by Andrew Kenney
photographs by Nick Pironio
There’s one photo that tells you everything that’s important to Chesson and Amanda Hadley. At its center is a baby, fair-haired little Hughes. He’s sitting contentedly in a huge crystal trophy, white baby shoes kicking out of a fluted rim. His parents are sharing the prize – Chesson with his long arms holding the trophy’s base,
Amanda supporting Hughes’s head. The adults beam with happiness. The baby’s sucking his fist. The trophy glimmers with promise – and its size speaks of big expectations.
It was the moment that welcomed the Raleigh natives to an exclusive club, because Chesson, 27, had just won the Puerto Rico Open by two strokes, his first PGA TOUR win. “We just kind of looked at each other and put (Hughes) in the cup,” he recalls. “It was a perfect fit. It was the picture of the tournament.”
Hadley had worked hard to get there. Two years at golf’s lowest levels, a year on the Web.com Tour, and 13 PGA events with four top 10 finishes. Along the way, he built a huge personal following, charming fans with his combination of straight-arrow ambition and jokey candor. He was named PGA Rookie of the Year. He even won a joking mention on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show for his lanky build, which Fallon compared to a giant wind sock.
It was the Puerto Rico win, though, that really defined this couple’s new life. “It’s such a huge relief. It was almost immediate,” Hadley says. “This is where I need to be. As Christians, during those mini-tour years, we were searching and we were praying.” And they finally seemed to have an answer.
For the time being. The Puerto Rico win stamped Hadley’s ticket for two more seasons at golf’s highest level, along with entrance to some of the game’s crown-jewel events.
With stakes like that, Chesson’s not a man with a lot of spare time. But on the last day of 2014, at the cusp of a new season, the 2013 Rex Hospital Open winner and his young family found a moment to meet a reporter in Raleigh for coffee and conversation. Despite the late night they’d just had with the baby, and the inconvenience of a car that wouldn’t start, they were full of positive energy.
“We’ve had some time with friends and family – we’ve had plenty of time to celebrate,” Chesson says, settling in with a cappucino. “The off-season’s been great, but I’m anxious to get out there again.”
You can’t blame him. At this point, he’s already played his last practice round at the North Ridge Country Club. In two days, he and his family will leave their North Raleigh townhouse for Hawaii’s Tournament of Champions – and a return to the spotlight. (He doesn’t know it yet, but by April, he will have posted two top 10 finishes in 10 PGA events.)
All of the bustle, the spotlight, the pressure: The couple calls it their new normal.
“This one might be the first year that there’s been a little bit of normalcy,” Amanda says. The baby’s eyeing the yogurt and Chesson snacks on pimento-cheese toast. “Everything was brand new, for three years.”
It helps that the couple had so long together to figure “normal” out. The two attended North Raleigh Christian Academy from elementary school on, but their relationship really started on the golf course at North Ridge Country Club. He was in fifth grade, she in sixth, and he was already playing near par. Amanda didn’t turn out to be a golfer, but the couple stuck together, and their middle school friendship turned to high school romance.
Even back then, Hadley was chasing the pros, his jocular goofiness masking a singular drive. He was a lanky, friendly kid with a slightly cocky smile and a club in his hands, drawn to golf by its taunting difficulty.
“You can ask her: I knew what I was going to do. I was going to play golf,” Hadley says.
Tim Pitman, Hadley’s former swing coach, can attest to that. Hadley was a tween and Pitman just 19 when they became teacher and student at North Ridge Country Club. The kid’s drive was evident already – but there was one little problem.
“He had a great rhythm and a great tempo,” Pitman says. “His main issue back when he started was that he was just so small. He was skinny, but he wasn’t tall yet.”
Hadley hated that his height kept him from hitting as far as he wanted to. Pitman told him there wasn’t much to do but wait. Hadley hated that, too. So he played even harder, making the high school team before he had left eighth grade. Playing with the big guys only sent him to overdrive.
Pitman says that’s when Hadley also started to learn the lessons that have stood him well – to not take his failings so seriously, to slow down that drive, to weigh his options. Growing up is a long game, and those years were good practice – especially for the relationship that would define it all.
