The year was 1983 and Tom Stine, owner of the upstart Golfweek, hatched an idea that was designed to grow the audience for the magazine and increase its importance in the golf industry. He would begin covering college golf, a previously overlooked, backwater part of the game. Stine was the architect of the strategy, and he selected a small-town sportswriter to be the builder.
Almost 30 years later, that builder, Ron Balicki, will be inducted into the College Golf Coaches Hall of Fame tonight in Las Vegas, the first non-coach to receive this recognition.
Stine hired Balicki and he has fond memories of those days. “He was a very hard worker, he cared about what he covered, what he wrote,” Stine said. “We sort of hatched the idea of covering college golf together. Florida Southern coach Charley Matlock gave us a lot of help and insight as to what was missing, and the potential the college game had if it only got some publicity.”
Balicki, almost alone in covering college golf, would go on to attend 26 consecutive Division I NCAA championships. During his time, Balicki was instrumental in Golfweek’s development of the national rankings for college teams, the national amateur rankings and the Ping/Golfweek Preview Tournament. That event, now a staple of the college landscape, provided the top men’s teams preseason access to the course where the NCAA Championship would be played in the spring. Balicki also gave first-time exposure to women’s college golf, as well as men’s Division II and III. Before Balicki, those divisions received local coverage at best.
He became the college game’s best friend and most ardent champion. Few cared as deeply about the game, its coaches and players, and this came through loudly in his writing over the years. And along the way, he made many friends and countless admirers. I was reminded of this again this summer when I worked alongside Ron at the Northeast Amateur in Rhode Island. It was like a homecoming, as tournament officials, members and players all made a point to stop by and say hello. It’s not unusual for him to attend a PGA Tour event and have 15-20 players come up to him to say hello and thank him for all he had done for them in college. Pick any Tour tournament today and Ron has probably seen half the players in the field compete since they were teenagers.
Ron was passionate for the game of golf, despite the fact that he played horribly. Observed Stine: “I wouldn’t say he was a bad golfer, it was just that he was incapable of improving. He has one of the worst slices of all time. But his ability to play the game didn’t get in his way covering the game. In fact, it probably helped.”
Balicki, 62, began his sports writing career in Fort Walton Beach, on the Florida Panhandle. It was there that he acquired the moniker “Wrong Ron.” He would attempt to forecast NFL winners and was more often wrong than right. He brought his prognosticating skills to the college golf, where he fearlessly picked pre-season champions and ultimately the NCAA champion. Coaches jokingly feared being chosen, for it almost always insured that they weren’t going to take the hardware back home.
Everyone who knows Ron has a favorite story. Here’s mine: The 1996 U.S. Amateur was held at Pumpkin Ridge near Portland, Ore., and the script called for a young Tiger Woods to win his third straight Amateur title and his sixth straight USGA championship. Sensing a good story, sportswriters from around the country descended upon Pumpkin Ridge, most of whom had never written a word about amateur golf. So, for the week of this championship, Balicki served as unofficial information director. Who was this Charles Howell III, he was asked? Who is Trip Kuehne? Steve Scott? Buddy Marucci? Balicki fielded question after question all week long, patiently and graciously answering each one and generally enabling the assembled scribes to sound much more informed than they really were. He cared more about amateur and college golf getting national exposure than he did about “scooping” the other writers.
Titleist’s Jim Ahern, as close an observer of the amateur game as there is, had this to say upon Balicki’s induction: “Ron has not only been a friend to the college and amateur games, he has become an icon. He has helped champion the growth of the college golf landscape and is one of the most respected individuals in the areas of college and amateur golf. His election into the GCAA Hall of Fame is significant in that it shows how well respected he is amongst the college golf community.”
Observed University of Florida golf coach Buddy Alexander: “When you think of media attention for collegiate golf, you immediately think of Ron Balicki. With his rankings, predictions and reporting, he has simply done more for our game than anyone else. It is great to see him receive this honor.”
As Stine pointed out, “Ron Balicki made an impactful difference with his life’s work. How many people do you know that you can truly say that about?”
He is sui generis – one of a kind. And that is why he is now rightfully a member of the Golf Coaches Hall of Fame.