LA QUINTA, Calif. — 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 finishing in the top 70 in the FedEx Cup and he didn’t yet again, Stallings realized those three players shared one common trait: a stats coach.
“I need to know what you did with them that’s going to help me,” Stallings told the man behind the curtain.
Hunter Stewart smiles when this story about how Stallings became one of his clients is relayed to him and says simply, “Scott was pushing it when he shouldn’t and not pushing it when he should.”
To Stallings, who is in his 12th year on Tour, it’s easy to fall into a rut of doing the same things over and over – such as missing the cut at the Fortinet Championship at Silverado Resort’s North Course. That’s before he hooked up with Stewart, who changed how Stallings approached four of the holes, specifically off the tee.
“When I tell him, ‘Hey man, I hate this hole,’ he says, ‘OK, let’s play around it. Let’s pick our spots to be aggressive.’ At those opportunities, he says, ‘OK, gas pedal is on the right,’ ” says Stallings, who finished T-6 at Napa in September and earned $220,600. “My bread and butter is 150-175 yards and he said, ‘Let’s shoot your best weapon the most times. I’m going to try to give you four more 9-irons a day based on the hole locations,’ and he did. ”
And then Stallings adds this kicker that is as indisputable as some of the information Stewart digs up: “You know what I like about him? There’s not many stats guys that were No. 1 in the world as an amateur.”
A force in amateur, college ranks
If the name Hunter Stewart rings a bell, it should to Golfweek readers. Stewart, 28, was a force to be reckoned with on the amateur and college circuit. He became the first player from Vanderbilt to be chosen Southeastern Conference Player of the Year in 2015, winning three individual titles his senior season. After claiming the Northeast Amateur that summer, he rose to No. 1 in the Scratch Players World Amateur Ranking.
“I don’t think anyone deserved to be No. 1 over me at that time,” Stewart says. “I didn’t think anyone was really better than me in amateur golf.”
Before turning pro, he went undefeated at the Palmer Cup and earned a spot on the 2015 U.S. Walker Cup team, where his teammates included Bryson DeChambeau, Denny McCarthy and McNealy, all of whom have banked millions on the PGA Tour, including DeChambeau, who won the 2020 U.S. Open.
Stewart made eight starts during the 2015-16 PGA Tour season after turning pro, including a T-10 finish at the OHL Classic at Mayakoba. He seemed to be making a quick adjustment to the play-for-pay ranks, pocketing $137,433 for a week’s work.
“I loved the rush of playing in front of crowds on the PGA Tour,” he says.
But it was a start at the 2016 Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, where he shot 73-78 and missed the cut, that left the most indelible impression.
“I just remember Monday morning (during a practice round) and pulling a drive and having a 6-iron out of U.S. Open rough and thinking, I’m not so sure about this one,” Stewart says. “And that wasn’t even a long hole.”
He began retooling his unorthodox swing in an attempt to hit it farther and higher, a skill set shared by the golfers collecting the most trophies and the biggest checks. He succeeded in adding speed, but he became crooked off the tee.
“Before long he lost touch where home base was,” says Scott Limbaugh, Stewart’s coach at Vanderbilt.
In December 2017, Stewart was involved in a skiing accident in Colorado and damaged cartilage in his right knee. He wasn’t able to turn through the ball in the same way and lost clubhead speed. He played PGA Tour Canada for three seasons, earning a total of $72,000, and kept failing at Q-Schools for the Korn Ferry Tour and European Tour.
“I just couldn’t get off that tour,” he says of the Canadian developmental circuit, the equivalent of Double A baseball. “My game was stale. It got to the point that I showed up at the first event of the season and I couldn’t get motivated.
“In college I found a way, and as a pro I did not,” he says matter-of-factly.
He played two Korn Ferry Tour events in 2019 and received a sponsor exemption into the Barbasol Championship, a PGA Tour opposite-field event played two miles down the road from where he grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, but missed the cut. Stewart concedes he didn’t handle the setbacks well.
