College Sports

Pack golfer moves ahead after tragedy

N.C. State's David Cooke plays in the 2015 NCAA New Haven Regional on May 14, 2015.
N.C. State's David Cooke plays in the 2015 NCAA New Haven Regional on May 14, 2015. CSI Photo

The two brothers were excited about the Christmas break, first spending a few days together last December doing charity work in Charleston, S.C., then flying to Chicago to be home with family for the holidays.

David Cooke, a member of the N.C. State golf team, had finished up what had been a good fall semester in his junior year. Chad Cooke was at the College of Charleston, a former walk-on on the basketball team and someone, David said, who was the “encourager” in the family, filled with positive energy.

“We always enjoyed being with each other,” David Cooke said of his younger brother.

Then, two days before Christmas, Chad Cooke collapsed during a pickup basketball game and couldn’t be revived.

“It was that phone call no parent wants to get,” said Jim Cooke, the Cookes’ father. “David was with him. He sat on a basketball court and saw his brother take his last breath.”

For David Cooke, seeing his brother die was traumatizing. His anguish was deep, unrelenting. He was angry, at first unwilling to undergo any kind of grief counseling, to talk to anyone other than family, to accept any help.

“He’s so stubborn like that,” Jim Cooke said.

David considered not returning to N.C. State, later explaining, “I didn’t want to go by myself, be by myself.” But he did go back. He did come back.

Bittersweet day

Despite a couple of back-nine bogeys, David Cooke had no problem winning the Illinois Open a few weeks ago. A final-round 63 was enough to beat the pros and amateurs at Royal Melbourne Country Club in Long Grove, Ill., and his five-shot victory margin matched the tournament record for an amateur set in 1977 by Gary Hallberg, a former Wake Forest All-America.

“Everything was clicking for me,” David said. “I got in a zone a little bit, started making birdies and wanted to ride it out as long as I could. Just stay aggressive, keep the pedal down.”

Vince India, a Tour pro, finished second and collected the first-place check of $12,500. David, an amateur, was the one with the championship trophy.

David’s older brother, Jay, had flown in from South Carolina to be his caddie. His parents and grandparents were there along with his sisters, Catherine and Savanna. And Chad Cooke’s girlfriend, Emily Hoisington.

“It was bittersweet,” Hoisington said. “But we were overwhelmingly proud of David. To see the expression on his face, it was just overwhelming.”

Jim Cooke tried to do a television interview afterward, breaking into tears and quickly begging off. David held it together.

“It was definitely emotional,” David said last week. “I wished I could have shared it with my younger brother. He was not a golfer but he always took a liking to the Illinois Open, was always there watching me, encouraging me, motivating me, always happy for me wherever I finished.

“It was really special to have everyone there that day. It was extremely hard not to have him there.”

Back at N.C. State

David Cooke, 22, is hoping the Illinois Open victory will spur a big golf summer. He has qualified for the 2015 U.S. Amateur at Olympia Fields Country Club outside Chicago – a veritable “home game” for him. He competed this week in the Western Amateur, again with brother Jay on the bag.

He’ll soon be back at N.C. State, ready for his senior year. The Wolfpack’s spring season came to a frustrating end as the Pack fell just short of advancing to the NCAA Championship.

The team that denied the Pack the last spot out of the NCAA New Haven Regional was Louisiana State, which put together a sizzling final round at The Course at Yale. LSU then won the national championship at The Concession Golf Club in Bradenton, Fla.

“That was an eye-opener for us,” David Cooke said. “For three-quarters of that regional we were beating LSU pretty badly. They beat us by one in the end and won the whole thing.

“All we needed was one more putt and that could have been us. That will be in our minds next year. I think this is going to be a big year for us.”

David Cooke won two college tournaments in his junior year, both at N.C. State’s Lonnie Poole Golf Course – the Wolfpack Intercollegiate in October and the Wolfpack Spring Open in April.

As for the months between the two tournaments …

“The Cooke family has a lot of faith but David dealt with a lot,” N.C. State golf coach Richard Sykes said. “His teammates were there for him, the university, everyone. But it was something he had to work his way through.

