By Jonathan Fernandez
Brendan Steele flashed signs that he could be successful as a professional golfer as early as his college years at the University of California, Riverside. Although he didn’t look the part of a superstar golfer, he had a strong work ethic and improved his game every year.
Despite Steele’s failure to make it past the second round of the Genesis Invitational last week, he still lays claim as one of the best golfers to come out of UC Riverside.
Steele has had three PGA Tour wins, six top-three finishes and 32 top-10 finishes. The highest he’s been ranked in the FedEx Cup rankings was 33rd in 2017. He is also the only competitor to win the Safeway Open twice.
His only real competition from his school is Gary McCord, who was a two-time Division II All-American at UC Riverside and played in over 400 PGA Tour events without a win.
Steele’s play in college helped re-establish the UC Riverside golf program and put it on the map.
“What separated him was a quiet self-confidence that differed from what you would typically see,” said Eric Riehle, Steele’s high school and college teammate. “(He) quietly pursued the directions that he wanted to go. He never even said, ‘I’m going to play on the PGA Tour and I’m going to do this and I’m going to do that.’ It was just a steady progression.”
Steele fielded offers from several other schools with far more established programs, including UC Davis and Oregon State. Yet, he contacted UC Riverside to express his interest in playing for them, and the man set to coach the revamped program, Paul Hjulberg, had already seen Steele play enough times to know that he wanted him on his team.
Hjulberg’s pitch to Steele was simple: Hjulberg was going to offer Steele a large scholarship, larger than the other offers he had. Steele was immediately going to be one of the impact players on the team, which usually isn’t the case for freshman golfers.
Riehle also provided unique insight into Steele’s thought process when considering where to play at the collegiate level.
“He wanted a place to be able to go play where he knew for sure he was going to play in the lineup,” Riehle said over the phone. “Even if you’re a really good player, you go to a really good program or team, half of the guys or more are not playing in the tournament lineup. So for him to be able to be at a place where he knew he could play was a contributing factor.”
Another factor in Steele’s decision was the chance to get to play close to home.
UC Riverside is only a 45-minute drive away from Steele’s hometown, Idyllwild, a town in the mountains of Southern California that was once home to psychedelic drug advocate Timothy Leary’s ranch, which is now owned by YouTube star Logan Paul.
The town never established a high school, so its high school-aged students need to take a 30-minute bus ride every morning down to Hemet High School. In 2012 the town elected its first mayor, a golden retriever named Max.
Idyllwild’s location and characteristics, such as being one of the few places in Southern California that experiences seasons, and the 10,000-foot San Jacinto Peak mountain, the second largest in Southern California, have made it a popular tourist destination.
In the early years of his friendship with Steele, Riehle would make the trek through the mountains to Steele’s Idyllwild home from time to time.
“It (Idyllwild) was a great place,” Riehle said. “He had a little short-game green in his mountain town with a bunker. We had some great times there. Those would be the stories that I remember most, playing some competitive games.”
Hjulberg was tasked with resurrecting the UC Riverside golf program from the dead. The team had played at the Division II level in its previous era, but now, after years away from competition, they were slated to compete against Division I programs.
Hjulberg was going to be starting from the ground up, with his roster compiled of mostly freshmen and a couple of transfers from other schools.
But one of the freshmen stood out to Hjulberg during their first competition.
The team’s first tournament was the Vandal Fall Classic at the University of Idaho in September 2001. The weather during the first couple of days of the tournament was mild, not too windy to affect anyone’s shots — ideal golf weather.
The team entered the Fall Classic as an unknown, but that would not be the case by the time it ended. Steele played a big part in that.
“Brendan shot a 66 in the first round with a one-shot penalty,” Hjulberg said. “Brendan carried that round.”
The Highlanders shot 278 in the first day of competition, tied for second on the day, only behind the University of Washington, which shot a 277.
UC Riverside finished Day 2 in third place, but inexperience and a change in the winds led to them finishing in sixth.
Although UC Riverside didn’t win the tournament, Steele left an impression on his teammates, his coach and the Big West conference as a whole: He was one to watch.
“It’s like OK, ‘Well, there’s Riverside, and they got Steele,’” Hjulberg said. “So it became apparent quickly that we were going to be a contender. And he was the one leading the charge.”
Steele and the UC Riverside men’s golf team won two back-to-back Big West Championships in 2004, when they were named co-champions with Cal State Long Beach, and in 2005, when they won the tournament outright.
Since those tournament wins, Steele has gone on to have one of the best professional sports careers among all UC Riverside alumni.
Riehle, who played on the PGA Tour himself and coached golf for over a decade including three years at Riverside, was blown away by Steele’s work ethic and ability to look inward at himself as a player.
“I got to see him develop each year for probably 10 years,” Riehle said. “He was always honestly able to assess the places that he was weak and really put emphasis on those types of things.”
When Riehle was the men’s and women’s head golf coach at UC Riverside, Steele returned to his alma mater to speak to Riehle’s team.
By that point Steele had already notched his first career PGA Tour win at the Valero Texas Open in San Antonio on April 11, 2011. He was the third rookie to win on tour that year.
For Steele, speaking to Riehle’s team was a chance to give back, but also a chance to embrace the nostalgia: to return to when playing golf was the most fun for him.
“He was genuinely caring about other people,” Riehle said. “It was never about self-promotion, ‘I am this great golfer, I am the best on my teams.’ No, it was not like that at all.
“He would even say perhaps college golf was the most enjoyable for him because he got to play with a bunch of really close friends traveling and playing and working toward the same ambitions all together.”
Jonathan Fernandez is a graduate student specializing in sports media at Northwestern Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @JFERN31.