“If there is anything I do regret it would be I felt too sorry for myself when I didn’t get it done,” he says. “Instead of being inspired to work harder I definitely sulked too long. That’s not a fun thing to say but it’s the truth.”
Stewart took a hard look in the mirror and knew it was time to find another way to earn a living. An economics major at Vanderbilt, he could have put his degree to use in a variety of ways, but he still wanted to be around the energy of golf at the highest level.
“I love racing, and PGA Tour pros are like really fast cars,” Stewart says. “If I can’t drive really fast, then I want to be on a team that is going fast.”
So he combined two things he was good at: golf and the strategy side of the game. To Coach Limbaugh, who considered Stewart an extension of his coaching staff during his time as a student-athlete, this came as no surprise.
“He’s got as high of a golf IQ as anyone I’ve ever been around,” says Limbaugh, who is in his 18th year coaching.
This is a golden age for golf analytics – “Money Ball” for golf – and a cottage industry has formed around it. But as Stallings noted, there hadn’t been a player of Stewart’s caliber to exploit this new arena.
“I have a lot of friends that went into strategy consulting and work for Deloitte and Bain and worked at private equity firms analyzing billion-dollar companies,” Stewart says. “I view myself as a one-man Deloitte for PGA Tour players.”
To see if he could gain traction, Stewart offered his services for free to a few players with a simple sales pitch: What if I could save you a shot a tournament?
He received enough positive responses that he decided to carve his own niche at the highest level of the professional game. And that’s how he happened to be at the Greenbrier in West Virginia for the kickoff tournament of the 2019-20 Tour season.
Not even Mark Broadie, who studies financial markets and has taught at the Graduate School of Business at Columbia University since 1983, could have imagined that “stats guys,” who parse statistics to create better training plans and arm golfers with game plans for each week, would become as important to tour pros as swing instructors and fitness trainers.
Broadie’s contributions to the language of golf can be heard every time an announcer mentions “strokes gained,” Broadie’s statistical innovation that had its debut in 2011 and was quickly accepted as the most accurate way to measure overall performance on the PGA Tour. Broadie even penned a popular book titled, “Every Shot Counts,” which struck a chord with Stewart.
“Mark Broadie has been the biggest influence on what I do,” says Stewart, giving credit where credit is due to “the Godfather of golf stats.”
Broadie’s statistical approach allowed a golfer to more effectively understand where he gained or lost ground on the leaderboard. And with that math-based approach came new insights on how to attack a course.
“There’s a strategy to everything I do out here,” says Brandt Snedeker. “It’s like a hand of blackjack. The odds change after every shot.”
Snedeker, a fellow Vanderbilt grad, was the first Tour pro to hire someone to crunch his numbers. On the eve of the 2011 RBC Heritage, a numbers whiz nicknamed The Accountant approached Snedeker on the practice green and predicted he would win that week. Snedeker shrugged off the comment until he hoisted the trophy after beating Luke Donald in a playoff. Then he found the numbers ace, Mark Horton, a retired executive for the British grocer Tesco, and demanded to know what was his secret sauce.
“I said, ‘Explain it to me like I’m an infant.’ He used data and analytics to prove why he thought I’d win at Harbour Town,” Snedeker recalls. “I thought, ‘Why am I not doing this?’ ”
Horton developed a system for mining the data collected every week on ShotLink, the PGA Tour’s real-time scoring system that uses sophisticated devices to track every shot. That data can reveal a player’s strengths and weaknesses, provide structure to practices and evaluate how
a player’s game stacks up with a particular Tour venue.
The first year Snedeker hired Horton to be a full-time analyst, his earnings jumped from $1,602,690 in 2010 to $3,587,206 in 2011. In 2012 he had official earnings of $4,989,739, including his victory in the Tour Championship. On top of that, he cashed a $10 million bonus for winning the FedEx Cup. Horton achieved a similar feat in 2014 with Billy Horschel. Other stats guys soon followed, though few are able to make a full-time living doing it.
