Rock Chalk Weekly: A Lasting Impression
Written by Andrew Ginzel, Kansas Athletic Communications Student Assistant
Imagine you’re a 20-year-old golfer who’s been playing the game you love for nearly 15 years. All of a sudden you find yourself entering the final round of a prestigious golf event in a three-way tie for first place against two Professional Golf Association (PGA) players in Tom Watson and Michael Letzig.
Kansas junior Chase Hanna did not have to imagine long. He experienced this scenario first-hand while competing in the 2015 Watson Challenge, hosted by Watson, at Mission Hills Country Club in Mission Hills, Kansas.
The annual Watson Challenge is the pinnacle of golf tournaments to transpire in the Kansas City area each summer. This colossal tournament attracts the likes of professionals and amateurs vying to take home the title of, “The Best Golfer in the Greater Kansas City Golf Community.”
“It’s a big event and it’s one you always circle on your calendar to play in,” Hanna said. “There’s really never a decision as whether or not to play because everyone is going to play in it.”
Even before the distinguished honors, golfing became a sensation that Hanna loved at a young age. He attributes that love and his interest in the game to his maternal grandfather, Jerry Eads.
“Neither of my parents played golf,” Hanna said. “My grandpa lives in a small town in Illinois. We would visit him often, and I began going out with him on the course when I was four or five. I just loved it from there.”
The relationship between Hanna and his grandfather was extremely deep and golfing was viewed as a passionate bonding experience for both of them.
“It’s hard to explain what having him on the course by my side meant to me,” Eads said. “It was a tremendous bonding experience.”
From that point on, golf ran through Hanna’s veins. The development of his game became noticeable at the age of five when his grandfather snapped a photo of him swinging one day.
“Every time I gave him little instructions, he took to them,” Eads said. “I knew right away that he had something going for him because he picked things up so quickly.”
The advice and words of wisdom granted to him by his grandfather were taken sincerely and stored away for future use. As his game continued to improve, Hanna’s achievements began to accrue.
At 12 years old, Hanna shot even par while playing with his grandfather and his men’s group, something that impressed them.
“That was quite a feat,” Eads said. “Especially at 12 years old.”
The progression of his golfing career started moving rapidly and the idea of playing collegiately became more of a reality. Several college scouts began recognizing the young phenom from Leawood, Kansas as early as his eighth grade year, but particularly his freshman year of high school at Shawnee Mission East. Although he partook in other sports in high school, golf remained the one he wanted to pursue at the Division I level.
As word spread about the golf sensation, Hanna’s competitive nature rewarded him with an outstanding high school career for the Lancers. His accolades included 12 tournament wins with six first-place finishes his senior campaign, being a three-time Sunflower League Individual champion and two-time regional tournament champion.
Upon completion of his senior year, he was awarded the 2013 Kenneth Smith Award, presented to the top male golfer in the Kansas City area based on performance, academics, leadership and community service. He went on to win the 2013 Kansas Amateur and the 2013 Kansas Junior Amateur, making him the first player to win both tournaments since 1961.
With all the accolades, Hanna could name his school. He acknowledged that Kansas, Minnesota and Baylor were his top-three destinations, but it was, in essence, a no brainer that he would become a Jayhawk.
Pursuing the college destination of his father William, Uncle Dave, and Grandfather David, Hanna chose to play collegiately for Kansas.
“It’s just a great plan of attack,” Hanna said. “I knew I had a chance to play right away. I was a part of men’s golf head coach Jamie Bermel’s first recruiting class, so it was a good fit.”
However, it wasn’t just the family ties to KU that led to Hanna becoming a Jayhawk. The strategic messages of the Kansas coaches played a significant influence on his decision to come to Lawrence.
“I could tell he (Coach Bermel) wanted to compete at a high level and get KU golf back to being a factor in the Big 12 and on the national stage,” said Hanna. “I wanted to be a part of it.”
During the offseason, many golfers who are serious about chasing their dreams to play the sport professionally participate in golf tournaments, locally and nationally, to further evolve their games. Hanna fits that mold as one of those determined and competitive players who understands the hard work and dedication it takes to get to the next level.
Hanna had the opportunity to compete in the 2014 Watson Challenge and his amateur status did not restrain him from leaving his mark as he finished tied for ninth amongst the tournament field at Loch Lloyd Country Club.
None of those rounds, however, seemed more important than on Sunday, June 14 2015 at Hanna’s self-proclaimed “home course,” Mission Hills Country Club. On that day, Hanna found himself in a three-way tie heading into the final round; the other two legs of the tripod being professional golfers, with one being arguably one of the greatest to play the game in Watson.
Similar to past years, Watson was the favorite to seal the victory on his infamous self-titled tournament, and until this point in his young career, Hanna had not had an opportunity to play with such a big name in the final round of a tournament.
“I felt confident that if I played my game, I could get it done,” Hanna stated. “It was a cool environment and it definitely felt like a professional event with the large galleries.”
With that opportunity this summer, the junior-Jayhawk-to-be left a lasting impression on the tournament field by finishing first. He edged out the ever-so-popular tournament favorite, Watson, by one stroke to take home the hardware. The opportunity to play in front of his friends and family so close to home was a moment that Hanna will cherish forever.
“It’s the biggest event in Kansas City and it’s just an honor to get to play with Mr. Watson,” Hanna said. “He’s definitely been a role model and someone I have looked up to over the years.”
Hanna’s stellar finish led to a meeting with the famous Watson and he defined their interaction following the tournament as “very cool.”
“He was very gracious and basically what you’d expect from Mr. Watson,” said Hanna. “He told me he was impressed with how I played down the stretch.”
His grandfather, unable to attend the Watson Challenges thus far, said the only advice that he offers his grandson is to be honest in his playing and he has done a tremendous job of that.
Because of that, Hanna is quick to relay his tournament performances to his grandparents.
“As far as me giving him advice, at the level he is competing at now, there isn’t much I can say. I just always wish him good luck,” Eads said.
On his finish at the Watson Challenge, Hanna said, “This is probably the biggest one (event) of my career. It was cool to beat two professionals in the final grouping to come out on top.”
Hanna’s extraordinary performance in the 2015 Watson Challenge symbolizes a bright future for the young golfer, and his grandfather believes that as well.
“I hope that I had enough influence on him to play golf when he was a kid so that he could take it up and pursue it,” a proud Eads said. “I feel like I have a little something to do with his success, but I can’t take full responsibility because he has done most of that on his own.”
A unique bond that was formed when a grandfather began taking his grandson on golfing excursions as a child has helped the young man compile an impressive golfing resume to include a life-changing tournament win over two professional players. Eads and Hanna continue to share that commonality with Eads influencing Hanna’s career to this day.
“Without a doubt he’s been the greatest influence on my golf game,” Hanna stated. “He continues to impact and share in my career today.”
His number one fan has always been Eads, who eagerly anticipates Hanna’s phone calls upon the conclusion of his tournaments. As Hanna continues to pursue his career in the golf profession, his grandfather will continue to be his biggest supporter.
The two continue to play golf and hold the beloved game as the centerpiece of their relationship.
“Whenever we visit one another we try to take time to hit the course,” Eads said. “There is no question in my mind who will win, but it’s more about the time we spend together.”
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