“David tried to keep it well-hidden from us. He kept a lot inside. It was like he wanted to spare us his grief, to keep us from hurting for him. His little brother looked up to him but he looked up to his little brother, too. I can’t imagine was it was like.”

Purdue, then N.C. State

The basketball game was fullcourt three-on-three. Jim Cooke said he later learned it had gone on for about an hour and a half.

Chad Cooke, 20, had always been the basketball player in the family. He and David played a lot of AAU games before David began to gravitate to golf while Chad played hoops at Bolingbrook High in the Chicago suburbs.

After high school, David Cooke joined the Purdue golf team before transferring to N.C. State. By then, Chad was at the College of Charleston, getting little playing time as a guard on the basketball team but helping the Cougars with his practice hustle and can-do attitude.

Chad Cooke became more involved in local charities such as Charleston Hope and Adopt a Classroom, the nonprofit created by his girlfriend that distributed Christmas gifts to needy children. He also made a mission trip to Haiti with some teammates in 2013 to aid in relief efforts.

“Chad was the big motivator always pushing Emily to make the charity as big as it could get,” David said.

When he could, David would go to Charleston to volunteer, and was there in December helping with the gifts. A photo of the brothers was taken, the two playing with kids, filled with life, ready to celebrate Christmas. Soon they were headed home.

And then Chad was gone. Jim Cooke said the cause of Chad’s death was cardiac arrhythmia.

“My wife and I were wrapping presents that night. They said that was boring and went off to play basketball,” Jim said. “David later said they had never played so well together.”

After the funeral, after talking things over with his family, David decided to return to N.C. State for the spring. The Pack’s first golf tournament was in Puerto Rico and David told Sykes he did not want to go.

“Coach told me that in 40 years of coaching he’d never experienced anything like it,” Jim Cooke said. “He said, ‘It’s like he’s angry at the world.’”

Cooke did go and did not play well. “One of the worst tournaments I’ve ever played,” he said.

Carter Page, a Wolfpack teammate, said that David asked that he not be treated any differently because of the tragedy and that everyone “just act normal” around him.

“Obviously what happened was terrible,” said Page, a rising senior from Waynesville. “We did not not know what to think or expect. I just told him I was there if he needed me but he didn’t ask for a lot of help.”

Cooke’s golf game slowly improved. He agreed to grief counseling, Sykes said, and among those he talked with was Korky Kemp, a former Wolfpack golfer who works with College Golf Fellowship, a national ministry.

“While that hole in his heart will always be there, David was to immerse himself in golf, in his school work,” Sykes said.

‘I can do this’

But there were more tough moments. At a tournament in Gastonia, Jim Cooke was joined by his younger brother, Bob, and they walked the course following David. As David was approaching a tee box, he spotted the two talking and laughing. He began to tear up.

“It triggered something in me,” David said. “Both are in their 50s and 60s and it hit me that I’ll never do that with my brother. I was thinking, ‘They get to walk together, talk together and were able to see their kids grow up.’ Chad and I always talked about doing that, seeing our kids grow up together and play sports.”

David Cooke led the Wolfpack in scoring average for the 2014-2015 year with 72.2 strokes per round. He had four top-10 finishes and was named to the PING All-Region team.

Cooke used a final-round 67 to take medalist honors in the Wolfpack Intercollegiate at Lonnie Poole. In winning the Wolfpack Spring Open, he had rounds of 67 and 65.

“When I won in the fall Chad was one of the first to call,” David said. “He left voice messages telling me congratulations.

“He was the one always telling me to chase my dreams and accomplish my dreams. Even before Christmas, when I talked about a job internship and my plans, he was always talking golf, saying, ‘You’ve got to go pro.’”

In the moments just after winning the Wolfpack Spring Open, David Cooke said his first thoughts again were about Chad, about those words of encouragement.

“I looked up and said, ‘I can still do it. With all the struggles, I can still compete, I can still do it. I can do this.’”

Chip Alexander: 919-829-8945, @ice_chip