There is one famous French saying that golfer Joel Stalter has always tried to live by: “Fais de ta vie un reve, et d’un reve, une realite.” Said by the writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery, it translates in English to, “Make your life a dream and the dream a reality.”
Stalter, a senior set to turn professional on the European Tour, has been turning dreams into reality since he was 15 years old.
When Stalter was only 14, just a freshman living in Amneville, a small town in northeastern France, he decided that he wanted to go to America to play collegiate golf, which would allow him to pair his growing ability on the golf course with his inherent passion for learning.
A player on the French national junior team in high school, Stalter was also a natural extrovert with a curiosity for anything and everything new.
He hoped that golf would be a vehicle to land him a spot at a university such as UC Berkeley, where he could pursue a degree from the prestigious Haas School of Business and play for a nationally ranked top-10 team.
“I hate to be seen as just a golfer,” Stalter says, “because I’m not.”
Thanks to a fortunate coincidence in his sophomore year of high school, Stalter received a rare opportunity to come to the Bay Area for a few weeks on a high school exchange program.
During his trip, Stalter took time to visit UC Berkeley.
Even before he first stepped foot on campus, Stalter knew he wanted to come to Cal. Along with academics, Cal had a premier college golf program with an international atmosphere that seemed more familiar to the French athlete.
“Visiting Cal kind of got the American dream in my head,” Stalter says. “And basically, from sophomore year of high school to senior year, everything I did was basically to come to Berkeley — to be prepared. That was really my dream.”
Transforming the desire into actuality, Stalter personally contacted Cal men’s golf coach Steve Desimone to express his interest in the program.
“He had a sense about him — an independence that he would need to really survive here and then not just survive but to prosper and grow,” Desimone says.
After visiting again his junior year and later committing to Cal, Stalter would spend the next two years of high school in France working steadfastly to fulfill the rigorous academic requirements needed to come to Cal. Stalter even sacrificed his chances to play for the prestigious French national team, which would have forced him to delay the exams needed to get into college until September.
“I said, ‘I’m not going to be part of this system where you kind of neglect school,’ ” Stalter says. “So that obviously impacted my golf.”
Stalter arrived at Cal the fall of his freshman year, in 2010. Forgoing his coaches’ recommendation to redshirt his freshman year, Stalter decided to play straight through for only four years in order to save his parents extra money from steep international fees.
Stalter played in only two tournaments his first year at Cal. His first golf tournament at the Arizona Intercollegiate was a colossal failure for Stalter, where he played “absolutely awful,” according to Desimone.
“It was a terrible experience,” Stalter says. “It couldn’t have been worse. It was the worst tournament I ever played in, to be honest, and the funny part is, I’ll always remember it … because it was the first college tournament. I was wearing the Cal shirt and playing for the team. It was awesome; I was so happy.”
In his sophomore year at Cal, Stalter began working toward another seemingly impossible dream. After a spectacular win at the Austrian International Amateurs during the summer of 2011 and finally asserting himself as one of Cal’s top players, the outgoing, always inquisitive sophomore wanted the exceptional — a degree from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.
Haas, notorious for being difficult to get in to, seemed like a foolish aspiration to some of Stalter’s peers who tried to discourage him from applying.
“ ‘You’re international … You want to do (Haas in) four years? It’s impossible,’ ” Stalter says of his detractors. “I decided I was going to apply, and I was like, ‘No, screw the other people who think I can’t do it.’ I’ll say, ‘Watch me.’ ”
Once again, Stalter threw himself into his academics. This time, it was a “nightmare,” he recalls. As a sophomore, Stalter played in 12 events, including two tournaments in Florida that required the team to travel across the country, missing several days of class at a time. Stalter struggled to mix Haas requirements into his golf schedule. He dealt with tough professors, some whom were less than sympathetic about the constant traveling.
“I would have to travel for a tournament, and they (the professors) wouldn’t let me,” Stalter says. “They would say, ‘Oh, well, drop the class.’ And I would say, ‘I can’t because I want to apply (to Haas).’ ”
Despite the odds stacked against him, Stalter earned a 3.9 GPA in his second semester at Cal after a 3.1 in his first to earn his acceptance into Haas.
“It was the best feeling ever,” says Stalter. “It taught me really you could never dream enough, like you don’t know what you’re capable of until you go and chase it. That was a great lesson for me.”
At the 2013 Pac-12 championships, Stalter stepped up to the 18th hole in his last round. With four birdies already under his belt, Stalter needed to make one more putt to help his team defend its title. Lining up the putt, he took a breath and tapped the ball in. He stuck it. The No. 1 Cal men’s golf team had done it, tying the unofficial NCAA record with 10 victories in 12 tournaments and defending its title for a second consecutive conference championship.
“I don’t know who I was telling the other day, but first of all, my dream was to come to Cal and so that happened,” Stalter says. “That was a dream come true, and then I go to Cal, and my dream was that I would play on a team where we would be ranked in the top 10 and getting into Haas. And then, two years later, we end up being No. 1, and I get into Haas. It’s far beyond what I would have ever expected. Or could have ever imagined.”
After he graduates in May, Stalter will return to Europe to try his luck as a professional on the European Tour. Stalter wants to pursue his dream of becoming the best golfer in the world but, at the same time, doesn’t want to fall into the “trap” of relying solely on his golfing abilities.
“I really wouldn’t feel fulfilled if I only had a great golf career; I would need to have something else (too),” Stalter says. “I try to be something more than just a golfer.”
Christine Menchaca covers men’s golf. Contact her at [email protected]
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Joel Stalter raised his GPA from a 3.1 to a 3.9 in order to get into Haas. In fact, Stalter earned a 3.1 GPA his first semester and then a 3.9 GPA his second semester.