Memorial Tournament honors the memory of Ron Balicki

Memorial Tournament honors the memory of Ron Balicki

Amateur

Memorial Tournament honors the memory of Ron Balicki

DUBLIN, Ohio – Jeff Babineau remembers one year when he and the editor at Golfweek magazine decided to mix up the travel schedule for staff writers, sending them to tournaments different than the norm. He phoned Ron Balicki and broke the news that Balicki wouldn’t be covering the Northeast Amateur, one of the summer’s top amateur events. There was a long pause, and then Balicki responded.

“Well, then you need to put me down for vacation that week,” Balicki told Babineau, then the magazine’s deputy editor.

Babineau asked, “Okay, any ideas what you’d do on vacation?”

Balicki replied, “Yeah … I’m going to go to the Northeast Amateur.”

Balicki, who was honored posthumously with this year’s Memorial Golf Journalism Award, covered all levels of the game for Golfweek for 30-plus years up until his death in 2014 at age 65. But it was college and amateur golf that he loved the most.

Beginning in the early ‘80s, when he joined Golfweek in its infancy, Balicki covered the college game like no other. He traveled to places such as Hawaii, Puerto Rico and Norman, Okla., to cover tournaments. He wrote stories on young up-and-comers, names such as Phil Mickelson, Justin Leonard and even Tiger Woods.

“When you were in college, it was a big deal to have Ron Balicki write about you,” said Mickelson.

Balicki was a pioneer for college golf. After Oklahoma State won the 2018 NCAA title last Wednesday at Karsten Creek, Cowboys head coach Alan Bratton kicked off his opening statement with a tribute to Balicki, citing the late writer’s impact on a sport that now has its championship televised and is experiencing exposure like never before.

“He was really the only reason anybody knew about college golf, so I think we’d be remissed to not honor him,” Bratton said.

Ron Balicki (right) was the first non-coach inducted into the GCAA Hall of Fame in 2010, shown here with BYU head coach Bruce Brockbank.

When Matt Kuchar was at Georgia Tech, he used to look forward to getting his Golfweek in the mail, just so he could read what Balicki was writing about the college game.

“Ron was one of the few guys who was really covering college golf,” Kuchar said. “It was a big deal when you were an 18-, 19-, 20-year-old kid, to have those articles, to see him around and become friends with a guy like that. For all of us that was kind of our first taste of that.”

When Balicki went into the hospital in Hot Springs shortly before his death, Babineau visited tiny Mount Ida, Ark., where Balicki and his wife of 32-plus years, Debbie, lived. Debbie showed Babineau her husband’s office, which was set up in the couple’s garage.

“There were photos of Ron playing golf with every pro you could imagine as a college kid,” said Babineau. When in Las Vegas once with his brother, Walter, Balicki was set up to play golf with a couple of young players from UNLV. All four – and their clubs – were crammed into a tiny convertible. The scene was comical, and they all enjoyed a good laugh. One of those UNLV players? Future Masters winner Adam Scott.

Balicki was once described by a friend as “a man with no sharp edges.” Golfweek college writer Lance Ringler, who covered many NCAA Championships with Balicki, called Balicki a friend to all and an enemy to no one.

“You never heard anyone say anything bad about Ron,” Ringler said. “And you never heard Ron say or write anything bad about anyone.”

Balicki was not only considered a friend by the players he covered, but he got to know entire families. He was invited to dinners, parties, even weddings.

When Rickie Fowler decided during a practice round for the U.S. Amateur Public Links that he was going to turn pro after the 2009 Walker Cup, he picked up the phone, mid-practice round, and dialed Balicki.

“He truly had a job that he loved and enjoyed, and he loved being around and getting to know all the guys and seeing the new guys coming in,” Fowler said. “He was a legend and an icon, and I’m definitely glad I got to spend the time around him, just to see what kind of guy he was. … He was always someone that I looked forward to seeing at events.”

Rickie Fowler celebrates with the Walker Cup trophy while our Ron Balicki gives one of his patented looks over his glasses.

Added Mickelson: “The thing about Ron is he lifted everybody up. He built his career on promoting the game and building up the up-and-coming players.”

Balicki, who grew up in the Corbin Heights Housing Project in New Britain, Conn., was equally self-deprecating. In 2010, when he became the first non-coach to be inducted into the Golf Coaches Association of America’s Hall of Fame, he said, in his acceptance speech: “Not bad for a Polish kid from the projects.”

He also earned the moniker, “Wrong Ron,” because of his reputation for making incorrect football picks as a newspaper writer and editor in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. Balicki embraced the nickname, which accompanied him to Golfweek.

After a few years of errant picks at the NCAA Championships, coaches began asking – and sometimes playfully bribing – Balicki to not pick their teams to win.

“The smart coaches, we would buy him dinner so he wouldn’t pick us,” said Tim Mickelson, Phil’s younger brother who coached at San Diego and Arizona State.

When Peter Uihlein advanced to the final of the 2010 U.S. Amateur, he asked Balicki to pick his opponent, David Chung, to win. Balicki did, and Uihlein went on to win.

“There will only be one ‘Wrong Ron,’” Uihlein said at the time of Balicki’s death. “He was one of a kind.”

After his death, Balicki was the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter, which was ironic because while Balicki had a Twitter account, he would’ve had no idea what that meant.

Balicki sent his last tweet on Jan. 26, 2014:

Justin Thomas T-10 at Torrey Pines. Way to go! Could be start of something big for former Alabama standout.

Thomas, of course, is the defending PGA Tour Player of the Year, a major winner and currently the No. 1-ranked golfer in the Official World Golf Ranking.

And with that, Wrong Ron will forever be right.

Latest

More Golfweek
Home