Could Stewart be one of the few to do so in this budding business?
‘I loved his approach’
Maverick McNealy remembers the U.S. Walker Cup practice sessions at Frederica in St. Simons Island, Georgia, in the fall of 2014. “The first time I played with Hunter, I laughed so hard my stomach hurt,” he says. “… I loved his approach to the game, his demeanor and how he worked hard but managed to keep it light.”
McNealy and Stewart paired together in a foursome match as Great Britain and Ireland trounced the U.S. at home by the score of 16½ to 9½. A bond was formed, but the teammates didn’t stay in touch after they turned pro. Which explains McNealy’s response when he bumped into Stewart at the Monday pro-am at Greenbrier ahead of his first event as a card-carrying member of the PGA Tour. “What are you doing here?” he asked. Stewart was there on behalf of their fellow Walker Cup teammate Robby Shelton. Stewart sat down and showed McNealy how he planned to help Shelton save a stroke.
“I was blown away,” McNealy recalls. “I was all in from the start.”
McNealy was an obvious candidate for Stewart to aid. After all, McNealy tracked his own strokes gained data in college, seeking any edge on the field he could find.
“Mav is driven from the data side. He always wants to know why,” says Travis McCallister, McNealy’s caddie.
Take, for instance, at the 2020 Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit, where Stewart’s statistical knowledge helped McNealy make birdie to a front left pin on the par-4 12th on Sunday.
“He said there was a very low make rate from the quadrant to this pin. I hit a couple putts and noticed a subtle slope that I hadn’t before. I knew what the putt does, changed my read by about half a ball and drilled it dead center and ended up finishing eighth,” McNealy says. “That’s a putt I wouldn’t have made if we hadn’t practiced it.”
To those who may look at Stewart and think, ‘Didn’t he give up on his own dream too soon?’, McNealy counters: “The next option for him is such a good option. …I don’t see him moving away from playing as quitting. I see it as him acting on an opportunity and exploiting it.”
McNealy knows it is no accident that his game has been trending in the right direction and his runner-up finish at the Fortinet Championship suggests it’s only a matter of time before he claims his first Tour title. Just how much McNealy values Stewart’s contribution may have been best summed up when he adds: “I don’t want him to work with too many other players because I want this advantage for myself.”
Hunter Stewart works with Maverick McNealy during a practice round at Torrey Pines ahead of the 2022 Farmers Insurance Open. (Photo: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports)
So far, Stewart has a modest stable of players. McNealy and Stallings are his show ponies, but he also works with Matthew NeSmith and recently began a relationship with Tyler Duncan. There are also players on different tiers, such as Vince Whaley, who enjoyed a run of 10 made cuts in a row last season and who utilizes Stewart’s packets that break down how to play a tournament course.
Stewart attended 27 Tour events in 2021, walking individual practice rounds and roughly 30,000 steps a day with McNealy and others. Once the tournament begins, he catches a flight home and is glued to ShotTracker to glean more information. He complains that TV doesn’t show his players enough. He does most of his prep work at home, generating tournament reports several weeks in advance and assembling 10-12 statistical plays throughout the week based on each of his client’s unique skill sets.
“I’m just using history to predict the future,” he says. “I’m just saying that
guys who hit it over here, whether intentionally or not, here’s what happens versus over there. There’s a lot of information out there.”
Stewart produces a PowerPoint presentation, giving every hole of that week’s tournament its own slide. Off the tee, he may suggest opting for a club other than driver should there be a significant difference between scoring averages from the right and left rough. When the pin sheet comes out the night before the round, he will send an update. He also produces a tournament recap on Monday, which has a dual purpose. He also views it as an invitation to dig deeper.
“The guys who ask better questions will get better answers,” he says.
