In 15 years of coaching, Texas A&M’s Gerrod Chadwell had never had a team captain.
Hailee Cooper has since changed that.
“We were talking out loud our first team meeting of the year [in August] and I said, ‘Coop, I think you’d be a great team captain,’” Chadwell recalled. “… I think that says something about her as a person and how she’s been able to lead.”
That isn’t to say that Cooper, a fifth-year senior, has always been fit for such a role. It took three turbulent years and a trip through the transfer portal for Cooper to not only evolve into a leader but also rediscover her confidence and love for the game.
Coming out of high school, Cooper was a can’t-miss prospect, a five-time AJGA Rolex All-American and one of the top players in the Class of 2018. She also made the cut at the U.S. Women’s Open the summer before arriving at the University of Texas, which had won the Cooper sweepstakes over many elite schools, including Chadwell’s upstart Houston program.
Cooper had established a great relationship with Chadwell through the recruiting process, saying, “I’ve always looked up to him and gone to him for advice as much as you’re allowed to.” But despite their bond, Cooper hesitated to sign with the Cougars just for the coach, as Chadwell, in his sixth year at the time, was a prime candidate to eventually be hired elsewhere.
When it came time to sign her national letter of intent, she chose the Longhorns because she believed playing for Texas would make her a better player. Add in a good team environment and a campus that offers the full college experience, and it seemed like the perfect fit.
“It’s one of those things you’ll never forget where you were,” Chadwell said of the moment he received the call that Cooper was heading to Austin.
But in some way, he always felt he would still be her coach.
Cooper, armed with a plan of graduating in three years and then heading to LPGA Q-School, hit the ground running at Texas, firing her first 10 rounds at par or better before putting together a first-team All-American season in which she led Texas in scoring (72.28) and earned Big 12 Freshman of the Year honors. She was confident, had no doubt where her ball was going and thriving in her new environment. Everything was looking up for Cooper.
That is, until the fall of her sophomore year arrived. Surprisingly homesick and feeling mentally weaker, Cooper suddenly lost her ball-striking and confidence. Her scores suffered. She managed a top-10 at the prestigious Darius Rucker Intercollegiate that spring, but whatever positive feelings she garnered from that were quickly extinguished a few days later as the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the remainder of the spring season.
Cooper, shaken, headed home to Montgomery, Texas. She was able to practice, but when it came time to compete again that summer, she still wasn’t herself. A social personality, Cooper felt alone.
“I was feeling like just a golf score … and I put my worth in golf,” Cooper said.
Scared and anxious over every shot, Cooper sought help from a therapist. The process was painfully slow. Her junior year at Texas, she played sparingly, and her scoring average ballooned to 75.63. The lowest moment during that rough stretch was the 2021 Augusta National Women’s Amateur. Set to finally make her debut at Augusta National, Cooper tested positive for COVID-19 and was forced to withdraw.
“That was the nail in the coffin,” Cooper said. “It’s still really hard to talk about.”
Cooper’s mental work couldn’t stave off thoughts of quitting the game she loved. She wasn’t happy and dreaded going to practice and playing tournaments. She believed she had lost her talent.
Though she graduated that spring, she was nowhere near being ready to realize the second part of her plan and sign up for qualifying school. It was either hang up the clubs or enter the transfer portal. Thinking a change of scenery could revive her career, she chose the latter.
Chadwell, still at Houston, was the first coach to reach out.
Not long after, Chadwell, just like he had predicted, was Cooper’s coach – just at Texas A&M, as just a few days after Cooper agreed to transfer to Houston, Chadwell accepted the head job for the Aggies, who also landed transfers Jennie Park from TCU and Zoe Slaughter, who played for Chadwell at Houston.
The move, however, wasn’t an immediate fix for Cooper. Still working through her anxieties, Cooper saw decent action last season, making eight starts, but she also average 76.04 and shot 28 over at the NCAA Championship, where despite Cooper’s struggles the Aggies advanced all the way to the semifinals of match play.
“I was in such a bad place for so long … it was a lot to get over,” Cooper said.
But with Chadwell by her side, Cooper persevered. She was again hit hard by illness this past summer, catching the flu and strep throat, developing pneumonia, and to top it all off, she tested positive for COVID-19 again at the end of the summer.
But through all that, Cooper’s game had started to return to health. Her body was weak, so she played just one tournament, the Texas Women’s Amateur, but made it to the semifinals of match play.
“Being sick was a blessing in disguise because I started swinging it slower,” said Cooper, whose slower tempo led to better rhythm, more fairways and more confidence. Mentally, her mindset switched from being afraid to hit a shot to just trying to physically make it through 18 holes.
When her strength finally returned, she held on to a few of those good habits. She started to love the game again, too. When she got back to campus and teed it up in the Aggies’ first qualifier, for the Carmel Cup at Pebble Beach, she won it. She would go on to tie for ninth at Pebble with a final-round 69 on the iconic seaside layout.
When she returned to College Station, she possessed something she hadn’t had in a long time: momentum.
Not even another illness could prevent Cooper from showing up at Texas A&M’s home event, the “Mo”Morial Invitational at Traditions Club. In the days leading into the event, Cooper had a consistent cough and “felt horrible,” she says, but she managed to gut out scores of 70-71 to play her way into contention.
She had a fever the night before the final round, too, but with Texas A&M trailing Cooper’s former team, Texas, by three shots, she had reason to get out of bed one more time.
She felt worse the morning of the closing round, yet she remained upright and helped the Aggies to the comeback victory, firing a 4-under 68, tied for the low round of the day, to finish third individually.
It was her best individual showing in a college event since winning the 2019 Bruzzy Challenge while still at Texas.
Much has transpired in what has been a rocky past three years, but as Cooper heads into her final semester, she is back on track. Her golf career nearly derailed, she has Chadwell, in part, to thank for leading her down this new path and providing her an opportunity to finish her college journey the way she started it – only with a fresh, hard-earned perspective on the game she loves.
“I’m people over performance,” Chadwell said. “I operate out of love and not fear. I do want to play well, but I know there’s another side to this.”
With Cooper now convincingly on that other side, it’s her turn to lead.
– This article was written by GolfChannel.com contributor Libby Gilliland