PALM HARBOR — Holden Hester is as familiar with the inside of a hospital as he is his own bedroom.
The 19-year-old from Mount Pleasant, Texas, has been on and off of operating tables since birth, battling multiple heart complications. He has averaged a surgery a year to help give him a better quality of life. There have been three open-heart procedures and 17 heart catheterizations, as well as stents placed in his aorta and pulmonary arteries and a mechanical valve inserted.
Adversity led Holden to golf and, more specifically on Thursday afternoon, to the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook. As a Round of a Lifetime recipient, Holden played his first PGA course.
The organization, founded in 2010, provides opportunities for people of all ages battling congenital heart disease to play a round of golf on some of the world’s most famous courses. The charity has offered all-expenses-paid trips to Pebble Beach, Pinehurst, the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass and even Carnoustie Golf Links in Scotland.
“Coming out to play a course like this, I’m just trying to soak it all in and I’ll probably never going to do it, again, so I’m just trying to have fun and have a great time,” Holden said of the course that hosts the Valspar Championship annually.
Before 2016, Holden’s life was full of bases and bats. Growing up in a baseball family with older brother Nolen (who now plays at Wofford College) and father David rubbed off on Holden at age 6.
Holden’s love for the game got him through surgery after surgery, never severely impeding his baseball career until the third open-heart procedure in 2016. Doctors informed him and his family that his contact sport-playing days were over.
While grappling with the loss, Holden suffered a stroke and lost feeling in the left side of his body. He was out of school for a year recovering. Even now, he has numbness down his left arm that physical therapy couldn’t help.
When his daily routine no longer included time on the diamond, Holden lost touch with longtime friends and felt lonelier than ever navigating new norms.
“I couldn’t do anything,” he said. “That was a tough time. All I knew was baseball. Once that (surgery) happened, I went downhill quickly. I didn’t want to do anything and I just felt like my life was over.”
Previously when Holden had time away from baseball, he occasionally found himself on the golf course, but it was always just for fun. With some persistent convincing from his family, Holden discovered he could still be an athlete if he would allow himself to just pick up a pair of clubs.
Day by day, he worked on his golf game. By his freshman year of high school in 2017, Holden was good enough to make the varsity team. Now, he typically shoots in the high 70s/low 80s.
“It’s just peaceful,” he said. “It’s just fun.”
But during Holden’s sophomore year, David still worried his son, who suffered depressive episodes, wasn’t thriving.
“I was looking for something that would give him a lift,” David said. “I wanted something to be special for him.”
That’s when David discovered Round of a Lifetime and got to work writing his son’s story in an online application.
Last fall, David got a call from board member and Sarasota native Erik Fischer, letting him know that his son was a finalist. A few weeks later, another call informed the Hesters that Holden was the foundation’s chosen recipient for the year.
“(Golf) has made a huge difference for him because this is the one thing in his life — literally, the one thing — so far that’s been a positive from all of this,” David said.
After finishing the round Thursday, Holden and his cousin, Stratton Nolen, each won their own Tom Brady jersey in a friendly wager with David and longtime family friend Brandon Johnson. They’ll get to pick them out Sunday when they see what color jersey the Bucs are wearing against the Bills at Raymond James Stadium.
Holden, a lifelong Brady fan, will watch his idol play in person for the first time before heading back to Texas on Monday.
But he expects it will be hard to top his experience at Innisbrook.
“(Thursday) was one of the best things that has happened in my life,” Holden said after the round. “It was so fun and I was so grateful to be out there.”