NeSmith started working with Stewart last summer. 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 shown improvement, and where he still needs to get better.
“I watch F1 racing and all the drivers have a plan,” NeSmith says. “I didn’t have a strategy based on data on how I should play the course or how I’ve played the course in the past. He has data going back several years. It makes it like I’ve played these courses for 10-15-20 years.”
Stewart uncovered some valuable trends in NeSmith’s data that helped him better understand his tendencies: If he makes a bogey before a birdie, his scoring average is a shot and half to two shots higher. And this: If he makes his first bogey after the fifth hole, it’s usually from taking too aggressive a line and being short-sided.
And Stewart has developed a reputation for being blunt with his students. NeSmith’s strength is his irons, and he recalls Stewart telling him, “The problem is you drive it like garbage.”
“I was like, ‘You’re right but you didn’t have to put it like that,” NeSmith says.
“He’s backing up what he says with facts,” Limbaugh says. “Here’s who you are. It’s not what I think, it’s what I know. When you can come to guys at that level with that kind of knowledge it’s pretty powerful.”
“You’re crazy if you don’t have someone like Hunter,” says swing instructor Scott Hamilton, whose students include Stallings and Whaley. “For a guy like me, he’s telling me where my player needs to get better. I’m like, ‘Alright, let’s go work on that instead of sitting out here trying to hit perfect 4-irons for an hour when you hit three of them a tournament.’ I really enjoy it because I feel like I’m really doing something for a guy rather than just calibrating them to hit a straight shot.”
Hamilton also recalled that by analyzing Whaley’s ShotLink data, Stewart has been able to detect equipment variables, including a shot pattern for Whaley that defied explanation between 150-175 yards. Stewart suggested checking his 8- and 9-irons. It turned out Whaley’s 9-iron was 1-degree flat and 2-degrees strong.
Stewart is the first to admit that there’s “nothing sexy” about what he’s doing.
“I’m not going to say I’m the best at math, because I’m not. I’m not going to say I can code, because I can’t. But the questions that I ask players lead to a discussion that then leads to useful information that will change the way they play the game,” he says. “That’s a lot of the time where the best fruit is. That would never come from someone who can only do data crunching because they don’t know what it’s like to be between a 6- and a 7-iron and need to make a decision. I know what’s going on in the back of their minds.”
But Broadie contends that Stewart is likely an outlier, a golfer that also has a beautiful mind, and that data analytics for golf isn’t a burgeoning second career for former pro golf dropouts.
“If you’re just a former player with no data science skills, I’d be skeptical,” Broadie says.
In five years, how many card-carrying members of the Tour will have someone like Stewart on their payroll? Stewart guesses it already is more than many fans might suspect.
“Probably half,” he answers. “I never plan to send my stuff en masse. It’s not fair to the guys I work with.”
And what about a comeback? Stewart, after all, is only 28. Couldn’t he use his own information to jump-start his career?
“You’re never going to turn a nickel steak into a prime ribeye,” he jokes. But he does get asked this question all the time. He says he played just six rounds in 2021, including a member-guest at Peachtree Country Club in Atlanta, where he showed he still has game.
“The caddie was asking me if I was nervous. I told him, ‘Shop credit doesn’t move my needle,’ ” says Stewart. “Sure, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to be successful out here, but seeing what some of those guys I played Walker Cup with were good at and what I was at that time it makes a lot more sense why I’m standing where I am and they’re where they are. Bottom line: I don’t have an itch to do it.”
But there could be a return-to-golf scenario equally appealing. He has regained his amateur status, and there is an event that he concedes could move his meter: the 2025 Walker Cup at Cypress Point.
Until then, the one-man Deloitte for PGA Tour players will keep crunching
Correction: Keith Mitchell does not work with Hunter Stewart. An earlier version of this story said Mitchell worked with Stewart, but Mitchell works with Scott Fawcett.