the tee as a result.
“He lost track of where home base was before long,” says Scott Limbaugh, Stewart’s Vanderbilt coach.
Stewart was injured in a skiing accident in Colorado in December 2017, causing cartilage damage to his right knee. He couldn’t turn through the ball as well as he used to, and his clubhead speed suffered as a result. He earned $72,000 over three seasons on the PGA Tour Canada, and he continued failing at Q-Schools for the Korn Ferry Tour and the European Tour.
He says of the Canadian developing circuit, which is the equivalent of Double A baseball, “I just couldn’t get off that tour.” “My game had become stale. It got to the point where I couldn’t get motivated to compete in the opening event of the season.
“I found a way in college, but not as a pro,” he admits matter-of-factly.
In 2019, he competed in two Korn Ferry Tour events and gained a sponsor exemption into the Barbasol Championship, a PGA Tour opposite-field event held two miles from his home in Lexington, Kentucky, however he failed to make the cut. Stewart admits he didn’t deal well with the setbacks.
“If there’s one thing I regret, it’s feeling sorry for myself when I didn’t finish it,” he says. “Instead of being motivated to work harder, I sulked for far too long.” That isn’t a pleasant statement to make, but it is the truth.”
Stewart took a long look in the mirror and realized it was time to hunt for a new job. He could have used his economics degree in a variety of ways after graduating from Vanderbilt, but he still wanted to be around the high-octane intensity of professional golf.
“I enjoy racing, and PGA Tour guys are like supercars,” Stewart explains. “If I can’t drive very quickly, I want to be a part of a team that can.”
As a result, he blended two of his strengths: golf and game strategy. This came as no surprise to Coach Limbaugh, who saw Stewart as an extension of his coaching staff throughout his time as a student-athlete.
“He’s got the highest golf IQ I’ve ever seen,” Limbaugh, who is in his 18th year of instructing, says.
This is the “Money Ball” era for golf analytics, and a cottage economy has sprung up around it. However, as Stallings pointed out, no one of Stewart’s caliber had hitherto exploited this new domain.
“I had a lot of friends who moved into strategy consulting and worked for Deloitte and Bain, as well as working for private equity firms studying billion-dollar corporations,” Stewart adds. “For PGA Tour players, I see myself as a one-man Deloitte.”
Stewart offered his services for free to a few players to test whether he could get traction, with a simple sales pitch: What if I could save you a shot in a tournament?
He received so many good replies that he decided to carve out his own niche at the professional level. And that’s how he ended up at the Greenbrier in West Virginia for the 2019-20 Tour season’s first tournament.
Even Mark Broadie, a financial markets expert who has taught at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business since 1983, could not have predicted that “stats guys,” who analyze data to create better training plans and provide golfers with weekly game plans, would become as important to tour pros as swing instructors and fitness trainers.
Every time an announcer cites “strokes gained,” Broadie’s statistical innovation that debuted in 2011 and was soon acknowledged as the most accurate way to assess overall performance on the PGA Tour, Broadie’s contributions to the language of golf may be heard. Broadie even wrote a successful book called “Every Shot Counts,” which Stewart enjoyed.
“Mark Broadie has had the most influence on what I do,” Stewart says, praising “the Godfather of golf data.”
Broadie’s statistical method helped golfers see where they were gaining or losing ground on the leaderboard. With that math-based approach came new ways of approaching a course.
“Everything I do out here has a strategy,” says Brandt Snedeker. “It’s like a blackjack hand.” After each shot, the odds shift.”
Snedeker, a fellow Vanderbilt alumnus, was the first Tour pro to hire a data cruncher. A statistics wiz called The Accountant approached Snedeker on the practice green on the eve of the 2011 RBC Heritage and projected he would win that week. Snedeker ignored the remark until he was presented with the trophy after defeating Luke Donald in a playoff. Then he tracked down Mark Horton, a retired executive from the British supermarket chain Tesco, and demanded to know what his secret sauce was.
“‘Explain it to me like I’m an infant,’ I said. Snedeker recalls that “he used facts and analytics to illustrate why he anticipated I’d win at Harbour Town.” “I was thinking to myself, ‘Why am I not doing this?'”
