Chris Hockaday won’t win the SAS Championship on Sunday, but no one will be more grateful to be playing.
Hockaday, from Angier, had to qualify for the PGA Tour Champions event — twice in four days. He shot 62 at Clayton’s Pine Hollow Golf Club in a pre-qualifier, securing him a spot in the Monday open qualifier, then had a 67 at Pine Hollow to earn one of four available spots in the SAS field this week. That’s doing it the hard way.
But Hockaday’s story is more than about low golf rounds or a first chance to play in a Champions tour event with a Davis Love III or Fred Couples, golfers he has long admired. It’s about how much he lost but was able to regain, how he didn’t just change his life but saved it.
“I’m a recovering drug addict,” Hockaday said.
How many times have you heard a professional golfer say that? And you’d be hard-pressed to find one to openly talk about it.
“I had reached a low point, a bottom in my life,” Hockaday said Thursday in an N&O interview. “My wife wanted to part ways. My parents couldn’t trust me. I had burned all my bridges and really had no place to go. I needed help. I got down on my knees and prayed.”
Hockaday, 50, talks about it matter-of-factly. As director of the area Overcomer’s group affiliated with Angier Baptist Church, he said he meets with families dealing with alcohol and drug addiction problems who approach the church seeking help.
“There aren’t many people in the church with experience with addiction,” he said. “When someone comes in off the streets, they don’t know if that person is trying to get over on them or if they genuinely, truly want help.
“I’m there to discern if it’s a legitimate need. I’ll ask a few questions and get to the point really quick. I just know.”
Hockaday said he barely graduated from Western Harnett High — “School wasn’t my thing,” he said, smiling — and first began “dabbling” with drugs in high school. “Things just spiraled out of control over a few years,” he said.
Hockaday went to Methodist University in Fayetteville for one reason: To play on the golf team. When the Methodist coach decided to redshirt him as a freshman, he mostly cut classes and found other things to do. Drugs included.
“My addiction really started kicking in,” he said. “I lasted two and half semesters. My dad rolled in there one morning and I was lying in bed and was supposed to be in Economics class. He rolled in and said, ‘Pack your (mess), we’re going home.’ ”
He took some classes at Wake Tech. He took a job at Lochmere Golf Club in Cary, putting up golf carts and eventually being offered a position in the pro shop. “But I was just a glorified clerk, a shirt folder,” Hockaday said.
Hockaday had first learned the sport playing with his father, Jerry, at Hidden Valley Golf Club outside Angier. Chris began working at the club, cleaning and putting up carts, mopping the floors, playing and practicing.
“I knew from the time I was 12 or 13 that I wanted to play golf for a living,” he said.
Hockaday said he turned pro at 23 and won some mini-tour events. He became good friends with Neal Lancaster, a self-taught pro golfer from Smithfield who was on the PGA Tour for many years.
“He’s good as gold,” Lancaster said Friday. “He got derailed in life like we all do, sometimes, but he cleaned himself up. He can really play and he’s one of the nicest guys in the world.”
It was Lancaster who once asked Hockaday why he didn’t win more tournaments. Hockaday, bluntly, said that he choked.
“Neal said, ‘Every time you come out and play with us at home, you shoot 65 and you ain’t even trying,’” Hockaday recalled. “He said, ‘The next time you go out there and play, try not to try.’ ”
Ah, the wisdom of Neal Lancaster. Try not to try.
“I took that advice and a more lackadaisical approach, that it’s not that crucial,” Hockaday said. “I won a tournament and winning breeds winning and I started winning more and more.”
Hockaday tried the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament. He tried qualifying for the 1999 U.S. Open in Pinehurst. He was a good mini-tour player but couldn’t quite reach Tour level. Something had to change. And did.
He remembers the date: June 10, 2004. That’s the day he entered Potter’s Wheel Ministries, a drug addiction treatment center in Mount Olive. He was there for the next 11 months, attending program classes, working, building pallets.
“The Lord changed me through that place,” he said. “I learned a lot about myself there. I had moved around from town to town for years thinking Angier was my problem, that area was my problem, those people were my problem. Until one day I looked at the mirror and realized I was the problem. That was pretty much it for me.
“You can find drugs anywhere. You can blame anything. But when you start looking to yourself and own up to things and start being responsible for your actions, things can change.”
It did for Hockaday. He’s clean. He’s playing good golf. He’ll try the Qualifying Tournament again — this time for the PGA Tour Champions, for golfers 50 and older.
“I’m really proud of him because he has come a long, long way,” Jerry Hockaday said Saturday. “Praise the Lord. God has blessed him and gave him a talent he’s still using. He gave him a heart that was really bigger than his talent, really.”
Hockaday once caddied for Lancaster at the SAS. Both were in the field this week, although Hockaday had a rough start in the opening round Friday -- six over after five holes -- before steadying to card a 4-over 76. He overcame two early double-bogeys Saturday for a 1-over 73.
“I called him (Thursday) night and said, ‘Look, nobody expects you to win the golf tournament’ and to just go out there and play,” Lancaster said. “It’s an experience for him.”
Another life experience.
“Nobody knows when somebody has made the decision ‘I’m going to walk a different path,’ ” Hockaday said. “No one knows if you really mean it. When some time gets between you and the time you say it, people can see your actions and see you’re doing what you said you’re going to do.”