Stephen Hale is a Natural on the Golf Course for Cal
By Katie Dowd, Daily Cal Contributing Writer
This story was originally published in the Daily Californian on Thursday, April 16, 2008.
Click here for original version.
Reprinted by permission.
Swapping the baseball diamond for the country club on a whim. Accepting an unexpected scholarship offer. Taking on a role as one of the leaders of the Cal men's golf team in just his freshman year.
Stephen Hale's life so far is all about letting surprises transform him.
Like the decision to start playing golf. The son of a former Major League Baseball player, baseball was the sport that always made sense to Hale.
'I played baseball a long time, like six years,' says Hale. 'It was funny because we walked up to the country club we belong to now, I saw a junior golf tournament going on there and I just decided to do it.'
And that was that.
A year later, at age 13, Hale played in his first competitive tournament. By the end of his eighth grade year, his bat and glove were collecting dust in the back of the closet, and his lifelong dream of becoming a professional baseball player was quickly being replaced by aspirations of joining the PGA Tour. The game that was once an afterthought to baseball took hold.
'You could be the king of golf one day, where you just are one of the best players ever,' says Hale. 'And then the next day you could be the worst player ? It's a weird game, but that's kind of what I like. You can never really conquer it.'
Hale came close to conquering the prep golf scene during his years at Garces Memorial High in Bakersfield, Calif. By his sophomore year, Hale was far and away the best golfer on his high school squad, leading the team in almost every tournament. In his junior year, Hale bested a field of 75 golfers to take the CIF Central Section South Area title. That same year, he took third in the 2006 California State Boys Junior Amateur tournament and finished 23rd at the Junior World Golf Championship. Hale finished his high school career with an impressive 69.55 stroke average.
But despite his prep accolades, Hale was never sure he would even play golf in college. It wasn't until recruitment letters from schools like Stanford and Cal started finding their way to the Hale residence during his junior year of high school that he even realized he had the talent to play collegiate golf.
'I thought I was okay, but I didn't think I was good enough to play D-I,' Hale says. 'I thought if I could play D-II somewhere I might ? I was thinking I'd probably try to walk on somewhere. Then schools started sending me letters, and I said I'd give it a shot.'
Hale's final decision came down to Rice, Pacific, the Cardinal and the Bears. He eliminated the first two, citing a lack of team dynamic and atmosphere, which left the cross-bay rivals on his list. Stanford boasted a golf tradition that is nearly unrivaled in college athletics. Cal couldn't match the Cardinal's facilities or reputation, but it offered Hale a spot on an up-and-coming program that had recently won the national championship and something else that Hale still can't put into words.
'Stanford is Stanford,' Hale shrugs. 'It's an awesome place to be ? but I came on to this campus and it just had the right feel to it. There's really no way to explain it. I just walked on and I just loved it and I knew this was where I need to be. Anyway, red doesn't really look good on me. I don't have any red shirts anymore. I threw them all out.'
Armed with a new wardrobe, Hale made the move to Berkeley official and signed his National Letter of Intent in November 2006 as part of one of the most heralded freshman classes in the country. Once on the squad, he was in for another surprise: becoming a team leader.
'I didn't know if I would be playing as much as I am right now,' says Hale. 'I didn't play any national events as a junior and pretty much everyone else who came in had. I thought if I worked hard enough, I'd make my way into the lineup.'
With Pac-10 and NCAA championships still left on the schedule, Hale has already put together a freshman season for the Cal record books. His 72.2 stroke average ties the team best, and he has finished in the top 20 five times this year. Among those top-20 finishes was his record-breaking individual championship in February's John Burns Invitational. Hale shot three rounds of 5-under ball to take both the tournament title and the top score in Cal program history.
And, so far, Hale is the only golfer on the squad to have played in all of this season's tournaments.
'There was little doubt in our minds that Stephen would be an impact player,' says coach Steve Desimone. 'As freshman seasons go, Stephen's had a spectacular one. He's clearly established himself as one of the top freshmen in the country. I think he's on pace to do some really wonderful things before he finishes.'
But in spite of all he has accomplished, Hale refuses to pick a career highlight.
'When we win the national championship, that will be the highlight right there of my Cal career,' says Hale. 'I will definitely say one of these upcoming four years, we're going to win a national championship. Might even be this year. We're going to win a national championship here soon.'
And when that day comes, it will be anything but a surprise to Hale.