Horton devised a method for extracting information from ShotLink, the PGA Tour’s real-time scoring system that employs sophisticated equipment to track every shot. That information can highlight a player’s strengths and shortcomings, give practices structure, and assess how a player’s game compares to that of a specific Tour venue.
Horton’s earnings increased from $1,602,690 in 2010 to $3,587,206 in 2011, the first year Snedeker employed him as a full-time analyst. His official earnings in 2012 were $4,989,739, which included his triumph in the Tour Championship. He also received a $10 million prize after winning the FedEx Cup. In 2014, Horton and Billy Horschel accomplished a similar accomplishment. Other statisticians quickly followed, albeit few are able to make a livelihood doing it full-time.
Could Stewart be one of the few in this nascent industry to do so?
‘I liked how he approached things.’
Near the fall of 2014, Maverick McNealy recalls the United States Walker Cup practice sessions at Frederica in St. Simons Island, Georgia. “The first time I played with Hunter, my gut hurt from laughing so hard,” he recalls. “… I admired his attitude to the game, his temperament, and the way he worked hard while remaining lighthearted.”
In a foursome match, McNealy and Stewart were paired together as Great Britain and Ireland defeated the United States 1612 to 912 at home. The teammates built a friendship, but after they got pro, they lost touch. Which explains McNealy’s reaction when he ran into Stewart at Greenbrier’s Monday pro-am before of his first PGA Tour event as a card-carrying member. He said, “What are you doing here?” Stewart was there on behalf of Robby Shelton, a Walker Cup teammate. Stewart sat down and demonstrated to McNealy how he intended to assist Shelton in avoiding a stroke.
McNealy recalls being “blown away.” “From the beginning, I was all in.”
Stewart was a natural choice to assist McNealy. After all, McNealy tracked his own strokes in college, looking for every advantage he could get on the field.
“Mav is a data-driven company. McNealy’s caddie, Travis McCallister, said, “He always wants to know why.”
Take the 2020 Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit, for example, when Stewart’s statistical acumen helped McNealy make eagle on the par-4 12th hole on Sunday.
“He stated that the make rate from the quadrant to this pin was really low. After a few putts, I noticed a small slope that I hadn’t seen before. “I knew what the putt did,” McNealy adds. “I adjusted my read by almost half a ball and hammered it dead center, finishing eighth.” “If we hadn’t practiced, I wouldn’t have made that putt.”
“The next choice for him is such a good one,” McNealy responds to those who may look at Stewart and conclude, “Didn’t he give up on his own dream too soon?”
I don’t think he’s quitting since he’s stopped playing. I see it as him seizing an opportunity and making the most of it.”
McNealy believes it’s no coincidence that his game has been improving, and his second-place performance at the Fortinet Championship implies it’ll just be a matter of time before he wins his first Tour victory. “I don’t want him to work with too many other guys because I want this benefit for me,” McNealy says, indicating how highly he values Stewart’s input.
During a practice round at Torrey Pines ahead of the Farmers Insurance Open in 2022, Hunter Stewart works with Maverick McNealy. (Photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports/Orlando Ramirez)
Stewart has a small stable of players so far. His show ponies are McNealy and Stallings, although he also works with Matthew NeSmith and has recently started dating Tyler Duncan. Players on different tiers, including as Vince Whaley, who made 10 consecutive cuts last season, and Keith Mitchell, who both use Stewart’s packets to break down how to play a tournament course, are examples.
Stewart walked individual practice rounds and around 30,000 steps per day with McNealy and others at 27 Tour events in 2021. He catches a flight home after the event starts and is addicted to ShotTracker for more information. He bemoans the fact that television does not devote enough time to his players. He spends the most of his preparation at home, generating tournament data many weeks in advance and putting together 10-12 statistical plays during the week depending on each of his clients’ individual skill sets.
He claims, “I’m merely using history to forecast the future.” “I’m simply saying that if you strike it over here, whether on purpose or not, this is what occurs vs over there.” There’s a wealth of knowledge available.”
