Chesson Hadley was born into this world at Rex Hospital. He grew up playing golf in Raleigh. So when he won the Web.com Tour’s Rex Hospital Open last spring the victory represented a win-win proposition for both parties.
For Hadley, the win helped launch him to this year’s rookie season on the PGA Tour, where he won in just his 13th career start and is the leading candidate for Rookie of the Year at the season’s midway point.
“I think it’s phenomenal,” said Carson Gilbert, the Rex Hospital Open’s fourth-year tournament director. “It generated a significant amount of buzz for us, not only national, but internationally.
“I’m encouraged that he will be rookie of the year, and that really was spring-boarded by him winning at Rex. When you hear the announcers on the major networks talk about Chesson Hadley, it could well be ‘he’s rookie of the year, he won last year at the Rex Hospital Open.’ It flows off their tongues.”
Such plugs do not hurt the tournament – scheduled for May 22-25 at TPC Wakefield Plantation in North Raleigh – market itself, but the Rex Hospital Open has become a mainstay on tour.
The tournament debuted as the Carolina Classic in 1994 at Prestonwood Country Club as part of the then-named Nike Tour. The event moved to Raleigh Country Club in 1998 and then to TPC Wakefield Plantation in 2001. Rex Hospital came on as title sponsor in 2005.
“We like [the Rex Hospital Open] in our portfolio because we are all about true golf for the true golfer,” said Brian Kittler, vice president of golf operations for McConnell Golf, whose courses also host the PGA Tour’s Wyndham Championship (Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro) and Atlantic Coast Conference’s men’s and women’s championships (Old North State Club in New London and Sedgefield, respectively). “With the Web.com in Raleigh, having a 20-year history there kind of goes to what our philosophy is, and that is showcasing our great golf courses.”
Regardless of venue, Rex has delivered white-knuckle back-nine finishes on Sunday. Of the previous 20 tournaments, 19 have been decided by two strokes or less and five have been decided in a playoff. The lone exception was 2010 when John Riegger won a weather-shortened 54-hole tournament by five strokes.
In addition to Hadley, who also won the 2013 season-ending Web.com Tour Championship, the Rex Hospital Open’s list of winners and runner-ups include Craig Perks (1996 runner-up who won the 2002 Players Championship), John Maginnes (2001 champion who played collegiately at East Carolina University), Mark Hensby (2000 champion and winner on both the PGA and European tours) and Ryuji Imada (2001 runner-up and 2008 PGA Tour AT&T Classic winner).
Hadley’s success, while quick at the next level, is not uncommon.
“It helps a lot because you’ve learned how to win, you learn how not to choke,” said Hadley of lessons learned on the Web.com Tour after he won his first PGA Tour tournament in March. “The Web.com does a phenomenal job of preparing you.”
For all of Hadley’s early-season exploits on the big tour, even after his first PGA Tour victory his favorite shot remains one he executed in last year’s Rex Hospital Open.
“The 18th hole, 72nd hole, I had 132 yards to the flag and I hit a 52-degree and it hit the flag on the way down, just came down to about 8 inches, 12 inches, and that was pretty cool,” said Hadley, who won by two strokes over Danny Lee.
The days of the Web.com Tour being considered a developmental tour have long passed. The tour has become more competitive throughout the years because entry onto the PGA Tour has become more difficult. Thus, fields for tournaments like the Rex Hospital Open are deeper in talent.
With this year’s tournament approaching, Gilbert is anticipating another success story, both on and off the course. From a business perspective, the fact that Pinehurst No. 2 will host the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open on successive weeks in mid-June has had little impact on Rex.
“We have such long-standing partners that it really has not affected our ability to generate sponsorships or support,” Gilbert said. “You’re dealing with a completely different market. A lot of the things happening down in Pinehurst are high corporate-dollar sponsorships. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars to millions. With us you’re talking thousands and tens of thousands. And, obviously, you’re talking about an international audience for the U.S. Open, and we have a regional audience.”
Gilbert said the tournament is fortunate to have such strong community and sponsor support, and cites partner First Citizens Bank as an example. Aside from the tournament, the bank and hospital have had a working relationship since the 1920s.
As for this year’s tournament, the Rex Hospital Open will offer a bit of old, new and improved. Gilbert said, for example, the corporate skyboxes are “bigger and better.”
The tournament kicks off on Sunday, May 18, with the annual Rex Hospital Open Junior Invitational, which invites top local high school players and extends the winner an exemption into the tournament. A new college division has been created this year and the winner will also be extended an exemption.
The First Tee of the Triangle Instructional Clinic will be held on Tuesday, May 20, followed by tournament play May 22-25. Family Day at the Open and Service Appreciation Day, which is being expanded to honor more branches of the Armed Forces, will be held on the weekend.
What also will be a constant is the level of play. And while the winner may not have the same ties that Hadley holds to Rex, the tournament should be a win-win for both.