Class of 2012
THE CINDERELLA KID (1914-2002)
Ray Billows was born in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin in the year 1914. Shortly thereafter the Billows family moved to Racine, Wisconsin where young Ray caddied and became infatuated with the game that also gave him some extra money.
By 1932 he had left Racine for Poughkeepsie, NY and found work as a shipping clerk in a printing company, an employment which he maintained until his retirement in 1969. He had few material possessions in his journey to New York, but he had a newly acquired possession – a self-taught golf swing that he developed during his caddy years. This ability was no doubt nurtured by dreams inspired by the incomparable Bobby Jones, who had retired as an amateur after capturing the “Impregnable Quadrilateral”, the Grand Slam in 1930, when Mr. Billows was an improving player at 16.
In 1935, 21 year old Ray Billows entered the New York State Golf Association Men’s Amateur Championship contested on the West Course of the Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck.
At that time Mr. Billows’ transport was a Flivver, an old Ford two-door convertible which he purchased for $15.00, a very good deal for a shipping clerk at a printing plant earning $17.00 a week. As luck would have it, the Flivver died just as he was driving up to the clubhouse. However that unfortunate circumstance was the only bit of ill fortune that week as he captured the championship by defeating Jack Creavy in a thrilling 37-hole final. Billows won the 37th hole by making a 10-foot putt in spite of having been laid a stymie by Creavy. In short, he chipped over Creavy’s ball and into the hole from 10 feet away.
Ray Billows went on to win an almost unbelievable six more men’s amateur championships. In 1937 he defeated Tommy Goodwin. In 1940 he beat Willie Turnessa. In 1941 he defeated Tom Pierce. In 1943 he beat Joe Ruszas. In 1945 PFC Billows defeated Harry Bill, and in 1949 he defeated John Ward in 39 holes after Ward missed a one-foot putt on the 38th hole.
On the national scene, Mr. Billows competed in 15 U.S. Men’s Amateur Championships and reached the finals three times. Regrettably he was vanquished in all three contests – by Johnny Goodman in 1937, Willie Turnessa in 1938, and Marvin (Bud) Ward in 1939. His match play winning percentage for the 15 competitions was 74%.
Mr. Billows also represented the United States in the Walker Cup matches at St. Andrews in 1938 and Winged Foot in 1949.
He also played twice in the Masters in Augusta, Georgia where he made a hole in one on #16 and where he received, but never cashed, a $1.00 check from Bobby Jones by bettering the legendary amateur in a practice round.
Ray Billows captured the 1974 New York State Men’s Senior Amateur Championship to close out his golf book with the NYSGA, but his seven victories in the men’s amateur still stands 77 years after his first victory.
Ray Billows was universally regarded as one of the really gentlemanly competitors on the golf course – always courteous, always affable and always in the fray. His demeanor and friendliness with everyone is well known. His character was captured in a USGA Journal article about him which contained this quote, “Being a good winner is mighty easy, but it is so important to be a good loser. I guess that I have had plenty of practice in the latter.”
Grantland Rice always focused on courage and belief in oneself in the great athletes he knew and about whom he wrote. Ray Billows had both of these attributes and one other equally important one – fortitude. His parents had moved from the coal regions of Scranton and Wilkes-Barre prior to 1914, and after World War I had endured the virtually unmentioned severe depression of 1920-21 and the Great Depression which lasted until 1941 – a span of 12 years when the unemployment rate remained at 20%.
Through this period of time, the culture of golf was generally dominated by the affluent. Everyone not affluent was struggling to survive and frankly, for them, golf was economically out of reach. So how did a 21-year old have the love and the fortitude to sacrifice so that he could learn the skills that made him such a state and national behemoth for 15 years? How did Ray Billows dig so much golf knowledge “out of the dirt” that Byron Nelson called him the best long iron player in the game, amateur or professional? Bobby Jones, watching his final match loss in 1937, was quoted as saying, “I don’t believe anyone else in the world could hit that shot but Ray Billows.”
Ray Billows, like Don Allen and Bill Tryon, played amateur golf his entire golfing life. Crowds in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s ranged anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 to watch the finals of the NYSGA Men’s Amateur. As late as 1961, the NYSGA was actually charging for parking and admission to the men’s amateur.
It may be fair to say that the period in which these three Hall of Fame amateur golfers competed represented the great and final hurrah of amateur golf as a self-fulfilling form of competition. Not that amateur golf is not alive and well but for today’s amateurs, golf is competitively a mere stepping stone to the minor league of golf – that being college golf.
The real amateurs today are the 25 million or so who play the game for the love of it, just as the earlier great amateurs did. It’s simply that money is the ultimate goal today. That is neither bad nor good. It is just a fact. But for Ray Billows and the incredibly superior golf skills he taught himself, it’s not only laudable but amazing.
His loyalty to the New York State Golf Association competitions is a result of his love for the game and is indeed a humbling honor to have his name and his great record in the inaugural Hall of Fame.