A Modest Champion

Posted by Sal Maiorana   July 4, 2011

John H. Ryan Jr. was one of Rochester’s great young golfers who had such a bright future ahead of him before he died in a tragic boating accident in the summer of 1982.

Long after dinner, when most of the members had put their golf clubs away for the day, the Country Club of Rochester’s lush fairways and manicured greens became John H. Ryan Jr.’s private domain.

He would play often during the day, with friends and family or other members, but outside of winning a tournament, his real enjoyment came in those dusky hours when he would throw his bag over his shoulder and go one-on-one with CCR’s magnificent par-70 layout.

Ryan wasn’t a loner. He just loved being on his own, challenging himself, whether he was making pars and birdies, or casting a fishing line in some body of water.

Both activities were relaxing and peaceful, his favorite mode.

But fishing was merely a diversion. It wasn’t so much that he even liked to fish. His brother, Chuck Ryan, once said that John felt sorry for the fish when he caught them, so he used to throw them back. He just liked to go to quiet places to clear his mind.

Golf, on the other hand, was his passion. And playing alone enabled him to work on his game against the only competition that really mattered: the course. Par or under and he was the winner. Over par and he conceded victory to CCR.

“He played alone because he couldn’t get enough of playing, he loved it so much,” his father, John Ryan Sr., told me a decade ago. “His theory was there was only one person he had to convince that he could play, and that was himself.”

Besides, playing alone afforded him the opportunity to play make believe.

“I play alone at night and have walked up the 18th hundreds of times, pretending that I’m about to win the Masters or the U.S. Open,” Ryan was quoted in a story in the Democrat and Chronicle in 1982, moments after he had just won the Rochester District Golf Association championship for the second year in a row, fittingly on his home course, CCR.

He was 20 years old at the time. Not too old to pretend. Certainly not too old to dream. But much too young to die.

One of the finest players to ever learn the game in this town, and one of the best college players of his era when he attended Duke University, Ryan’s dream walk up the 18th fairway at Augusta National surely seemed to be within his reach.

He had become the first player in RDGA history to win the district’s sub-junior, junior and men’s championship before his 20th birthday. He had won the Section V high school championship, the New York State junior amateur, and the International Junior Masters. And in the fall of 1982, after having placed in the top 10 the first two times he competed in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament for Duke, he was going to be the No. 1 player for the Blue Devils, one of the nation’s top golf programs.

“I think if he would have persisted at golf, he would have made it (to the PGA Tour),” said Brian Kamm, a native of Spencerport who grew up competing against Ryan and ultimately did make it to the Tour.

But Ryan never got the chance to persist, to realize his dreams. One week after winning the ’82 RDGA, and one day after finishing third in the New York State Amateur, Ryan was killed in a boating accident on Canandaigua Lake.

As he had done so many times before, Ryan had gone to the family cottage in Canandaigua to unwind between tournaments. He had just returned from the State-Am in Saratoga Springs and he “wanted to go fishing down at the lake because he was leaving for the Porter Cup in a couple days,” Ryan Sr. recalled.

“He drove his car to the lake and stopped at Eastview Mall and bought a fishing reel because we had spent an hour that morning trying to unravel his reel and couldn’t. He had a lot of friends on the lake. That night, there was a party on the lake. Every night he’d go out alone (on the boat) and fish and think. He asked me if it was OK if he took the boat to the party. Of course, I gave him the wrong answer that I’ll live with the rest of my life. It was Saturday night and I felt he was a lot safer in the boat than on a winding lake road.”

Ryan was returning from the party at about 12:45 Sunday morning, July 25, traveling southeast, when a northbound boat struck his. That boat vaulted over the top of Ryan’s, apparently hitting him as it passed over. Ryan died immediately of massive head injuries.

“You have to tell your kids that you love them,” Ryan Sr. said. “One of the great solace points for me was that I told him that morning, ‘Johnny, we’re so proud of you and we love you.’ And he said ‘I love you.’ I was so glad I told him that that day.”

The news spread rapidly that Sunday morning.

 “I remember we had just gotten back from the states,” Kamm recalled. “John said, ‘Why don’t you go out to the lake with me?’ For some reason I couldn’t go. I went back home and the next day, there was a phone call and my mom had gotten the call. I walked in the door and my mom and dad said they had some bad news and they started crying. Then, I was crying, too.”

Dave Boeff, who won the state amateur that year after losing by one shot to Ryan a week earlier in the RDGA championship, was on a golf course when he heard of the tragedy.

“It was really unbelievable,” Boeff said. “I was out at Green Hills (now Country Club of Mendon) playing with Al DeMino and Dave Bonacchi and the guys the morning after. This guy named Roger Harvey, who was involved with the New York State Golf Association, came out and told us. We just couldn’t believe it. It was like it wasn’t real.”

Sam Urzetta, who just passed away a couple months ago at the age of 85, was the head pro at CCR and Ryan’s teacher. He didn’t want to believe it could have happened.

“I’m a light sleeper and I always go to sleep with an earplug listening to the radio,” Urzetta recalled. “I’ll never forget it. They said there was an accident on Cananadaigua Lake and it said John Ryan. I couldn’t sleep the rest of that night. Then I came to work the next morning and Pete Brennan was the first one I saw and he said it was true. We were hoping it was a mistake, that it was someone else with the same name.”

Senselessly taken from this earth was – to everyone who knew him – a very special young man.

“He was real likable,” said Boeff. “He was one of those types of people who would never say anything bad about anybody, regardless of what type of person they were.”

Said Kamm, simply: “He was a great person.”

The RDGA immediately renamed its championship tournament in his name, and it will always be known as the RDGA John H. Ryan Jr. Memorial Championship. This week, the tournament is being played on Ryan’s home course, CCR, and the winner will hold aloft a trophy that contains this inscription:

John H. Ryan Jr. was the first district golfer to win the sub-junior championship (1975-76), the junior championship (1979) and the men’s championship (1981-82) before his 20th birthday. He not only was an exceptional young player, but set a high standard in sportsmanship, self-discipline, and determination for self-improvement. John was tragically killed on July 25, 1982. This tournament will not only perpetuate John’s memory, it will provide an opportunity to revisit and exalt the fine qualities he portrayed during his life and his love for the game of golf.

Duke honored him by renaming a tournament the John H. Ryan Jr. Iron Duke Classic; in the grill room at CCR hangs a plaque with his picture and the lengthy list of his achievements; in the bag room there is a framed collage of newspaper articles written about him; and at the 18th green, he is one of four members of the prestigious Grove of Honor.

The Grove of Honor consists of brass plates embedded in a large rock. The title plate reads: “This grove honors those members whose special qualities and achievements have gained recognition and respect for our club.” The other grove members are Dr. George Trainor, his wife, Jean, and Don Allen.

Ryan’s memory lives on, and he is remembered in so many ways.

At his funeral mass at St. Louis Roman Catholic Church in Pittsford, the Rev. Charles Lavery told a story of how John’s father had found a Dennis The Menace cartoon in his son’s wallet. Dennis and a pal were laying in the grass, hands behind heads, looking into the sky, and Dennis says: “It’s such a beautiful day here on earth. I wonder what it’s like in heaven?”

Father Lavery then said, “I pray that John now knows the answer.”