Hayden Buckley's unlikely path to the Korn Ferry Tour
October 29, 2019
By Brendan Stasiewich, PGATOUR.COM
- October 29, 2019
- Hayden Buckley is set to play in the Final Stage of Korn Ferry Tour Q-School in December. (Angela Burger)
In the spring of 2019, Daniel Purnell quit his job at Native Foods in Denver, Colo., electing to spend his summer caddying for Hayden Buckley on the Mackenzie Tour-PGA TOUR Canada.
Best friends since age three, who could blame Purnell after what he witnessed growing up with Buckley?
Born in Chattanooga, Tenn., Buckley’s family moved to Tupelo, Miss., when he was two, as his father looked to establish himself as a doctor in the small city with a population of 36,000.
Still a year away from his first day of organized schooling, Buckley’s mom became best friends with Purnell’s mom and, from that day on, when young Hayden wasn’t busy swinging a plastic golf club around the living room, the two boys were inseparable.
“My very first memory was in preschool. We were three – maybe four – years old, and I remember us hanging out in the corner having a good time,” said Purnell. “Then in kindergarten we really had a blast. I remember Hayden, myself and another one of our buddies, Carson, were all chasing the same girl around on the playground.”
With both boys coming from athletic families (Buckley’s dad played baseball at the University of Mississippi), they joined organized sports teams together; baseball, basketball, soccer, and eventually, the middle school golf team.
It was around that time that Buckley discovered his dream; following in his father’s footsteps and playing college sports at an SEC school.
“From the start, he would have liked to have gone to Mississippi State or Ole Miss,” said Purnell, who would chat with Buckley at sleepovers about their dream of being roommates in college.
When high school came around, Buckley took the advice of various coaches and family members who told him if he wanted to play in the SEC, he was likely going to have to specialize in one sport.
“That was one of the hardest decisions I had to make,” said Buckley. “I wasn’t super competitive in golf for a long time, but I kind of knew baseball wasn’t going to work out, so I thought I would test out golf.”
The only problem was, up until that point, most of Buckley’s experience on the golf course came from playing rounds with friends in the summer or with his local Tupelo school team. As a 16-year-old, he didn’t have a resume suited for an SEC school.
To add to the issue, Tupelo Country Club was without a golf professional, and despite Buckley’s work ethic and hours spent working on the driving range, he found himself without a mentor on the course.
As fate would have it, one external decision during Buckley’s junior year of high school impacted the entire trajectory of his life.
Tupelo Country Club hired a bright-minded golf professional from Alabama named Chris Harder.
“I was like ‘Hey, you’re my coach now, teach me how to golf,’” Buckley reminisced with a chuckle.
Harder, no stranger to competitive golf having played at Austin Peay State University under coach Mark Leroux, immediately took Buckley under his wing. As Harder helped Buckley move his game to the next level, he quickly noticed Buckley’s fierce demeanor and the intangibles he possessed.
“One thing that stuck out, we were tied going into the ninth hole in a little game we were playing, and [Buckley] snap-hooked it out of bounds, and I ended up beating him,” said Harder. “I could tell from that moment how much it bothered him to lose. It wasn’t like he was nasty or mean, but it bothered him more than it would bother a lot of people.
“He’s always, to me,” Harder continued, “had more of a quiet desire to succeed. He doesn’t project a lot, but something deep down inside makes him a fiery competitor.”
Despite Buckley’s hard work and dedication, he began his senior year of high school without knowing where, or if, he would be playing college golf.
“Hayden (Buckley) really wanted to go to Ole Miss or Mississippi State, to stay close to home, and play in the SEC,” said Harder. “He just didn’t have enough success early enough to get noticed.”
That reality was a chilling thought to somebody who spent the better part of four years working toward one thing.
“Senior year of high school is supposed to be one of the most exciting parts of life, getting ready to go to college,” said Buckley. “For me, it was almost the opposite and most depressing part of my life because, since freshman year, I had worked my butt off, and I realized I might not have a chance to play in college.”
Little did anybody know, but the road to Buckley’s collegiate dreams were being paved years prior in Tennessee.
Around the time Buckley and Purnell were chasing the same girl on the playground, Harder’s golf team at Austin Peay was finding success—three conference championships worth of success, as a matter of fact.
The teams were so successful that Harder’s coach wound up accepting a head coaching gig at the University of Missouri - an, ahem, SEC school. As the years went on, Harder stayed in touch with his former coach.
“I called my coach and said, ‘Hey, I have a kid here who is a really good player. He isn’t top-50 in the world, but he’s a nice player who works harder than anybody else I’ve ever seen, gets good grades has a good family and dreams of playing in the SEC,’” said Harder.
A month into his senior year, Buckley received a phone call from Leroux.
“He just said, ‘I want you to play for me,’” said Buckley. “I had never met him, never seen his face and it was something I didn’t expect. All the long trips kind of paid off in that moment, and even if I wasn’t the best recruit, it propelled (me) into even more of a hard-working mindset.”
Buckley met Purnell soon after at a local barbecue restaurant to tell his best friend the bittersweet news: he would be playing college golf, but at the expense of their plan to be roommates.
“Dude, I’m so proud of you, this is going to be worth it,” Buckley’s pal said to him with a big smile.
Purnell was right.
After getting “beat around” on the course his freshman year, Buckley began working with a sports psychologist and took his training more seriously, doing whatever he could to become a full-time player for the Tigers.
After a semi-successful sophomore campaign, Buckley says the turning point of his college career came after he suffered a torn back muscle the summer prior to his junior year. That injury forced him out of the lineup to start the season.
“That winter was the biggest jump for me,” said Buckley. “I started working out more and was taking care of my body, so I came back in the spring like a different person. I was so focused on doing things that would help my golf game at all times.”
“I truly believe Hayden really developed in those four years of college because he doesn’t give a crap about that other stuff some college kids do,” said Purnell. “He was so dedicated to golf. He still had a good time, but he had more determination than a lot of guys.”
Named team captain his senior year, Buckley opened his season with a win, and soon after shot a career-low tournament round of 61 at the Warrior Princeville Makai Invitational in Hawaii.
At the end of the season, Buckley had won three more times and was named the Missouri Male Athlete of the Year for the 2017-18 season.
Flash forward a year, with college now a memory, and there was Buckley spending his first full season as a professional, playing on the Mackenzie Tour – PGA TOUR Canada. While he was picking up his first pro win at the ATB Financial Classic in Calgary and recording five other top-10s, his best buddy was on the bag, caddying for him all season. Buckley just missed a top-five Order of Merit finish that would have given him Korn Ferry Tour membership, but his sixth-place showing puts him in the final stage of Q-School in December.
“The trajectory of his career is so linear and so constant, it’s crazy,” said Harder, who still speaks with Buckley, at least via text, almost every day. “I told his dad I’m waiting for him to not keep improving, but he does every year.
“In college he went from not making the lineup to being one of the best players,” Harder added, “and then he went from that to winning lots of tournaments.” That same progression has continued since Buckley turned pro.
“Whenever he doesn’t do it, the next time he does. It’s uncanny how sometimes he might fail but then he always succeeds,” Harder said.
Meanwhile, Purnell is sticking right by Buckley’s side as he attempts to continue the upward trend.
“It’s something that would be hard to believe five or six years ago as a senior in high school that we’re here now,” said Buckley. “It’s a cool story, and not everybody is just that lucky to get a call to go play at an SEC school, and I took advantage of it.
“When you get an opportunity, you have to take advantage of it, is the moral of the story for me.”