by John Rohde
After hiding himself underneath the familiar Amana “bucket” hat that became his signature, Mark Hayes no longer can avoid the acknowledgement he richly deserves.
One of the state’s greatest junior players who went on to notable collegiate, amateur and PGA Tour accomplishments, Hayes will become a member of the 2017 Oklahoma Golf Hall of Fame during the Oct. 1 induction ceremony at Oklahoma City Golf & Country Club.
Hayes came from an athletic lineage. His father, Larry Sr., was a gifted athlete and played for Hall of Fame basketball coach Henry P. Iba at Oklahoma A&M (1945-46; 1947-49). Larry was a member of the 1946 NCAA championship team and the national runner-up in 1949, which is the same year Mark was born.
Larry taught all four of his sons – Larry Jr., Mark, Jim and Dan – how to play golf. Mark started at age 6. His parents were educators who received their doctorates from Oklahoma State so the family moved between Stillwater and Oklahoma City. In Stillwater, Mark started competing in tournaments against older kids at age 10. He remained unbeaten until age 12 when he finally experienced defeat, though only occasionally.
For the better part of a decade, Hayes essentially served as the measuring stick for other in-state junior golfers.
Hayes was about 12 when he came under the tutelage of OSU golf coach and 2016 HOF inductee Labron Harris Sr. Around this same time, Hayes convinced another 12-year-old from Stillwater to take up golf. That kid was Doug Tewell, a fellow 2017 Oklahoma Golf HOF inductee who was born just 47 days after Hayes arrived on July 12, 1949. Hayes and Tewell quickly became lifelong friends/rivals.
Tewell said he measured himself as a golfer by how well he fared against Hayes.
“I think playing against Mark meant everything for my career,” Tewell said with sincerity. “We all need somebody like that who we chase, so to speak. It’s kind of like two quarterbacks – the starter and the guy who wants to start. Mark set the bar. He was so much better than the rest of us. I wanted to beat him worse than anybody, yet we were friends. I’m not sure we really knew we were rivals.”
Tewell recalled the morning he and Hayes played in a U.S. Junior Amateur qualifier at Oklahoma City Golf & Country Club. Tewell then bummed a ride with Hayes, who drove the 85 miles to Duncan, where they arrived for their 2:15 p.m. tee time to compete in the first round of the OGA State Amateur Championship.
“They had to move our (original) tee time to the afternoon so we could play,” Tewell recalled. “Oh, my gosh. We laughed and we had so much fun at those tournaments.”
Hayes was small for his age, but he was a monster in competitions. Featured frequently in newspaper articles, Hayes was characterized as the “little iron man, soft-spoken, mild-mannered, quiet, unassuming, smooth-swing, poker-faced.”
At 15, Hayes qualified for the 1964 U.S. Junior Amateur at Eugene (Ore.) Country Club, which was won by Johnny Miller. Hayes also became the youngest winner of the Texas-Oklahoma Junior event. At 17, Hayes won three prestigious junior titles when he claimed the Jay Myers Junior championship for a second time, won the Texas-Oklahoma Junior crown a second time (defeating Tom Kite), and capped the year with a victory in the 1967 OGA State Amateur, a title Hayes would win for a second time in 1971.
“One of the reasons I was so dedicated is that I was small for my age,” Hayes said in a 1976 piece written by Oklahoma City Times columnist Frank Boggs. “I was a good athlete and golf was a good fit. I practiced every day before and after school. I really liked practicing. It wasn’t work to me. I never thought of doing anything else for a living but play golf.”
In OKC, he lived in the Forest Park area near Lincoln Park Golf Course, where legendary pro and future Oklahoma Golf HOF inductee U.C. Ferguson said of a budding Hayes: “He would come in here and beat any kid of that age at any time. He’d practice, go to school, practice again, then go home. Boy, he could play. He could chip and putt like a madman. He worked for me and made 50 cents an hour.”
Hayes absorbed multiple aspects of the golf business working for Ferguson.
“I got up to 75 cents my last year,” Hayes said. “I was 13 and looking for a place to play. Fergie required us to learn every facet of that whole pro shop. It was really a good learning experience for me. Of course we had to work awfully hard … but it was a good environment. Hard work but at a golf course … kind of like not working.”
Hayes became the 1965 Class A state high school medalist while at Northeast High School in Oklahoma City, then returned to Stillwater for his senior year at Donart, where he teamed with Tewell, who became the 1966 Class AA state medalist.
When it was time to choose which college scholarship to accept, Hayes was heavily pursued by coach Dave Williams of Houston, which was dominating collegiate golf at the time. But between the influence of his OSU alumni parents and Harris, it was no surprise Hayes stayed in Stillwater and played for the Cowboys. Even though freshmen were ineligible in those days, Hayes became the first recruit in school history to receive a four-year scholarship from Harris. In his last two seasons (1970-71), Hayes became a two-time, first-team All-American, tied for seventh at the 1970 NCAA Championships and tied for eighth at the 1971 NCAA tournament.
For his first three years at OSU, Hayes was teammates with Mike Holder, who won eight NCAA championships and 25 league titles in 32 seasons as the Cowboys’ golf coach before becoming the school’s athletic director in 2005. Holder attended high school in Ardmore and said he never faced Hayes in junior competition.
“I had just heard of the legend,” Holder said of Hayes. “In my eyes, the first time I saw him, he was bigger than life. He was almost mythical. Being around him and watching how he went about his business, looking back it’s easy to see why he was so accomplished at a young age. He worked at it. He was very disciplined. He was into nutrition before anyone was. He started that way back in college. I can’t say enough good things about Mark Hayes.”
