USGA GOLF JOURNAL
USGA Agronomist's Spirit Endures Through Cubs Star Ian Happ
March 28, 2018 | Mesa, Ariz.
By Joey Flyntz, USGA
The 23-year-old Chicago Cubs outfielder did what he had been coached to do from a young age: get in your stance, bend your knees, eye on the ball, balanced swing. The sound of the impact was loud, one you’d expect from a professional athlete. The ball soared in the air, clearing the greenery in the distance. But on this February Tuesday, Ian Happ’s booming blast wasn’t a home run over the signature ivy-covered wall at Wrigley Field; the greenery was the line of trees down the left side of the first fairway at Mesa Country Club.
Happ, the ninth overall pick in the 2015 Major League Baseball Draft, is one of the best young players in the big leagues. But golf is in his blood. His father, Keith, was a scratch golfer who worked as an agronomist for the USGA Green Section for 23 years before he died of brain cancer in October 2015. Ian’s mother, Mary Beth, met Keith at a golf course.
After his wayward opening tee shot on the 498-yard par 5, Happ followed with an impressive par save, including a tricky chip over a greenside bunker, indicative of his low single-digit Handicap Index®. Happ’s demeanor on the golf course matches his manner on the diamond: poker-faced with a mixture of self-deprecating one-liners. These are traits he picked up from his father, playing Chartiers Country Club in their hometown of Pittsburgh, Pa., with his older brother, Chris.
Those who knew father and son can’t help but to be taken aback by the similarities.
“Ian is so much like Keith, it’s scary,” said Dave Oatis, the director of the USGA Green Section’s Northeast Region and a longtime co-worker and friend of the elder Happ. “With Keith, you couldn’t tell if he was shooting 71 or 81. When you watch Ian play baseball, you can’t tell if he just struck out or hit a grand slam. They have the same chin, their mannerisms are the same. It’s eerie, but in a good way.”
A consummate professional and dedicated husband and father, Keith was the Happ family’s “knight in shining armor.” It became evident early on that Ian was cut from the same cloth. He was playing in a summer baseball tournament when he was 11 and badly injured his left thumb. Unable to grip the bat properly, Ian would certainly have to be removed from the game.
Not so fast.
Having only messed around as a switch-hitter in practice at that point, Ian decided to jump-start his future as a switch-hitter. He stayed in the game and batted left-handed. He recorded two hits. He also pitched, despite not being able to catch the return toss from the catcher without pain. His team won the game, and the tournament.
“It was just this stoic and very heroic act to me,” said Mary Beth. “He was going to stay in the game and do whatever he could. That was the first indication that he took after his father.”
That stoicism remained as Happ starred at Mt. Lebanon High School in Pittsburgh and then the University of Cincinnati. Unfortunately, Ian’s stoicism would be sorely tested in his personal life. Keith was diagnosed shortly after moving to Columbus, Ohio, in 2013 to take over as the director of the Green Section’s North Central Region.
With Keith and Mary Beth, an assistant dean in the nursing school at Ohio State University, both in Columbus, and Ian thriving 100 miles away in Cincinnati, life should have been great. Now, Ian had to somehow try to focus on school and baseball despite the devastating news about his father, best friend, batting-practice pitcher, ground-ball hitter and golf partner.
The Cubs were aware of Keith’s condition when they drafted Ian and arranged for the family to fly to Chicago shortly after the draft, so Keith got a chance to see Ian take batting practice and get introduced to the fans at Wrigley Field.
“To lose a parent when you’re young, it was really difficult. I was fortunate to have the 21 years I had with him and I was fortunate he got to see me get drafted and get to come to Wrigley and see me wear a Cubs uniform,” said Ian. “Those were all great experiences and I’m grateful for all the lessons he taught me and the experiences he got to share with me.”
After the draft, Ian had a decision to make: spend time at home during Keith’s final days or begin his professional baseball career. To Keith, there was no decision to be made.
“All Keith wanted was for Ian to not have life interrupted and to continue and follow this dream,” said Mary Beth, who followed all of Ian’s minor-league games online with Keith during the summer of 2015. “He hung on until Ian came home, then still had some time with Ian at the end of the season.”
