While firing an 18-hole 83 score that earned Hayden Engler a spot at this past Sunday’s Kentucky All “A” state golf tournament, the Christian Fellowship junior was thinking about one person in particular.
That person he had in his mind — and in his heart — was Cullan Brown, a cousin, friend and golfing mentor who was undoubtedly looking down on what Engler had accomplished for his school, his family and for himself.
“I knew I was going to be proud of myself and I was going to be proud of Cullan up there in heaven,” Engler recalled of his round in the All “A” regional on Aug. 20 at Drake Creek Golf Club.
“He’d be telling me ‘You did fabulous, you qualified for the state,’ ” he added. “I love the way I honor Cullan and I love the way I’m playing.”
Brown is a golfing legend with nearly as big a following for his personality, wit and culinary skills as his prowess on the links. A high school golfer from Lyon County who claimed the state’s top prep prize in 2016 and went on to play for the University of Kentucky, Brown died last year at the age of 20 from osteosarcoma.
With all the positives easily associated with Brown’s life, another one has to be planting the seed of loving the game of golf in his cousin, Hayden. Brock Engler, Hayden’s father, said that seed began to sprout when Hayden was around six or seven.
“Cullan would go out and he’d take Hayden and play and we’d just have a big time,” Brock said. “Hayden looked up to Cullan quite a bit. We followed him a lot on the junior tours and Hayden was lucky enough to go with us. That’s where Hayden really fell in love with the game of golf, being able to play with Cullan.
“Hayden got to watch him play at UK and also got to watch him play in the (2019 PGA event) Barbasol tournament. Hayden was there for every day of that.”
As Hayden’s interest and play improved, he eventually took up lessons with Nick Mills with The Golf Complex in Paducah. In 2016, Hayden enrolled at Christian Fellowship School in Marshall County and a year later on Aug. 8, 2017, Hayden played in his first match for the Eagles.
When Hayden was only 1 ½ years old, his family discovered he was on the autistic spectrum, which can cause social, communication and behavioral challenges. In his early years, he worked with doctors from across the country. Now, Hayden is a key player on an improved CFS golf team, a solid student, and is more than willing to chat about the game he loves.
“He loves it so,” CFS head golf coach Eric Ortt said. “You’ve got to have a love for the sport to play it.”
He also understands the important foundations of the game such as honesty and some good-natured ribbing on the course. Ortt laughed recalling a match when Hayden shared both compliments and a critique.
“Hayden looks at one player and says, ‘Good shot’ and looks at another and says, ‘You can do better,’ ” he said. “Everyone was laughing because that’s Hayden.”
“When he came to CFS, the golf team was young. Luckily they had a group of kids Hayden’s age that came in about same time,” Brock said. “Me and Coach Ortt worked with them and we finally see the positives come back.”
Last week, CFS had a 9-2 record on the season with several career-low rounds.
“For him to come to Christian Fellowship and be a part of the school has been a blessing,” Brock said.
A lefty, Hayden admitted he loves how he’s hitting his driver but that he hasn’t been swinging his irons very well and was pulling his shots to the right.
“I’m trying to make sure I stop doing the short swing and try to do that nice full swing and trying to get that club to go up and not around,” he said, remembering the All “A” regional. “I messed up a few holes but some of them were good.”
Of late, though, his short game and putting have been a plus.
“We didn’t think an 83 would be good enough to go (to state), but turned out it was a tough day for everybody,” his dad added. “It turned out well. It’s like he said; Cullan was smiling down on him.”
An added reminder of that is a Titleist ProV1 golf ball Hayden uses on the course with “#PlayLikeCullan” stamped on it.
“Every time he tees it up, he can remember Cullan is smiling down on him,” Brock said.
Hayden exclaimed: “Yeah he is!”
The Boys’ Kentucky All “A” Championship will be at Gibson Bay Golf Course in Richmond on Sept. 12.