For a professional golfer, there’s nothing worse than the disappointment of losing a PGA Tour card. For Chesson Hadley, it meant a long and difficult climb back up to the top of a steep mountain. Now, after years of an unrelenting grind, Hadley can see the shining summit. The 33- year-old is just a round of golf away from a career-defining victory right here in the South Carolina Lowcountry.
The road of life will have both smooth lanes and speed bumps. In the path of a golfer’s career, it’s no different. After earning All-America honors at Georgia Tech, the Raleigh native made his PGA Tour debut at the 2012 Wyndham Championship on a sponsor’s exemption. Hadley then dominated the then-Web.com (now Korn Ferry) circuit in 2013, racking up an impressive eight top-10 finishes in 22 starts and totaled the second-highest winnings ever in a season on pro golf’s No. 2 tour.
The up-and-coming talent broke through on his home turf, winning his first event at the Rex Hospital Open with his family and friends in the gallery. Hadley then took the momentum into his rookie year on the PGA Tour, capturing the 2014 Puerto Rico Open and cracking the top 60 in the FedEx Cup standings by the end of the season to claim Rookie of the Year honors. It looked like the beginning of a long, lucrative career for the phenom.
Very little is handed out for free in the world of competitive golf. If you fail to perform up to par, you won’t get a paycheck when the weekend is done. Earning a PGA Tour card is one thing, but keeping it is even tougher. In 2016, Hadley learned it the hard way. Just two years removed from his breakout season, the former Yellow Jacket recorded just four top-25s and finished the FedEx Cup standings outside the top 125, resulting in a devastating relegation back to the minors.
You work so hard for years upon years to make it to the highest level, and suddenly the dream slips away. Some will succumb to the disappointment and fold, but others will use it as motivation to rise once again. For Hadley, it inspired him to take his drive and perseverance to the next level to reach the latter. Just one year later, he was back on the big stage.
The 2020 season wasn’t a kind one to Chesson Hadley. With an inconsistent season sandwiched between an unprecedented pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 33-year-old was searching for answers to continue his standing at the sport’s highest level. He knew he could get there, as evidenced by his phenomenal T9 finish at the 2019 US Open at Pebble Beach. With five straight missed cuts and 26 spots away from the all-important top 125, the pressure was certainly mounting.
As the 2020-21 season reached its final weeks, the calendar turned to an event never seen before in PGA Tour history: The Palmetto Championship at Congaree. A new course was set to take center stage, creating a level playing field that could give all entrants a massive opportunity at a breakthrough week. With a ton at stake for the veteran, Hadley made his way down to the Lowcountry and Congaree Golf Club.
Right from the first tee shot on Thursday afternoon, Hadley dug in and put it all together to the tune of seven opening-round birdies. The putter was the star on Friday. After his grandmother passed away earlier this year, Hadley named the club Nana in her honor. The spirit of Nana surrounded Congaree from start to finish in the second round, as Hadley conjured a 5-under 66 on the strength of lights-out putting to move to the top of the leaderboard.
It looked like South Carolinian and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson would feed off the home-course advantage to take control, but even the globe’s best golfer couldn’t stop a dialed-in Hadley. The Raleigh native shook off a tough start on Saturday, recovering from an opening bogey to rattle off four birdies in five holes on Congaree’s back-nine gauntlet. On a menacing 31-foot putt on the par-3 14th, Nana came through again. All of a sudden, Chesson Hadley could feel it. Now, just 18 holes remain between himself and a career-defining victory, and he takes a four-shot cushion into the final round.
“I was anxious, and it has been a long time since I’ve been in a position like this,” Hadley said. “And so I was really uncomfortable and I didn’t hit a good first tee shot and I was lucky to be able to pitch out and just make my bogey… And then I made a really nice putt on 6 for par and I was kind of, I kind of felt really good after that. So I started to string some nice holes together, it was hard out there, it’s firm and fast and the course has held its own.”
He’s overcome so many hurdles on his way to this moment, but he’ll have a few more to escape on Sunday to pull out the incredible victory. After the third round was cut short due to weather, Hadley and Johnson had an early start to finish 18 before what will be a long wait before the fourth and final round commences.
It has been a long road back to the mountaintop, but the finish line is in sight for Chesson Hadley. With just 18 more holes of stellar golf, the elation, the glory, and the rewards will be all his.
By Wes Kerr