You will get no argument from the former Jana Gilbreth of Frederick, who met her future husband on a blind date set up by OSU teammate Chris Cole. Mark and Jana married on New Year’s Eve in 1971 while he was on leave from the U.S. Army. They have two sons (Kelly and Ryan) and two grandsons (Parker and Clark).
“In our 46 years of marriage, I really have never heard him complain,” Jana said. “He has always been an incredibly hard worker, a student trying to educate himself and improve at anything … He just takes things as they are, works and moves forward. A good example was when his low (military) draft number forced him to delay for 1½ years (1971-1973) his lifelong dream to join the tour ASAP. (He was) disappointed, but never complained and felt lucky in the Vietnam War era to be able to work at the military golf shop and continue to compete for the Army and in amateur events.”
In 1972, Hayes won the prestigious Sunnehanna Amateur, was medalist in the U.S. Inter-Service tourney, finished second in the U.S. Amateur, competed on the Eisenhower Trophy team and played in that year’s World Cup Amateur. In an effort to hone his game for the 1973 PGA Qualifying School that fall, Hayes surrendered his coveted amateur invitations to the 1973 Masters and Walker Cup to play in a series of two-day Florida mini-tour events.
Hayes had three PGA Tour victories, winning the Byron Nelson Golf Classic and Pensacola Open in 1976 before capturing the wind-swept 1977 Tournament Players Championship, which earned him a 10-year tour exemption. Hayes also won the PGA Tour-sponsored Tallahassee Open in 1986 and claimed three Oklahoma Open crowns over a span of 17 years (1976, 1988 and 1993).
Although Hayes had tour wins in 1976 and 1977, he was not eligible to be considered for the 1977 Ryder Cup team because he hadn’t been on tour long enough (now there is no minimum requirement). Hayes was an alternate for the 1979 Ryder Cup team and wound up replacing Tom Watson, who withdrew because of his first child’s birth.
From 1976-79, Hayes finished No. 11, No. 19, No. 15 and No. 23 on the PGA Tour season money list and became widely recognized for the “bucket” hat he wore. Hayes signed with Amana his first year on tour and the company president gave him a box of bucket hats and said, “That’s your trademark – the round hat.”
After the second round of the 1977 TPC, which was played in 40 mph winds, Sports Illustrated’s Dan Jenkins wrote of Hayes: “Mark certainly has a fine game, a solid swing, but he goes along in one of those brimmed hats, and some say the most interesting words he ever uttered were ‘thank you’ when his high school bestowed a diploma on him … With conditions so bad on Friday, one player said, ‘If the course was an airport, it would be closed.’ On the course, 50 players shot 80 or higher.”
Hayes had top-15 finishes in all four major championships – T15 at the 1976 PGA Championship; T9 at the 1977 British Open; T6 at the 1980 U.S. Open; and T10 at the 1982 Masters. Hayes said he felt he had more of an advantage at the majors, where the course and conditions were difficult and he could rely on his length and consistency off the tee and around the greens more than when he played in tournaments that became putting contests.
Hayes’ most historic major moment came when he shot a record 63 in the second round of the 1977 British Open on the Ailsa Course in Turnberry, Scotland.
Making the performance particularly impressive was the fact Hayes was playing in his first British Open, had carded an opening-round 76 and had suddenly switched his putting grip. Hayes went to a cross-handed grip for the second round at the encouragement of Bruce Lietzke, who that year had won two straight tournaments using the grip, and Mark Lye.
“It’s a very basic stroke that about 15 golfers on the U.S. tour were using,” Hayes said. “The biggest thing is getting yourself to putt that way without being afraid people will laugh.”
Hayes had six birdies, an eagle and would have shot 62 had he not bogeyed the 18th hole. Hayes said he was unaware of Henry Cotton’s previous Open record round of 65.
“I was told as I came away from the 18th green,” Hayes said. “I had no idea what the championship record was and never gave it a thought.”
Hayes carried this nonchalance his entire life.
“Everyone wants to be a superstar, but I’d like to be kind of an obscure one. Like Gene Littler,” Hayes once said. “I’d rather keep a low profile. I don’t go for all that exposure. I like to sit in a corner.”
In 1990, Hayes started his golf course design business, which was second only to his love of tournament play.
“He’d been an active observer of the designs, particularly their playability,” Jana said. “He loved translating his broad knowledge into golf course designs in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Arkansas. His specialty became renovations, many on the very courses he’d grown up playing as a junior. He loved construction supervision, being on-site, and had Mike Chambers, his favorite contractor, teach him how to operate the sand-pro so he could help with greens construction.”
When Hayes turned 50, he was medalist at the Senior Tour Qualifier.
“He played well for a while, but was dividing his time between design business and playing,” Jana said. “He’d come home on Sunday night, be on-site for Monday and Tuesday and fly out on Tuesday night or Wednesday to the next tournament.”
Hayes played only two full seasons (2000-01) as a senior and finished with career tour earnings of $2,108,806 in official prize money.
“He was notorious for experimenting with his swing and equipment, always with the goal of perfecting a lasting swing,” Jana said. “But honestly, most of the guys out there were experimenting. Joe Inman once told me, ‘Mark’s such a great athlete that his body can adjust to a swing change quickly and he can still play great. It’s too easy for him.’ ”
Whether he was playing the game or designing courses, Hayes’ quest for perfection never stopped.