Hayden Buckley's unlikely journey to Mizzou
March 02, 2021
By Nick Parker, PGATOUR.COM
- March 02, 2021
- Hayden Buckley went from first alternate to tournament champion at the LECOM Suncoast Classic. (University of Missouri; Ben Jared/PGA TOUR)
In 17 years as head men’s golf coach at the University of Missouri, Mark Leroux can only recall one player he’s ever offered a spot to without ever seeing them play golf: Hayden Buckley.
Four years later, Buckley left Mizzou with the single round school record of 61, the lowest scoring average in school history, and All-American honors.
“It was just this steady climb,” Leroux said. “He just got better and better and better.”
For Leroux, the gamble to take Buckley all came down to one former player’s conviction: Chris Harder. Harder, who coached Buckley in high school, had arrived at Austin Peay after convincing Leroux that he could play but just needed an opportunity. Harder, who had always been a straight shooter in Leroux’s estimation, felt the same about Buckley, so he called his former coach who he had remained close with over the years to lobby on his star student’s behalf. That’s all Leroux needed because he knew the drive Harder had shown in college, and if he was vouching for the kid’s determination and desire to improve, he knew that was the type of kid he wanted at Mizzou.
“When [Harder] called me and said, ‘Hey coach, this kid can play I’m telling you.’ I’d already been through that experience with [Harder] and it worked out great. So I was like ‘OK!’” Leroux said. “It just strengthened my belief in if someone’s telling you something and they know you and they’re like ‘Coach, I’m telling you, this kid can play, he can play.’ Then he can probably play.”
It didn’t take long for Leroux to realize what he had either in Buckley.
“You could just tell that he really wanted it and was willing to do whatever it took. He was just willing to do whatever it took, and he was very, very hungry,” Leroux said. “He was that kid with a chip on his shoulder. He knew what he wanted to do was to play professional golf, and he was going to do whatever it took to get there. I knew that the first year probably after the first couple of weeks.”
That wasn’t a coincidence. Buckley had been spurned by his in-state schools, Mississippi and Mississippi State, and he was determined to make the most of the opportunity Leroux gave him to still play at a Southeastern Conference program.
“If you work hard and do the right things, I think that was the one thing that attracted Coach [Leroux] to me,” Buckley said. “I had pretty good grades believe it or not. I worked hard. I was always out there practicing, and I was pushing people to be good.”
Away from the golf course, Buckley was a coach’s dream too. In many ways, he reminded Leroux of former Tiger and current PGA TOUR member Peter Malnati with not only his work ethic and drive but also his selfness nature as a teammate.
“Everybody loves [Buckley]. Everyone loves him. And rightfully so,” Leroux said. “He’s polite. He’s genuine. Yeah, he’s got all the right moves.”
After graduating as an All-American in 2018, Buckley immediately turned pro and his career at the next level has largely mimicked the steady ascension of his collegiate career. He initially proved himself on the Mackenzie Tour with a win and a sixth-place finish on the Order of Merit in 2019, earning Korn Ferry Tour status for the 2020-21 season. Entering 2021 at No. 85 on the Korn Ferry Tour Points Standings, Buckley was the last guy in the field at the LECOM Suncoast Classic.
But just like he did with the opportunity he received from Leroux at Mizzou, he made the most of his chance, winning in a three-way playoff with a birdie on the first playoff hole to move up to No. 27 on the Korn Ferry Tour Points Standings.
That putt sent Leroux and his team into a frenzy in the team van as they drove to Huntsville, Alabama to practice for an upcoming event.
“The guys all had it on their cell phone, watching it live on Twitter, and the whole van just erupted,” Leroux said. “We were all screaming in the van when he made the putt. They were giving me play-by-play in the back, and it was just fantastic. I was so happy for [Buckley].”