Next to the tee boxes on the 17th hole at the University of Texas Golf Club is the yardage marker for the short dogleg left par 4. Sitting on the opposite side of the cart path, the marker is engraved onto a rock with a plaque next to it. The plaque reads, “When you commit to play any sport at Texas, you are committing to do everything you can to win a championship.” The quote is from Jordan Spieth, but it might be Hailee Cooper who’s the next Texas golfer to bring a National Championship back to Austin.
Cooper’s success was foreshadowed early on at just four days old, when she grabbed a golf grip, which her grandfather, Mac Hairston, put into her small hand. Her father, Ronnie Cooper, also learned from Hairston and became a high school golf coach at Montgomery High School in Montgomery, Texas, which his daughter attended. By the time she was four years old, Cooper was playing in the backyard. By the age of eight, she was playing in tournaments.
Now 19 years old, Cooper is coming off a spectacular freshman campaign that saw her win two individual tournaments, land on the All-Big 12 Conference Team while winning the Big 12 Freshman of the Year Award, and named as a WGCA First Team All-American.
“This year was great, but I want to keep improving,” Cooper said. “I want to be First Team All-American again. I want to be First Team All-Big 12. I want to get Big 12 Player of the Year, and we, of course, want to win National Championships.”
Coming off a devastating loss to Auburn in the NCAA match play quarterfinals, the Texas women’s golf team had its most successful season in program history since 2003. Ending the season ranked No. 1, according to Golfstat, the Longhorns entered the NCAA Championships as arguably the hottest team in the country. Having won the Bruzzy Challenge just 12 days before the start of the Big 12 Championship, Cooper and the Longhorns put on a clinic, winning their third consecutive Big 12 title by a league-record 37 strokes.
Their strong play followed them into the NCAA Norman Regional, where Texas finished first and was granted a spot in the NCAA Championship. Cooper, who struggled in the Big 12 and Regional Championships, opened the first round of stroke play with a score of 80. It was the worst round of golf in her collegiate career. Since her victory at Bruzzy Challenge, Cooper recorded five straight rounds over par. Her opening round at the stroke plays made it six out of the last seven.
Maybe the freshman had finally hit a wall at the end of a long season, but instead of breaking down, Cooper showed patience and resiliency and responded with a pair of 69’s on Day 2 and 3 to send Texas to the Match Play Championships. Cooper would be the only golfer to finish both of the last two days with rounds in the 60s and finished fourth overall, being just one of four golfers to finish under par out of 132 participants.
“When you come in as a freshman, you think you have to play perfect golf, and when you don’t, you feel like you’re falling behind,” head coach Ryan Murphy said. “I think over the span of the year, she realized she didn’t have to play perfect golf to still compete and when she realized that I think she calmed down a little bit.”
Since Murphy’s hire in 2014, Texas has finished better than it did the previous year. With a match play quarterfinals appearance last year, there’s not much more Murphy can achieve without winning the National Championship.
Sprinkle in the added determination from last season’s loss to Auburn and mix it with the return of all five starters, next year’s team is not only one of the best teams in the Ryan Murphy era, but in the country.
“I like my chances,” Murphy said. “As far as my five years (at Texas), it’s perhaps the best opportunity next year.”
Every time Murphy passes the 17th hole, the plaque dedicated to Spieth serves as a reminder of the last time Murphy won the National Championship. While he was an assistant coach on Texas’ 2012 championship men’s golf team, he has the pieces to bring it back to Austin, except this time as the head coach. And another plaque for the Golf Club may come with it, except this one for Hailee Cooper.
Cooper agreed with Spieth’s quote, reiterating it by saying, “If you want to win a National Championship, come to Texas.”