Luke DeCock

April 9, 2014

DeCock: Chesson Hadley returns home, to site of memorable Rex golf win

Raleigh's Chesson Hadley won't defend his title at the Rex Hospital Open this year, having moved on to the PGA Tour, where he's already a winner. He willingly returned Wednesday to the site of an equally memorable victory.

As much as he enjoys hanging around TPC Wakefield Plantation as a celebrity, the defending champion of the Rex Hospital Open in his own hometown, Chesson Hadley would rather be somewhere else.

The lanky 26-year-old PGA Tour rookie, who played at North Raleigh Christian Academy and won the 2010 ACC title at Georgia Tech, twice narrowly missed qualifying for the Masters over the past month.

So instead of heading to Augusta, he’s headed to Atlanta to work with his swing coach, but not before appearing at Wednesday’s media day for a tournament he won’t even play next month – an honor and a chore he took on willingly after clinching his first Tour win last year in front of family and friends.

Hadley’s approach shot on the 72nd hole rolled within inches of the cup as a huge gallery roared, a storybook finish if there ever was one.

“I will forever remember that, probably the greatest shot I’ve ever hit, on 18,” Hadley said Wednesday. “That was the coolest thing, to have everybody there. It was surreal. It really was.”

It was the beginning of a wild year for Hadley. He won the season-ending Tour Championship, clinched his full PGA Tour card for 2014, became a father and, in March, became the only rookie winner on tour so far this season with a victory in the Puerto Rico Open.

It’s hard to compare what happened in March with what happened at Wakefield last spring. Oddly enough, both were two-stroke wins over Danny Lee. Other than that, each was unique and memorable in its own way.

“It’s different,” Hadley said. “It’s hard to say that this would be better than winning on the PGA Tour. I think a lot of people would be OK with me saying that, but it’s different. This was maybe as difficult because it was Raleigh, I’ve played the course, all my family and friends are here, there’s a little bit of expectation. This was my PGA Tour event last year.”

The tour win in Puerto Rico earned him a two-year exemption, but it still wasn’t enough to get Hadley into the Masters. He had two shots to move into the top 50 in the world rankings before the entry cutoff, the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill and the Valero Texas Open. In both tournaments, he was challenging for a top-five finish that would get him to Augusta. On Sunday at Bay Hill, he needed to finish even par or better. He shot a 7-over 79. On Sunday at the Texas Open, he needed to finish 2-under or better. He shot an 8-over 80.

“I really wanted to be here, a part of this media day, so I shot 80,” Hadley joked.

The humor masked disappointment, but Hadley is a person who believes things happen for reasons he may not understand. Perhaps he wasn’t meant to make his major debut at the Masters, not with the U.S. Open looming in June at Pinehurst No. 2, a course he has played countless times.

“Gosh, that would be amazing,” Hadley said. As much as I would have loved to play in the Masters this year, I would almost rather have my first major be the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. It would have the same feel as this event (last year).”

Hadley is 57th in the world rankings. The top 60 receive exemptions from the USGA, so all he has to do is hold his position and he gets a ticket to Pinehurst. Otherwise, he’ll have to go through a sectional qualifier in Columbus, Ohio, on June 2, the Monday after the Memorial.

If his first tour win came close to home, why not his major debut? If he has learned anything this year, it’s that anything can happen.

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