Late last month, Augie Hess was at his second home, the Bishop Country Club golf course, hole 8 to be exact. He teed off and watched his golf ball veer to the left, then arc toward the flag. He and his buddies went to the green to finish out the hole. Hess assumed his ball had flown over the green; nobody could find it until someone suggested, “Look in the hole.” There it was, nestled in the cup like a little poached egg.
While holes-in-one are rare, the eighth is a par 3, so what’s the punch line? Hess was just a few days short of his 99th birthday and this wasn’t his first hole-in one. Last year, getting ready for the annual Augie Hess Golf Tournament to celebrate his birthday, he holed out in one stroke on the fourth. Hess is pretty exceptional.
A Lee Vining native, Hess moved to Bishop in 1999 to be closer to BCC; that 60-mile round trip a couple of times a week was getting tough, especially during snow storms. While he has been an athlete all his life, he didn’t take up golf until he was 48 and then it was a fluke. Back in 1963, a traveler had pulled into Hess’ Lee Vining gas station. He needed gas but was out of money. “He went around to the trunk of his car and showed me a brand new set of McGregor golf clubs. He gave me a set of irons for a tank of gas. I didn’t know what to do with them.”
It didn’t take him long to figure it out. He went to a meadow near Mono Lake and started hitting. He added a driver and a couple of woods to the irons, marked off the meadow that was regularly mowed by a herd of sheep with distances from 100 to 220 yards. In other words, he was a golf goner. He’d hit 75 balls into the field, gather them up in his shag bag and start all over again.
“It’s a disease,” he said. “You don’t want to do anything but play golf, like when I was younger and just wanted to ski all the time. You lose your wife and everything else. I didn’t lose my wife, but almost. When you hit a good shot and see the ball fly to the green, you feel real good. I’ve seen guys get mad and throw their clubs. But, then they’re right back at it.”
Once Hess joined BCC in 1964, he got swept up in a series of tournaments through the early 2000s, taking him around Southern California. He’s golfed at the U.S.’ northernmost course in Fairbanks, Alaska, the lowest at Furnace Creek in Death Valley; he’s traveled to the south, Hawaii, Mazatlan and Nassau, with his clubs in tow. “I won the championship in the A flight at the Show Boat tournament in Las Vegas,” he said. This was in 1987; he was 73. He also won a gold medal in his division at the Huntsman World Senior Games at St. George, Utah in 2008. He was 94.
At his best, Hess had a 7 or 8 handicap. That number has gone up with his age; now his handicap is in the lower 20s and his goal is to hit below 90 on Bishop’s 18-hole course.
His annual golf tournament was a no-brainer for a group of guys for whom the fact a week has a Saturday in it is reason enough for a tournament. A bus full of Bishop golfers was at Furnace Creek on a golf junket headed up by Coors and local Coors distributor Don Cortez in the early 1980s. Cortez approached him about having a tournament at Bishop in his honor. Hess wasn’t sure why. “He said, ‘Well, you went to Bishop High, were an athlete and always good in sports. Everybody liked you there.” And, so the Augie Hess Tournament was born.
Hess finished out his high school education at Bishop High; at the time, Lee Vining’s school system didn’t go through grade 12. He was a Bulldog back then and was coached in football by John Schwab for whom the field is now named.
He had a shot at playing semi-pro baseball, but enlisted in the military right before the start of World War II.
When he got out, it was back to Lee Vining to work at the family gas stations and auto garage. And, of course there was skiing. Back then, Dave McCoy was operating off the side of a mountain. If you know where to look, you can still see the two trees at the top of the ridge line off U.S. 395 where the ski races started. Hess won a ski championship on that run in his 20s. “I wasn’t that good, just got lucky,” he said.
The Hess family was a big part of Lee Vining. When Hess’ father arrived, it was just a ranch meadow. “The owner, Chris Matley, asked my dad if he was interested in coming to Lee Vining to start a town site,” Hess said. The Hesses were, literally, in on the ground floor.
Hess’ own family has inherited the athletic gene. His grandson August Kee is a golf pro in Rancho Santa Fe; his great-grandson, also August, played 17 holes at the 2012 Augie Hess Tourney; he was 4.
At 99, the only thing Hess is a little vague about is how he managed to maintain both an active mind and body at his age. His daughter Heidi Griffin reveals some of his secrets: “He’s a Mason. There’s a lot of memory work that keeps his mind going. He has a computer and he’s not afraid of it. He stays active; he doesn’t spend time sitting in front of the TV. And, he’s happy; he keeps us laughing.”
As for Hess, all he can figure out as the key to his happy longevity is “I drink a lot of water,” he laughed. “I walk; I eat bananas.”