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Brian Cooper overcomes depression to earn PGA TOUR Champions card

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PHOENIX, ARIZONA - DECEMBER 09: Brian Cooper reacts to a putt on the 18th hole during the final round of the PGA TOUR Champions Qualifying Tournament-Final Stage on December 9, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Andrew Wevers/PGA TOUR via Getty Images)

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - DECEMBER 09: Brian Cooper reacts to a putt on the 18th hole during the final round of the PGA TOUR Champions Qualifying Tournament-Final Stage on December 9, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Andrew Wevers/PGA TOUR via Getty Images)

    Written by Kevin Prise @PGATOURKevin

    SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Brian Cooper was in a spiral.

    The Pittsburgh native and longtime club pro had to undergo shoulder surgery earlier this year, putting his goal of playing PGA TOUR Champions in jeopardy. The rehab process was be a lonely one, making it easy to dwell on the negatives.

    Depression crept in. At first, he didn’t want to admit it.

    “There were days that, honestly, I didn’t want to be here,” Cooper said. “I was checked out. I didn’t want to be here anymore. But then I looked at my son, and that’s everything to me. There’s no way I could do that to him and my wife.

    “So, I got help.”

    After seeking treatment for depression and going public with his struggles on social media, Cooper felt gradually unburdened. His physical health improved too. He gained energy from sharing his experiences with others, both in person and via conversations on social media.

    Cooper’s emotional journey hit a crescendo this week at the Final Stage of the PGA TOUR Champions Qualifying Tournament. He carded a four-round total of 13 under at TPC Scottsdale’s Champions Course to finish in a three-way tie for third and earn one of the five available cards for next season. Cooper will have full status for the first time after holding Associate Membership, which allowed him to compete in weekly qualifiers, for each of the past three years.

    Cooper competed at Final Stage with his older brother Dana on the bag, and the emotion was palpable as the result became official. A handful of players had a chance to make birdie or eagle on the closing hole to force a playoff with Cooper, David McKenzie and Tim O’Neal for the final cards, but no one could join them at 13 under.

    Cooper hugged his brother. Called his wife. Put his head in his hands.

    Months after becoming disenchanted with the sometimes-cruel realities of the world, Cooper had achieved his ultimate professional dream, years in the making.

    “I wouldn’t be here today if I had not been honest about my struggles,” Cooper said Friday afternoon. “It’s been a long road. I saw this happening years ago, and when it doesn’t happen, you start to lose faith. You start to question whether you can do it. This is not an easy Tour to get in; I was willing to walk away because in the years I had (Associate Membership), I had done more than most, Monday qualified a bunch, and I was extremely proud of that.

    “It’s pretty cool right now. It really is. To know that you’re one of five in the world to get this chance, I mean, what are the numbers?”

    Cooper didn’t start playing competitive golf until after college. He was a hockey and baseball player as a kid, playing both at Division I Duquesne University in downtown Pittsburgh, and coaching high school hockey after college.

    As he played more and more golf with Pittsburgh-area pros, he realized perhaps he had more potential than he thought. He entered the golf industry as a club pro at Hickory Heights GC in the Pittsburgh suburbs. In 1994, he moved to the Phoenix area and gradually became more and more immersed.

    “Play and work, play and work,” Cooper said. “Fold shirts, just like any other club pro.”

    Cooper, who appeared on Golf Channel’s Big Break, held PGA TOUR Latinoamerica membership in 2015 but competed in just eight events. He turned 50 in April 2017 and commenced the pursuit of PGA TOUR Champions status. This week marked his fourth consecutive trip to Final Stage of Q-School, but his best showing was T18 in 2018.

    Last year, Cooper finished T51 at Final Stage. “I was a shell of myself,” he said. Surgery didn’t help matters. But it was transparency that shifted his fortunes, more than he could have imagined.

    This week, unburdened, he produced some of the most consistent, clutch golf of his career. He carded all four rounds in the 60s, including a bogey-free, 3-under 68 in the final round to avoid a playoff with a stroke to spare.

    “Once Brian commits to something, he is relentless to reach a particular point,” brother Dana said. “It’s taken him a while to get here, but he’s worked hard, and now he’s going to be living part of that dream.

    “I’ve known him since he was a little kid; I’ve changed his diapers, for crying out loud. This is his passion, and it’s good, and I love it. … Seventy-eight of the best players in the world are here, and everyone’s fighting tooth-and-nail to end up where we are today.”

    Kevin Prise is an associate editor for PGATOUR.COM. He is on a lifelong quest to break 80 on a course that exceeds 6,000 yards and to see the Buffalo Bills win a Super Bowl. Follow Kevin Prise on Twitter.

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