Ian began his first full minor league season in 2016 with the Class A Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Pelicans while dealing with the loss of his father and the expectations that came with being a top-10 draft pick for one of baseball’s storied franchises. But if he was feeling internal turmoil, it certainly didn’t manifest on the field. He lived up to his billing – he was promoted to the Double-A Tennessee Smokies midway through 2016 – and by early 2017, it quickly became a matter of when, not if, he would get the call to join the defending World Series champions.
The moment came on May 12, and the resulting story reads like something from the fiction aisle. The Triple-A Iowa Cubs were playing the Angels’ affiliate in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Mary Beth, Chris and Keith’s brother, George, were all in attendance thanks to a previously scheduled family get-together. Ian received news after the game that his services would be needed the next day in St. Louis against the archrival Cardinals.
“To be able to tell my brother in person was very special,” said Ian. “He was a good baseball player at Duquesne University and six years older than me. He got me into baseball.”
The Cubs chartered a private jet for the family to ensure their on-time arrival. When Ian arrived at Busch Stadium the following day, there was no warming-up period. Manager Joe Maddon had penciled his name on the lineup card, batting second and playing right field with the Cardinals throwing their ace right-hander, Carlos Martinez. It was the day before Mother’s Day and every Major League team wore pink-trimmed uniforms to celebrate the occasion.
Ian gave his family a day to remember. He was called for interference on a slide into second base that resulted in a double play and what appeared to be his first Major League hit was ruled an error. “I was so indignant when they ruled that hit an error,” said Mary Beth. Soon, she would be thankful for the tough scoring decision.
With the Cubs trailing 5-1 in the top of the seventh inning, Happ stepped in against Martinez. Martinez threw an 86-mph changeup low and in and, batting left-handed, Happ demolished it over the Cardinals’ bullpen in right field to cut the deficit to 5-3. The Cubs lost by that same score, but the Happ family won big.
“It doesn’t get any more special than that,” said Happ. “To do it wearing pink on Mother’s Day and being able to give that experience to my mom – I gave her the jersey later – I’d say that was a pretty good Mother’s Day gift. I stayed as composed as I could. That’s one thing I picked up from my dad, to never show a lot of emotion and just go about your business. Inside, though, it was a really special moment to have it come together like that.”
Happ stayed with the Cubs the rest of the season, posting a strong .842 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) with 24 home runs and 68 RBIs in 115 games as the Cubs won the National League Central and advanced to the National League Championship Series.
Happ, who plays golf right-handed, tries to play on off-days during the grind of the Major League season and he believes his golf swing and baseball swing complement one another. One interesting data point to support his theory: he destroys pitches low and inside the strike zone both righty and lefty. Happ posted a .600 slugging percentage against such pitches batting left-handed and a staggering .923 mark right-handed. For reference, Barry Bonds, Major League Baseball’s all-time home run leader, posted a lifetime .607 slugging percentage.
“I think there’s a lot of similarities between the baseball swing and the golf swing, especially in the lower half. It’s a lot of the same movements, just different planes. It never affects my [baseball] swing,” he said. “I’m always trying to make my baseball swing a little more like my golf swing, just getting on plane and that uphill aspect of the golf swing, being very vertical. So, there might be a little bit of a connection there.”
While Happ seems on track for a long and prosperous baseball career, he understands it will come to an end one day. That’s when he will be thankful his dad’s passion for the game was passed down. As many memorable moments as baseball has provided, Happ says his fondest memory came on the golf course. Playing with his sons on Aug. 11, 2013, Keith, then 56, notched his first hole-in-one, on the 16th hole at Chartiers Country Club. It was the day before Ian’s 19th birthday and the three of them “went nuts” on the tee box. The scratch golfer had finally checked off the seminal accomplishment in every golfer’s life.
Ian recorded his first ace shortly after reporting to the Cubs’ spring-training facility in Arizona in early February in a typically memorable way, holing out on a 365-yard par 4 at Gainey Ranch in Scottsdale for an albatross. For such a stoic guy, he certainly has a flair for the dramatic. Undoubtedly, his father was on his mind as the ball rolled in.
“Keith just had this pure love of golf, and the boys knew that and felt that and acquired that same passion,” said Mary Beth. “I think it really was the way they all connected.”
The connection remains strong.
“It always feels like he’s there, that he’s a part of my life,” said Happ.
Joey Flyntz is an associate writer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.