His romance with Amanda lasted when they went different ways for college – he to Georgia Tech and she to UNC-Chapel Hill, both to study business. He was a three-time All-American at Georgia Tech, and his play changed with the relationship: The couple’s four-month break-up coincided with his junior year slump – but they were rekindled and engaged to be married by the time he played his last college round.
Hadley launched his pro career in 2010, just as he finished school. Amanda, a determined worker herself, was on her way to a master’s in business and a career in consulting. Stability, however, would be a few years coming.
The lower tracks of most sports are a grueling grind – all of the labor, little of the money, and none of the glory. Chesson trekked for years through the “mini” tours, driving himself across the country while Amanda worked in the Triangle.
Chesson knew starting out that thousands of golfers burn out on those trips. No matter.
“I’m a very big thinker, a very big dreamer, and I’m very stubborn,” he says. His wife nods, a hint of bemusement in her smile.
While he toured, she became a consultant and started her career climb, and the two of them earned enough to lay a family’s foundation. Still, the scramble and the lonely drives wore at the young golfer. Chesson was a newlywed with a shot at his dream – but could he live both lives?
“I got better. I made more money every single year. It wasn’t that I wasn’t providing,” he says. But he had to ask: “Was what I was doing at that time the right fit for Amanda and I, moving forward?”
Golf is a fickle sport, he says, and he didn’t want to be chasing a dream, alone on the road at 30. A season on the second-tier Web.com Tour hastened his climb. A move to the PGA TOUR changed his life.
Life with the big show means stop after stop, trip after trip – but it has brought the young family together.
Once Hughes arrived, the couple decided Amanda and Hughes would follow Chesson on the tour. In fact, the baby attended the McGladrey Classic in Georgia just three days after he was born at Rex Hospital in Raleigh. (Chesson had won the Rex Hospital Open earlier in 2013, and was himself born at the hospital.)
The Hadleys say it’s easier than it might seem to raise a newborn in the middle of a professional golf circus. “Most people on the tour with kids Hughes’ age travel,” Amanda says. “I feel like almost everybody’s a parent.”
She manages flights and reservations and baby life daily, and the PGA’s official child-care program helps too. “The tour is really supportive,” she says.
And so these years are golden, the best kind of normal. Chesson and Amanda have their youth, they have his rising star, and they have the gift of a new life. It seems like the only question is what kind of ball the baby’s going to play.
“Chesson’s pushing him to be a lefty, so he can be a baseball pitcher,” Amanda says. “He sticks things in his left hand, I stick things in his right hand.”
Yet a golden age can only last so long. Perhaps they’ll need to change their routine, splitting apart for longer, as Hughes gets older. “We don’t know what it will be like once he gets in school,” Amanda says. “We want to take advantage of the time we have.”
And nothing’s guaranteed in golf. “You constantly have to earn,” Chesson says. “I have to go earn that right.”
As the coffee begins to run low, they talk about the season ahead. “We haven’t sat down to do it yet – but every year, we have a goal-setting thing,” Chesson says.
“It’s Chesson’s favorite: What are our goals this year?” Amanda adds. Chesson hopes for another big year, more shots at the biggest events.
“I just want to feel like I’ve gotten better, improved. It doesn’t necessarily mean I need to win again this year – but I’d love to have a hall-of-fame career,” he says. “After two or three years, you can get settled in and start to compete in really big majors. If you win, they’re career-changing.”
He’d also like to read six books and work out more this year, shoehorning in these little goals with the huge ones. That’s how it goes – a life in the spotlight is still just a life. The small stuff, the broken cars and restless babies, is just as big when you’re the Hadleys. And maybe that’s comforting.
“Whatever he wants to do, he’s going to get it done,” Amanda says. “There’s a peace in both of us having a really strong relationship with God. If He takes (Chesson’s) arm tomorrow – He’s going to take care of us. We’re going to be together, as a family.”
The 2015 Rex Hospital Open will take place May 25-31 at TPC Wakefield Plantation. For information and tickets, go to rexhospitalopen.com.