Chesson Hadley already was feeling some hometown pressure Thursday, and it was just the first round.
Hadley, a Raleigh native, won the 2013 Rex Hospital Open and has returned this year hoping for a repeat at TPC Wakefield Plantation. Another victory in the Web.com Tour tournament would go a long way toward propelling him back on the PGA Tour.
But the pressure Thursday came not just in facing a birdie putt at the 18th hole that would give him a 7-under-par 64 and a one-shot lead. It was knocking in the five-footer with a host of friends and family watching from a box by the 18th green, including several members from North Ridge Country Club, Hadley’s home course.
Hadley didn’t want to disappoint, and he didn’t. He rapped in the putt and soon was snapping his fingers – a Hadley trademark after birdies and eagles.
“To birdie that hole right in front of them was a real treat,” he said. “It’s always nerve-racking when you have a short putt like that to finish a round. But I made it.
“To finish off the round like that, with momentum for (Friday), it’s huge. It will make the food taste better tonight, help you sleep better, everything.”
Carlos Ortiz of Mexico and Stephan Jaeger of Germany each had 65s on a sunny day. Among those at 5-under 66 was Kyle Thompson, a three-time Rex champion who has won this year on tour and is fifth on the money list with more than $140,000.
“It’s always good to shoot in the 60s,” said Ortiz, the Web.com Tour’s leading money-winner in 2014. “Hit a lot of good shots, made some putts. I’ll take it every day.”
Former N.C. State golfer Albin Choi opened with a 70 and Brad Fritsch of Holly Springs, a former Campbell golfer, had a 71. Carter Jenkins of Raleigh, playing on a sponsor’s exemption, opened with a 1-over 72 and Bo Andrews of Raleigh a 74.
Hadley’s 64 was his lowest round on either the Web.com Tour or PGA Tour this year – the former Georgia Tech golfer has played four PGA Tour events with past-champion status. His best Web.com Tour finish has been a tie for 11th in the first event of the year, in the Bahamas, but he did have a second-round 65 in a tie for 17th in the the BMW Charity Pro-Am two weeks ago in Greer, S.C.
“I made some putts and started to hit some decent shots,” Hadley said of the BMW event. “It was nice to have a week off and a little extra preparation here at home.”
Hadley, 29, made an eight-foot par putt on the opening hole Thursday, one of his few stressful moments of the round. He said he nearly aced the par-3 fifth, coming up an inch short of the cup. He also had a tap-in for birdie at the par-4 10th.
“Just to go out and play the way I did today was so nice,” he said. “We’ve got a long way to go, so just stay calm and keep plugging along.”
Hadley had two victories on the Web.com Tour in 2013. A year later, he won the Puerto Rico Open on the PGA Tour and was named the tour’s rookie of the year.
But he’s now back where he began – the hometown guy looking to make good again.