Free Spirits Enter Canadian Hall Of Fame

The Canadian Golf Hall of Fame has elected two inductees into its latest class. The selection committee (full disclosure, I joined this year) elected Stephen Ross, the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s executive director from 1989-2007 via its builder category, and Richard Zokol, a two-time PGA Tour winner, as a player. Neither Ross nor Zokol has shied away from speaking his mind, and sometimes against the RCGA. Democracy rules.

Ross, 56, was particularly interested in the rules, and participated with the USGA and R&A on its joint rules committee. He worked as a walking referee at the majors and The Presidents Cup. Ross believed Canada should have a presence at the highest levels of international golf, and pushed for that.


At the same time, he wanted to make the Canadian Open a truly national event as far as where it would be played. For Ross, that meant creating a necklace, if a short one, of courses that the RCGA would own across Canada. He wanted the RCGA (now called Golf Canada), to build and own courses in Montreal, Toronto and Calgary. These courses would host the Canadian Open. National training centres for the RCGA’s development programs would also be developed in these places.

This never came to pass as Ross envisaged it, and, in fact, the RCGA, because of financial pressures, had to sell its Glen Abbey Golf Club, which Jack Nicklaus designed. The course was Nicklaus’ first on his own – he did Muirfield Village, in Dublin, Ohio, with Desmond Muirhead – and it was a template for stadium courses. Glen Abbey was the all but permanent home of the Canadian Open from 1977-2000.

It was sold, though, in 1999, to ClubLink Corporation. Ross was disappointed, and called the sale a “means to an end,” and rues that fact that his “much larger vision” wasn’t realized. He hoped that the money from the sale could help fund the courses he wanted.

The “end” to which Ross referred was to help the RCGA out of a looming financial crisis, a crunch that, notwithstanding the sale, continues. The RCGA realized $40 million from the sale, and has invested the money conservatively, as it must. But it lost more than $8 million the last couple of years, in part due to new membership initiatives that haven’t succeeded as hoped, and other costs that shouldn’t be recurring.

Meanwhile, Ross had pushed for his vision. He aimed high. At the same time, a style many people saw as pushy and overbearing made him a polarizing figure. The RCGA sent him on his way.

“I think I was in mid-air and they pushed me,” he said in March 2007 when the hammer came down. “It’s not a resignation.”

Four years later, he will enter its Hall of Fame. This is as it should be.

The same thing goes for Zokol. He has certainly been one of Canada’s best players, and deserves his induction on that account – in the “player” category, that is. Zokol, like Ross, has worn his heart on his sleeve and said what he wanted, when he wanted. He has been critical of the RCGA’s player development programs, for example. Zokol, 52, worked with the RCGA for a year as an advisor, but he wanted the program overhauled. And for Zokol in that capacity, that was that.

He continues to say what is on his mind, and, given his nature, he always will. Zokol said during a conference call announcing his admittance to the Hall of Fame that he and Scott Simmons, Golf Canada’s executive director, maintain an excellent relationship. He said that they are talking about various initiatives together. Something is always brewing with Zokol. His future is likely to be as interesting as his past.

Perhaps Zokol’s most significant contribution to Canadian golf is that he has demonstrated the force of will and vision. Zokol has often said that he wasn’t that talented a golfer as a youngster, or even as he started to make his way in amateur and professional golf.

But he drove himself. He learned to play what he called “cold-blooded golf,” where he made no excuses for himself and forced himself to be all but emotionless. He wore headphones while listening to music and competing early in his career to ward off what Greg Norman once called the “mental gremlins.” Some people still call him “Disco Dick” because of that.

Zokol’s drive led to his leading Brigham Young University to the NCAA Championship in 1981, to his winning the Canadian Amateur that year, and to his banner 1992 season, when he won twice on the PGA Tour. He went on to be the force behind the minimalist Sagebrush Golf and Sporting Club in his native British Columbia. The course has quickly developed a growing band of passionate followers. Its maintenance practices are exemplary, and low cost.

Ross and Zokol have shown what force of will, allied to long-term vision, can do. Neither accomplished all he wanted, but each fought for what he believed. Their commitment and their values have been strong and steady, and have made them the 68th and 69th inductees into the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Well done.

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