AUGUSTA, Ga. — It is Saturday afternoon and Mecklin Ragan has just finished a morning shift at the hospital lab, but there are no hints of fatigue in her voice, her exhaustion concealed by rapture at what has transpired the past two days at Augusta National. No, Mecklin Ragan is not in Georgia to watch family friend Scottie Scheffler attempt to win the Masters, her general surgery residency keeping her in Columbus, Ohio. She is watching every hole of the final 36 though.
And wishing James—Mecklin’s brother and Scottie’s buddy—could watch it too.
“Oh man, he is definitely looking down and smiling at this,” Mecklin says. “And probably wondering what took him so long.”
In 2006 James Ragan was a 13-year-old tennis prodigy, the Corpus Christi native making his first international start in a tournament in Spain when he experienced knee pain. Within a few weeks a series of medical visits revealed it was no pull or injury but osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. James began chemotherapy immediately and underwent surgery to salvage his leg. The surgery replaced 40 percent of his femur and 20 percent of his tibia with metal. Tennis was done for James.
The doctors, however, could tell that not playing sports was not an option for James. He was told he could still golf or swim. “I remember him looking at me and going, ‘Well, I’m definitely not swimming,’” says Mecklin.
James took up golf. Despite a fanny pack strapped to his waist that carried chemo medicine actively feeding into body, James was able to become a scratch golfer in little time. As Mecklin remarks, James never “half-assed” anything, even before cancer came into his life, and that included his newfound passion. “He was never the most coordinated. He did a lot to improve hand-eye coordination, which has similarities with tennis. He worked very hard at it,” Mecklin says. “He spent most of his time at the local golf course.”
James also became fascinated by the sport’s history and especially the Masters. He loved the efforts the club took to keep the course relevant and challenging and was mesmerized by how it looked. Mecklin was James’ best friend, so his love became hers, and soon Masters week became a holiday.
“We would do brunches on the weekend for it and not leave the couch. In college we would fire up our computers and stream it in the back of class,” Mecklin says. “We just loved it.”
James started playing on the Legends Junior Tour in Texas, where he met Scottie Scheffler. Scottie was a bit younger than James, but the two struck up a bond, as did the players’ parents, who would walk the courses and watch their boys be boys.
“There was a respect between the two,” Mecklin says. “I think Scottie respected how James was trying to live his life, to have fun and get good at a sport he enjoyed while trying to deal with cancer and trying to help others with cancer. James was impacted by how Scottie went about his business. He could tell he was destined to be someone great. They influenced each other.”
It appeared the chemo was working, and on his 14th birthday James asked, instead of gifts, donations be made to the local hospital or osteosarcoma research at the University of Texas’ MD Anderson Cancer Center. James’ wish generated over $40,000.
But months later the cancer had metastasized in his lungs. When osteosarcoma reaches that part of the body the cancer is considered terminal.
“At 14, he knew he was going to die,” Mecklin says. “But he never felt down on himself. I think it came from my mom, who also told him, ‘There is always someone at the hospital who has it worse than you.’ You start to see very quickly how easy it is for young people to squander time and talent and James wanted to make sure he made the most of whatever time remained.”
James, along with Mecklin (who is 18 months older), co-founded the Triumph Over Kid Cancer Foundation in 2010 to raise awareness and research for the more than 175,000 children diagnosed with cancer every year. It might be too late for James, but he wanted to make sure the same fate didn’t befall others.
He also continued being a kid, playing golf and growing his relationship with Scheffler. The two became so close that James invited Scottie down to Corpus Christi Country Club’s member-guest, where 16-year-old James and 14-year-old Scottie took down a field of grownups for the title.
“I’ve never seen them so happy,” Mecklin says. “I don’t know if they were happier at winning or that so many of the old guys were furious at a bunch of teenagers beating them.” To ring in their victory James and Scottie poured Dr. Pepper into a glass cup that was clearly made for consuming beverages slightly more adult than soda.
Scheffler eventually chose the University of Texas to continue his amateur career; James went to his hometown Rice University, his treatments keeping him close to Corpus Christi.He even managed to walk on to the Rice golf team. And through his education and golf and treatments James continued to spread the word on his mission, annually holding a golf scramble that doubled as a toga party to raise funds to battle the disease, an event Scottie never missed.
In December 2013 the foundation passed more than $1.5 million in donations, a benchmark James set as a goal. Shortly after he was told the end was near. James Ragan died on Feb. 17, 2014.
“It’s something I think about every day,” Mecklin says. “I’m partial. He’s my best friend. I like to think as touched as James was by the support, people liked being around him because he was a constant inspiration. What he did is provide people with perspective.”
James’ death did not end his relationship with Scottie, who took over James’ spot as the honorary starter at the toga party scramble. He did so despite the tournament being held in May, right during the middle of the NCAA tournament. “Scottie knew it was important,” Mecklin says. “He would come down on Friday and be right back in Austin the next day, but he wanted to do what he could to keep the memory of James going.”
Shortly after he turned pro in 2019, Scheffler won the RSM Birdies Fore Love, a tour competition for birdies made in fall events that awards the winner $300,000 for charities of his choice. He earmarked $50,000 to the Triumph Over Kid Cancer Foundation. His donations have not stopped, and he has partnered with Mecklin to create a program that brings kids battling cancer into golf.
“There are certain limitations that come with the disease,” Mecklin says. “You often can’t do contact sports or running sports. But they can play golf. These kids need more than just surgeries and healthcare. They need something fun to do, to keep them distracted and give them hope.”
Scheffler’s donations cover everything from bags and equipment to installing putting greens in hospitals. He will often make these donations himself, along with his wife Meredith, across various tour stops.
Now 30, Mecklin—who was inspired by James to dedicate her life to pediatric care—is amazed that Scheffler has remained true to who he is in spite of the new heights he’s reached. “I told his mom earlier this week it’s so rare, regardless of what you do in life, doctor or lawyer or sales or a writer, it’s rare to find someone who succeeds at a high level and stay humble,” Mecklin says. “To not let it get to their head. He’s the best golfer right now but his mission is still on helping other people.”
Scheffler entered Augusta National No. 1 in the world but he’s 27 holes away from the eternal fame that comes with a green jacket, owning a five-shot lead on the back nine on Saturday. Mecklin is proud of what Scottie is doing and who he’s become, which is the person he’s always been.
And now Scheffler’s ascension coincides with Masters week, the week Mecklin and James held sacred. It’s easy to think this week might be bittersweet for Mecklin, seeing Scottie doing what he’s doing and James isn’t here to witness it. But Mecklin is religious and asserts James isn’t missing a shot.
“Trust me, he’s watching,” Mecklin says. And, come Sunday evening, hopefully tipping a Dr. Pepper in Scheffler’s direction.
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism