Becoming Derek Hitchner

The underrated U.S. Amateur semifinalist has amassed quite the following yet retains a winning humility

By Jordan Perez

PARAMUS, N.J. — Oof.

Derek Hitchner wouldn’t show it on the outside, but a skillful chip by Shea Lague from a greenside bunker to secure a birdie felt like a little punch to the gut. Having trailed for the first time in match play to Lague earlier in their quarterfinal match at this U.S. Amateur on Friday, the Pepperdine fifth-year player has enough experience to know that momentum could swing at any point in their match. Hitchner ground out a halve on the next hole to maintain his 2-up lead, a level expression affixed on his face. But on the inside, his stomach was rumbling.

“I hardly ate anything this morning just because I was so nervous before the round,” Hitchner said with a laugh. “I’ve never liked to exhibit too much emotion. I felt very nervous at different times today, and I’ve just worked on a variety of things to help manage that.”

A magnificent tee shot on the par-3 15th hit the flagstick, landed five feet away and propelled him to a 3-and-2 victory. “When I have wedges in my hand, I get pretty aggressive,” he said, noting his six birdies in 16 holes against Lague.

Confidence is not the issue, and his even temperament is part of his excellence. He eschews flash, right down to his attire, which lacks any NIL branding. But Hitchner is extremely aware of what it took to get this far in his fourth and most likely final U.S. Amateur. He survived a 15-for-11 playoff with one of the more stressful par putts of his career. He knows his low seed is deceptive. “I do think seeding is pretty irrelevant, just with how bunched the scoring was,” he says. “But it’s just a matter of whoever is on their game at this point is good enough to win, and I feel like I’m hopefully part of that.”

The fandom of Derek Hitchner

Would you believe the face of Pepperdine golf is a Catan junkie and a bookworm? 

That couldn’t be more opposite from best friend and former teammate Joe Highsmith, with whom Hitchner shares an unexpected yet wholesome friendship. Highsmith, who plays on PGA Tour Canada, is one of Hitchner’s biggest fans. He’s the founder of Hitchner’s very own tracking account on Twitter, a cheeky exaggeration of the “tracker” phenomenon. Highsmith sends out regular updates, including manipulated photos of Hitchner’s face with made-up, over-the-top quotes on his successes—a humorous contradiction to Hitchner’s signature humility.

“I love seeing him in these big moments and seeing his reaction after doing something so sick,” Highsmith says. That reaction is really a lack thereof. Watching Hitchner between shots, you have zero clue of how his round is going, something Highsmith greatly admires. But at its core, the tracker is a tribute to a dear friend’s tremendous achievements. “Everyone always wanted to play with Derek,” Highsmith recalls. Great golf combined with an easygoing charm made Hitchner a popular pick among Pepperdine teammates. Even in life after Pepperdine, Sahith Theegala has spent his week at the BMW Championship tracking his former teammate’s play at Ridgewood Country Club. “Derek is one of the nicest humans I know, and he’s a killer too,” Theegala says. “Pulling for him so hard.”

Digging deep

But when it came to solidifying his place in the Pepperdine tournament rotation, Hitchner was routinely left out of the mix. 

What attracted him to Malibu wasn’t the beachy glamour or the faster pace of living near Los Angeles; California was a no-brainer for a kid whose golf window was restricted by the frigid Minnesota winters. The kind-hearted A-student had a strong work ethic and enjoyed a prosperous high school golf career: As a sophomore, he won the state championship by 11 shots at 10 under, the lowest score in tournament history. He had a bit of success playing the AJGA as well. Longtime mentor and swing coach Marshall Hoiness has always known Hitchner to be more than a standout golfer. Hoiness’s twin daughters were born prematurely at 25 weeks. Hitchner felt compelled to raise money for the children’s hospital neonatal program, accepting pledges for every birdie he made. He raised more than $17,000. The twins, now 11, are doing great.

“I have chills on my arms just thinking about it,” Hoiness says. “He’s always thinking about other people. It meant a lot to me and my family.”

Hitchner scraped out a few offers from schools in the Midwest and … Pepperdine. He knew the latter was his one chance to play year-round golf and earn a world-class education. 

Derek Hitchner

But the transition wasn’t easy: Hitchner played only 18 competitive rounds as a freshman. “I got to Pepperdine and didn’t think I was the best player, but seeing what the best amateurs in the world do was huge for me.” he says. “As challenging as it was not to play, it was essential for me.”

COVID cut short his sophomore season, and although he played more as a junior, Hitchner wasn’t selected for the team that won the national championship. On the long drive from Malibu to Minneapolis, he relentlessly checked Golfstat for the scores. Despite his joy for the success of his teammates, he couldn’t get past how bittersweet the situation felt. He spent the ensuing summer grinding on his swing; it immediately paid off, as he won both the Trans-Miss Amateur and the Minnesota State Amateur.

“I feel like I’ve had a pretty good perspective change recently, where I’ve really just tried to cherish kind of each opportunity I’ve had,” Hitchner said after the victories. “I’ve kind of just had the mindset that I have nothing to lose.” When he returned to Malibu, he had his best season yet, playing in every tournament. In the quarterfinals at the national championship, Pepperdine coach Michael Beard appointed him to the anchor spot against a stacked North Carolina squad. “That was one of the coolest moments of my life,” says Hitchner.

An even cooler moment would be raising the Havemeyer Trophy. “It’s weird to think about because I’ve never been anywhere near this position,” Hitchner says. At Ridgewood, his cheering section includes his mom, Susan, a loyal fan who almost never misses a tournament, and his dad, Douglas, who caddied during his son’s impressive run at the Western Amateur, where he reached the quarterfinals. On Saturday, they will witness a semifinal against Ben Carr, the 70th-ranked amateur in the world. If Hitchner emerges victorious, he will face former teammate Dylan Menante or Sam Bennett, the No. 3 player in the world. But Hitchner insists he’s trying to live in the moment. After his long, winding journey, he is grateful to have finally arrived.

Derek Hitchner

10 thoughts on “Becoming Derek Hitchner”

  1. He’s an absolute stud. Played on the same high school team with Hitch and it’s hard to find a nicer dude. He’s an absolute flusher of the golf ball and is wicked smart as well. Can’t wait for the national media to learn more about him!!

  2. Derek’s humility is on par with his talent. Reading this makes up for GC’s seeming lack of coverage of his play in the quarterfinal match (which was an absolute clinic). Thanks, Jordan.

  3. Derek is a brilliant young man with a heart of gold and a great swing! It’s all thanks to amazing parenting by Susan and Doug. Can’t wait to see what’s next for this impressive player!

  4. My son hit balls with him at our club today and he answered every question and gave him plenty of advice – Derek is everything and more than what you’ve described here. He now has some lifelong fans in my son, my wife, and myself!

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