Stewart creates a PowerPoint presentation with a slide for each hole in that week’s event. Should there be a considerable disparity in scoring averages from the right and left rough, he may recommend using a club other than the driver off the tee. He’ll give an update when the pin sheet is released the night before the round. On Monday, he also publishes a tournament recap, which serves a second purpose. He also sees it as an opportunity to delve further.
He claims that “the guys who ask better questions will get better answers.”
Last summer, NeSmith began working with Stewart. Stewart was hired in part because he knows what his game used to look like, where he’s improved, and where he still needs to improve. The two grew up playing junior and amateur golf against each other, and NeSmith hired him in part because Stewart knows what his game used to look like, where he’s improved, and where he still needs to improve.
“When I watch Formula One racing, I see that every driver has a strategy,” NeSmith explains. “I didn’t have a data-driven strategy for how I should play the course or how I’d played it previously.” He has information that dates back several years. It gives the impression that I’ve been playing these courses for 10-15-20 years.”
In NeSmith’s data, Stewart discovered some interesting patterns that helped him better understand his tendencies: If he makes a bogey before making a birdie, his scoring average rises by one to two shots. And this: After the fifth hole, he normally makes his first bogey by choosing a too aggressive line and getting short-sided.
Stewart has a reputation for being forthright with his students. “The trouble is you drive it like garbage,” NeSmith recalls Stewart telling him about his irons.
“You’re right,” NeSmith responds, “but you didn’t have to put it that way.”
Limbaugh says, “He’s backing up what he says with facts.” “This is who you are,” says the narrator. It’s not about what I believe; it’s about what I know. It’s extremely strong when you can come to guys at that level with that sort of expertise.”
Swing instructor Scott Hamilton, whose students include Stallings and Whaley, says, “You’re insane if you don’t have someone like Hunter.” “He’s telling me where my player needs to improve for a guy like me.” ‘Alright, let’s go work on that instead of hanging out here for an hour trying to hit flawless 4-irons when you only hit three in a tournament,’ I say. I like it because it makes me feel like I’m helping a man rather than merely calibrating them to shoot a straight shot.”
Stewart has been able to uncover equipment variables by examining Whaley’s ShotLink data, including a shot pattern for Whaley that defied explanation between 150-175 yards, according to Hamilton. Stewart advised that he inspect his 8- and 9-irons. Whaley’s 9-iron came out to be 1-degree flat and 2-degrees powerful.
Stewart is the first to confess that what he’s doing is “nothing attractive.”
“I won’t claim to be the best at arithmetic since I am not. I’m not going to claim that I know how to code since I don’t. “However, the questions I ask players lead to a debate, which in turn leads to useful information that will influence how they play the game,” he explains. “A lot of the time, that’s where the best fruit is.” That would never come from someone who can only crunch numbers since they have no idea what it’s like to be deciding between a 6- and a 7-iron. I’m aware of what’s going on in their heads.”
Broadie, on the other hand, believes Stewart is an aberration, a golfer with a brilliant mind, and that data analytics for golf isn’t a booming second vocation for former pro golfers.
“I’d be cautious if you’re just a former player with no data science abilities,” Broadie says.
How many Tour card-carrying members will have someone like Stewart on their payroll in five years? Stewart believes it is already more than many fans believe.
He responds, “Probably half.” “I never intend to send my belongings in bulk. It isn’t fair to the guys with whom I work.”
What about making a comeback? After all, Stewart is only 28 years old. Couldn’t he use his own knowledge to help him advance in his career?
He laughs, “You’ll never transform a cent steak into a great ribeye.” However, he is frequently asked this question. In 2021, he says he only played six rounds, including one as a member-guest at Peachtree Country Club in Atlanta, where he showed he still had it.
“I was asked whether I was nervous by the caddie. ‘Shop credit doesn’t move my needle,’ I told him,’ recalls Stewart. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to be successful out here, but it makes a lot more sense why I’m standing where I am and they’re standing because of what some of those players I played Walker Cup with were good at and what I was at the time.” In the end, I don’t feel compelled to do it.”
However, a return to golf situation could be equally intriguing. He’s regained his amateur status, and he admits that the 2025 Walker Cup at Cypress Point could tip the scales in his favor.
Until then, the PGA Tour’s one-man Deloitte will continue to crunch their figures.