He was new to town and looking for a game.
I can still remember it to this day. As we were gathering at Rolling Acres Golf Course for our usual daily game back in 1985, the red-headed stranger walked up and asked, “I just moved here, care if I play?”
Of course, we were always looking for some fresh meat and a pigeon to clip. So we said, “sure, come on.”
After the first ball he hit on No. 1, four jaws dropped.
We had never seen anything quite like it. This mystery man with the popeye arms and the body of a wrestler had just hit a ear-piercing drive that laughed at the 300-yard mark. His bullet scurried across the parched, runway-like fairways at supersonic speed until it ended up about 120 yards from the green.
And remember, this was a par-5.
So began the legend of Ray Hague.
I’m not quite sure what Ray wound up shooting that day, but I know it was well under par, which turned out to be the norm for him. Even his bad rounds would be highly acceptable by our standards, as I can’t ever remember him shooting higher than 75 at Roly.
He burst on to the McPherson golfing scene like a comet. Until his arrival, most of the good players in town shot pretty much the same, it came down to who just happened to be hot that day.
But Ray changed the landscape. He won the McPherson City title in his first year by five strokes. After a couple of years where he finished second, he turned the tournament into a two-division event — one for him and one for the rest of us.
He would go on to win nine individual titles, many of them by lopsided margins, including 1994 when he was 14 strokes better than the field. I just happened to finish second that year, but in all honesty our games weren’t even in the same area code. He also took second six times.
He played with numerous partners in the two-man event, winning 11 more titles, none more cherished than his 2003 title with his son, Nick. Nick was his pride and joy, an incredible golfer in his own right.
Ray had a game we all envied. His epic drives put him well past his opponents, but it was his iron play that set him apart. He had this old rickety sand wedge that he carried and he seemingly put the ball on a string. He could make balls dance on the green and knocked down pins with regularity.
Ray’s putting could come and go, but that’s golf. But when he got hot, he could make birdies and eagles in bunches. I always wondered why he didn’t play in the state amateur or even try the pro tour. He was that good, especially when he was younger.
I traveled a lot of road with Ray as there was a time when he asked me to partner up in various 3-man scramble tournaments in the area. When we would arrive, Ray was like a rock star. Everybody knew his game and the fact he liked having a good time. More often than not, we went home with our fair share of the winner’s purse.
His time on the McPherson scene was relatively short as golf years go. He played here for 20 years, but his legacy will live on forever. He began feeling bad in 2011 and when he finally went to the doctor, it was discovered he was suffering from cancer. In November of that year, he passed away at the too-young age of 58.
Every year the City Tournament comes around, I think of Ray. He used to growl at me in his ever-raspy tone, “Stevie, you’re the best player in McPherson never to win a major.” He was referring to all the years I tried to chase him down for the title, but it was always futile.
Finally in 2007, I thought I had done it. After two rounds, I was 3-up on Ray going into the final day, which was contested at McPherson Country Club. I had shot a 5-under-par 67 on Saturday at Rolling Acres despite making three bogeys and was paired with Ray in the final round.
Neither of us played that well on the final day. But it appeared I was going to do it when I entered my final hole, which happened to be No. 1.
All I needed was a bogey and the title was mine. But while trying to play it safe, I pushed my drive to the right and it went up against a tree. I punched out and flipped a wedge on to the green, about 8 feet above the hole.
Anyone who knows about being above the hole at McPherson Country Club knows how treacherous of a putt that is. I tried to baby it down, cuddle it up next to the hole. But it raced by and I wound up making double-bogey 6.
Ray made par, though his putt for a 4 went all-around the cup before falling in.
That meant we had to play off, again on No. 1. “You can have it, I’ve won before,” Ray said. “I don’t care. You deserve to win.”
But of course, you can’t do that. All Ray did was drill his trusty wedge to about 3 feet from the hole. I was just left of the green and tried to hole the shot, knowing Ray was going to make birdie. My chip went past the hole and then I missed the putt. Ray missed his birdie, but his par was good enough to win.
“I feel bad,” Ray said. “I wish you could have won.”
That would be my last good chance to win the City and it was the third time I had finished second. At 57, I no longer have the skills on the greens to compete with the flat bellies. The nerves are too frayed and the putter shakes like a leaf on those 3-footers that are necessary to contend. And then there’s the fact Treg Fawl is in the field and could give me three a side and still not have to sweat.
At least I can say I had the chance. That’s all you can ask. Those are memories that will last a lifetime. And so do the memories of Ray Hague.