Guerry Clegg

How a battle with cancer shaped this Columbus-raised golfer into a new man

As Hugh Royer walked off the course Tuesday at Green Island, he felt conflicted. He knew his 71 in the U.S. Senior Open Qualifier would not be good enough to earn one of the top five spots.

Sure enough, he just missed, falling three shots of forcing his way into a playoff.

“I could have made it,” he said. “Story of my life.”

But amidst the momentary disappointment and customary sarcastic self-deprecation was something Royer has too often deprived himself of.

Pride. Deep and richly deserving pride.

One year earlier, Little Hugh — as he will always be known here — wondered how much longer he would live. This time last year, Royer was fighting for his life. Skin cancer resulted in seven surgeries over nine months — including skin grafts from his forehead — and 30 rounds of radiation.

So perhaps deep in his scarred memory was the scolding of a caring but demanding father. Big Hugh has been gone for nearly five years, but even now, his harsh admonishments echo in Little Hugh’s mind.

On this day, though, a softer, sweeter voice prevailed. It was that of his youngest daughter Abbey. She texted him first thing Tuesday morning before leaving for school.

“I just want you to know that no matter what happens, I’m proud of you.”

Royer choked back tears trying to get the next words out, managing only a forced whisper.

“What do you say, ya know?”

Basal cell carcinoma is a skin cancer that’s highly curable when caught early. But his was basal cell aggressive pattern. Royer said a misdiagnosis nearly cost him his life. The cancer came within a centimeter of his brain. His nose had to be rebuilt.

“If I showed you pictures of what I looked like, you might throw up,” he said. “I looked like a science project.”

He found a new doctor in Charleston, a two-hour drive down the coast from Myrtle Beach. That included 30 rounds of radiation over six weeks. His wife Heather would have to go back to work in Myrtle Beach. Abbey got her school assignments online so she could stay by her dad’s side.

“For a 17-year-old, it’s unbelievable the responsibility this young lady has, how polite and courteous she is,” Royer said. “She’s everything to me. I could not be more proud of a child than I am of Abbey.”

The support of Heather and Abbey back home, along with his son Brai caddying, helped carry him through an exhausting day. He doesn’t have his strength back because doctors still won’t let him lift weights and put pressure on his face, and his game is nowhere as sharp as it could be.

“I wanted to make it. I didn’t play in it just to be a donator and to just be there. But being realistic, I wanted to play and not embarrass myself,” he said. “I wanted to play a respectable round of golf, and I feel like I did. I had a couple of three-putts and made a couple of bad decisions with club selection and made bogey. But I played pretty solid. I was pretty happy with it.”

Little Hugh has left the course disappointed many throughout his life, most of which was spent on Bull Creek Golf Course, the original 18. He starred at Brookstone and Columbus College and was one of the best amateurs in Georgia history and shot the two lowest rounds — 61 and 62 — on the course Big Hugh helped design. He turned pro and won four times on the Hogan/Nike Tour, which is now the Tour, and had three top 10 finishes on the PGA Tour. But he never quite got the break to stay on the PGA Tour.

“Just didn’t quite have the responsibility I needed to have to be out there,” he said. “I kind of goofed off and partied a little too much and just lived the life instead of going out there living the golf life. It was my fault. My dad said I was the biggest waste of talent he’s ever seen. I should have focused on it more, and I take blame for that.”

Little Hugh carried himself with a swagger on and off the course.

“I was cocky,” Royer said. “But I had to be that way because of my dad. Because if I didn’t succeed, I got my ass chewed.”

Like the time he won the Southeastern Amateur at the Country Club, shattering Allen Doyle’s record by 11 strokes, only to be greeted with, “You know, if you hadn’t f---ed up and double-bogeyed you’d have had a nice tournament.”

Royer has changed. He is different in demeanor, a different attitude, a different outlook. Once aloof, he makes it a point to speak to people. He has become an advocate for warning others about the danger of skin cancer. He speaks to young golfers and their parents.

“To know how close I was to dying, it gives you a different perspective on life,” he said. “So the Hugh Royer you used to know is not the same person. A lot more humble. A lot more praying to God, thanking him …”

Here, he teared up. “It’s just nice to be able to do it. You go through what we went through, it’s just hard to explain how life changing it is.”

Something else has changed. His desire to play professionally has been rekindled. When he was back in Columbus he played a round with one of his long time friends Steve Travis.

“That’s the first time in 20 years I’ve seen the fire in his eyes,” Travis said.

Royer is working on getting ready for the Champions Tour qualifying school this fall with his eye on the 2020 season. Whether he makes it on the Champion Tour or not, there’s one thing he should know.

Big Hugh would be proud. Mighty proud.