Oct. 1, 2011
After a second round of qualifiers, Rice University will have a change in its five-player lineup as the Owls head to north Louisiana for the second tournament of the fall season.
Freshman walkon James Ragan was one of two players who qualified for Louisiana Tech's Squire Creek Intercollegiate through his scores during qualifying play.
The Owls' travel squad for the event will also be comprised of an automatic qualifier, Jeff Wibawa, who was the team's top finisher at last month's Sam Hall Intercollegiate, and two coach's picks. Making up the balance of the Rice squad for Squire Creek, which begins Monday in Choudrant, La., is Brock Wilson, Joe Beck III and Tommy Economou.
At Squire Creek Country Club (Par 72, 7,105 yards), Ragan will be writing the next chapter in his life.
The 18-year old's battle with cancer led to giving up one sport while gaining a passion for another.
Ragan's path to his collegiate debut as a member of the Rice golf team began with an arduous diagnosis.
Then one of the nation's best junior tennis players as a 13-year old, he was diagnosed in June, 2006, with Osteosarcoma, a malignant form of pediatric bone cancer. A tumor was found on his left knee. To rid his body of the tumor, in addition to his knee, part of his tibia and a large part of his femur were removed, replaced by metal rods.
The disease spelled an end to an aspiring tennis career.
"The orthopedic surgeon telling me there would be no more tennis was really tough," Ragan said. "It was devastating. I wanted to attend Rice and play tennis, not golf. It was a huge change in my life, health reasons for one. It also altered my lifestyle and the things I enjoy doing."
On the advice of his orthopedic surgeon, it led to a choice among other athletic opportunities. Choices for physical activities to replace tennis were cycling, swimming or golf.
At first, playing golf first began as something to do. He said while he felt okay, a low immune system initially prevented his return to school in his hometown of Corpus Christi. He turned to just chipping and putting to pass the time then in March of 2007 had built back the strength to hit the ball. He would shoot a 95 the first time he played.
Ragan stuck with the sport.
"The better I got, the more I liked it and the better I got, I saw how much better I could become," he said. "I just kept working at it. It has become a new passion, something I enjoy doing and a huge part of my life."
"I fell in love with the game. It is so different from tennis. It is an easy game to fall in love with, with its history, the people you meet in the game and how you can travel and play different golf courses. It is just different wherever you go. There is just something special about it."
While his passion never waned, Ragan's progress in becoming adept at a new sport was slowed by the cancer which had metastasized to his lungs. In 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010, he underwent thoracotomies - twice for each lung over a four-year stetch- to remove cancerous tumors.
After each thoracotomy, Ragan couldn't play golf for six weeks. But in spite of the surgeries and ongoing treatments, his game continued to improve.
He made strides to his game during the spring of his junior year and first ventured to think about walking on and pursuing an opportunity to play collegiate golf. He won a Legends Junior Tour event and finished third at his high school district championship. After a spring of low scores, he had another relapse which required his fourth thoracotomy and the surgery ended the potential for a summer of golf before it began.
"The summer before your senior year is big for any sport. I began to rule out walking on. It was a long shot," Ragan said. "It was tough. I wasn't going to make it in tennis and now I wasn't going to make it in golf. I wasn't going to have an opportunity to even try. It was really, really frustrating."
No matter what was ahead of him in his pursuit of playing golf, Ragan decided to apply for early decision to attend Rice and was accepted.
"It is just the perfect fit," Ragan said of his decision to attend Rice. "I am treated at M.D. Anderson so if I was going to have to be on treatment or if something happens to me, it is perfect because I am right here. My sister (Mecklin) goes here. It's a great school where I get to be close to my parents. Everything about Rice was a plus.
"I have really enjoyed my experience so far. Being a freshman, getting used to everything is such a change. I love my classes. I love the people at my college (Duncan). I love the guys on the team. They are awesome."
Playing for the Owls
Following his last relapse and surgery, Ragan's golf game again continued to improve and he had a solid spring culminating with an individual district championship.
It was former Rice University golf coach Drew Scott who extended Ragan an invitation to play for the Owls. Scott had seen Ragan play earlier in his career and attended a tournament in Corpus Christi.
"I had pulled a tendon in my left knee the day before Coach Scott was coming down and I was nervous as can be," Ragan said. "My partner and I had played really well. Coach Scott got to see the end of my first nine-hole match and the start of my next match and I hit some good shots in front of him. I got an email from him later that night, I still have a copy, and it was my invitation to join the Rice Golf Team. It was just an awesome feeling, accomplishment and a huge blessing.
"I am definitely grateful to Coach Scott because he gave me a shot."
Ragan said it has been a challenge to walk on to the Rice team and a little intimidating.
"The three other freshmen (Ryan Benevides, Beck and Economou) are awesome. They have loads of talent," he said. "The three sophomores - Jeff (Wibawa), Chris (Contreras) and James (Hiester) are also awesome and the upperclassmen, Brock Wilson and Erik Mayer are playing real well."
Rice Golf Q-School
Last month while competing in the Rice program's version of Q-School, Ragan was on the cusp of making the Owl squad which would travel to the first tournament of the fall. Four qualifying spots were up for grabs.
Every golfer has put up a big number during his or her career and Ragan's was a 46 on the front nine at Braeswood Country Club during the final day of qualifying. The round started with a couple double bogeys and included a nine on No. 9, a hole that included having to take a drop out of water and dealing with another out-of-bounds shot.
"Interesting thing about college, the next day I had a quiz," he said. "I couldn't just sit around and sulk all night. I had to go back and study for my quiz.
"Being in college, you have to live in the moment. You have to be efficient and work hard in the moment. You have to make the most of your time in the library. I definitely think living in the moment is a very proper theme for golf. Of course on the golf course, not easy at all but that is what you want to do - you have to focus on each shot."
Ragan said he felt relieved heading into the second set of qualifiers after what had happened during the first set earlier in the month.
"You've already blown one, you know what it feels like. Now just put it behind you and move forward," Ragan said to himself heading into the Owls' second set of qualifiers. "I just tried to go out there, play some golf and have some fun."
During a challenging group of qualifiers, Ragan's scores were in the high 70s but still allowed him to pick up one of two qualifying spots up for grabs to make the week's five-player team.
College golf is unique in that most tournaments during the season start with 36 holes on the first day to help limit the amount of school players miss. The Squire Creek Intercollegiate will begin with an 8 a.m. shotgun start on Monday. Most players will have box lunches delivered to them by their coaches as they go directly back to their first tee after wrapping up their opening round.
Rice had to petition to allow Ragan to utilize a cart on the course. With what cancer has done to him physically, he utilizes a cart to move to the different practice stations when the Owls are on their home course, Westwood Golf Club. With his knee and bones replaced by steel, it would be beyond anyone's expectation for him to walk a course with a set of clubs.
Still, Monday's 36 holes will be something new for the rookie.
"I have never done it where you keep on going," Ragan said. "It's going to be interesting. It is going to require living in the moment. That is a lot of golf without stopping. I am going to just go out there and stay focused. Just eat some food out there, stay hydrated and try to stay energized."
Other than just maintaining focus on each individual shot, Ragan said he has no other goals for his collegiate debut.
"If the results are good, they are good. If they are bad, they're bad and reevaluate," he said. "I'm looking forward to the experience. Your first college tournament is something you are going to remember for the rest of your life. It's pretty special. I'm just going to go through my routine with each shot which is something Coach (Justin) Emil has been helping me with. Just going through my routine and trusting it and hopefully the results are good. That's all I can do."