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The twists of fate that landed Cooper at her first and final ANWA

The twists of fate that landed Cooper at her first and final ANWA

EVANS, Ga. – Hailee Cooper never expected to be here.

The 24-year-old from Montgomery, Texas, should’ve been a professional golfer by now. She graduated from Texas A&M last summer with a master’s degree in sports management before entering LPGA Q-School in the fall as an amateur.

But as fate would have it, she failed to advance out of second stage, and a few months later, an invite to the Augusta National Women’s Amateur arrived in her mailbox.

“Super weird,” Cooper said, “but I got really lucky.”

Three years ago, Cooper’s car was packed and ready to begin the nearly 1,000-mile journey to Augusta, Georgia, for Cooper’s ANWA debut. The previous year’s championship was canceled because of the pandemic, and negative tests were still required for players to compete.

Cooper was buckling her seatbelt when her mom called her back inside; her latest result was positive.

“The nail in the coffin,” Cooper has said of that moment.

The fact that she’s made her way back is nothing short of remarkable.

Back in high school, Cooper was one of the top players in her class, which included Frida Kinhult, Gina Kim and Gurleen Kaur. A five-time AJGA All-American, Cooper had her pick of colleges, though Texas, hometown Texas A&M and Houston, coached then by current A&M coach Gerrod Chadwell, were the frontrunners. Chadwell wanted Cooper to commit to the Cougars so badly, “I was showing up at her high school practices," he says.

But Cooper chose the Longhorns, and during her freshman year, she was even better than advertised. She made the cut at the 2018 U.S. Women’s Open the summer before heading to Austin, and in 12 starts, she posted two wins and five other top-12 finishes, including a solo fourth at the NCAA Championship. She was honored as Big 12 Freshman of the Year and a first-team All-American.

“Then the sophomore slump hit,” Cooper says.

She pulled herself out of it that spring, racking up three straight top-20s, including a T-10 at the Darius Rucker. But the pandemic halted all of that momentum, and Cooper soon began struggling with anxiety. Texas’ website doesn’t even show her results from her junior season, though she teed it up just five times with no finishes better than T-19. Rock bottom came at the 2021 Big 12 Championship, where Cooper finished last in the 45-player field ... by 12 shots.

That’s when Texas coach Ryan Murphy pulled Cooper aside and informed her that she probably had played her last tournament for the Longhorns. Cooper understood. “I get it,” she told Murphy. “I don’t need to be playing.”

But Cooper had one more start in her. She had surprisingly just qualified for another U.S. Women’s Open, and Murphy decided to give her another shot at regionals. Cooper played better, but she still beat only 13 competitors. She lost her lineup spot again for nationals and never hit another shot for Texas.

“All those years of being one of the best players, and now you’re not that – and I was still working really hard and not seeing any progress – it took a toll on me,” Cooper said. “I went home and had time to reflect, and since I was graduating (in three years with a bachelor’s degree in communication studies), I was either going to enter the portal or quit.”

It wasn’t long before Chadwell’s phone was ringing. Chadwell had just gotten the job at A&M, which had missed regionals the season before, and Cooper decided to join him there.

“I told her, ‘I want you to help me create the culture for this place, and I don’t give a damn what you shoot,’” Chadwell said. “If golf worked out, that was a bonus, but we needed to lay the foundation for something bigger than what this place had been.”

Cooper was a perfect contractor. Never had Chadwell selected a team captain, but Cooper broke the streak in her fifth season, second in College Station. Cooper remembers one time when she hosted a team sleepover in her studio apartment, eight Aggies crammed in yet having the times of their lives, watching movies and playing games.

“I was like, we’re not just going to be teammates,” Cooper says. “We were going to be friends, we were going to do everything together and nobody was going to be excluded from anything.”

On the golf course, Cooper started to show signs of busting out of her prolonged slump, including notching back-to-back top-5s in the spring of 2022. She may have counted for just one round at conference, regionals and nationals that season, but the Aggies reached the NCAA Championship semifinals and despite dealing with a slew of illnesses – COVID again, flu, strep, pneumonia – that summer, Cooper battled her way to the semifinals of the Texas Women’s State Amateur.

The comeback had commenced, and Cooper opened her final fall semester with consecutive top-10s. She’d finish outside the top 25 just twice in 11 starts as a fifth-year senior while helping A&M to the SEC title and another national semifinal appearance.

“It took a long time to really get it,” Cooper said. “I was so tight and just, oh my gosh, I don't like this shot, I don't like the way I do this. … I just put so much pressure on myself for a long time, and once I kind of let it go, I started playing so much better, how I used to play.”

The move to College Station had, in fact, been career-saving.

When it came time to celebrate Cooper at the team’s banquet last year, the only way Chadwell figured he could get through it without crying was to read the poem, “Soul of a Man.” Chadwell changed man to woman, and it described Cooper wholly. He still got emotional.

“Only a special person can go from the mountaintop to the depths of where she went to,” Chadwell said. “I know she still had her days, but you never saw it. She always had a smile on her face. She was probably a better teammate to her teammates than she was to herself. It’s interesting, I think just to stomach that of where you were, to have to go through that and everybody’s asking what’s wrong, and you know it, right, your golf game is a shell of what it used to be, to come out on top, it’s pretty wild...

“You better believe in something to go through that.”

Cooper took a couple months off last summer to recharge and then started her prep for Q-School. One bad round derailed her hopes of reaching Q-Series, but in a way, it was a blessing in disguise. She stayed amateur, and then one evening when she was leaving her job working three days a week in the pro shop at Bentwater Country Club in Montgomery, she got an email telling her that a package had arrived from Augusta National Golf Club.

Just outside the top 100 in the world amateur rankings at the time, Cooper had just qualified as one of the top 30 Americans. And so, her pro debut was put on hold until next week, when she’ll drive from Augusta to Lake Charles, Louisiana, for a Women’s All Pro Tour event.

This week, Cooper wants to win; Chadwell argues that despite her past, she has the tools to do so. But more than anything, Cooper wants to enjoy this special opportunity, this fitting ending to her amateur career.

“She deserves to be here,” Chadwell said. “She's gracious, she's humble, she understands, I don't think it's lost on her, the privilege that she gets to be here after everything. So, I just hope she lets it rip. … It would be really cool if she's playing on Saturday and gets to hit a competitive shot at Augusta National.

“If that’s the reward to all that she’s been through, if that's where she ends her amateur career, putting out on 18 at Augusta National, man, how beautiful of a story is that?”