Debbie Balicki won’t ever forget the first time she met her future husband. She was at a party thrown by a pro football player in the Florida Panhandle in the early 1980s, and she decided to approach a tall, handsome man with a mustache standing next to the bar.
“Are you the bartender?” she asked. “No,” he answered.
“Well, think you could fix me a drink anyway?” she’d ask with a smile.
Later that evening, after she had departed early, retreating to a quieter beach spot down the road, the two would meet up again. They talked. They laughed. They played some backgammon. And when she got home that night, she remembers thinking to herself, “That’s the nicest man I’ve ever met.”
Lots of people would say those same very words about her husband of 33-plus years, Golfweek senior writer Ron Balicki. He simply was the nicest, kindest man one ever could meet. At his home in the woods in Mount Ida, Ark., on Tuesday morning, Balicki passed away after a valiant eight-month battle with cancer. He would have turned 66 on April 4.
Ron Balicki not only was an All-American nice guy, but a beacon of radiant light who shone on college and amateur golf for 30 years. A lot of folks leave us and are vaguely labeled as being one of kind; Ron Balicki truly was one of a kind. For decades, as many covered the more glamorous PGA Tour, Balicki owned a beat by himself, writing about college golf and the young golfers who played it.
Ron Balicki joined Golfweek in the autumn of 1983, when the Florida publication still was a relative start-up, not too far removed from its birth in owner Charley Stine’s garage in Winter Haven. Early on, he covered everything from Ryder Cups, Open Championships and U.S. Opens to women’s state amateur events. From his hospital bed in Hot Springs, Ark., earlier this month, Balicki said he didn’t travel the globe looking to tell the stories of golf tournaments; he went to tell the stories of the people who played in them. He enjoyed that. And he told those stories quite well, winning several national and state awards, including the Golf Writers Association of America’s Best Column in 1998 for a piece he wrote on Scottish amateur Barclay Howard.
“His best stories,” said Debbie Balicki, “were always people stories.”
Balicki was an ambassador, serving as Golfweek’s introductory calling card and first handshake to promising amateurs and college players. He not only got to know players, but grew close with their families, too, forging lifelong friendships. Phil Mickelson called him from Doral a few weeks ago to thank Ron for his integrity. When amateur Rickie Fowler decided that he was turning pro in 2009, he stopped mid-practice round and made the one call he knew he needed to make, phoning Balicki.
His span covering the college game dated to the powerhouse teams of Coach Dave Williams at the University of Houston in the 1980s, and he wrote a great deal about the Stanford teams of the mid-90s that included a rising star named Tiger Woods. Every young American champion of the last three decades who has risen through the amateur ranks – from Scott Verplank to Davis Love III to Mickelson to Justin Leonard to Woods to Ryan Moore to Fowler – was anointed somewhere along his early path with a story carrying a Ron Balicki byline. For years, before the Internet rolled around, he’d even keep his own stats and scribble out Golfweek’s weekly college and amateur rankings by hand on tall, yellow legal pads.
To college coaches, he first was a writer trying to showcase a segment of golf that rarely enjoyed the spotlight, but he soon became a good friend to many. The coaches thought so much of him that in 2010, he became the first non-coach inducted into the Golf Coaches Association of America’s Hall of Fame. Few inductees have been as popular.
Mike Holder, the legendary men’s golf coach (and now athletic director) at Oklahoma State, said he admired the passion Balicki brought to the college game.
“He worked hard to tell the world about the great things happening in college golf,” Holder said, “and he made countless friends in the process. He made all of us look forward to each issue of Golfweek to find out what was happening in our sport.”
“Wrong Ron,” a monicker Balicki picked up making errant football picks as a newspaper writer and editor in Fort Walton Beach in the 1970s and early ’80s, stuck with him in golf as well, and he embraced it. He had a warm, incredible gift that allowed him to laugh at himself, and was so ‘adept’ at making incorrect picks that players and coaches would beg him not to pick them in big events.
“I remember at the (2010) U.S. Amateur, I knew they called him Wrong Ron, so I kidded him: I asked Ron to please pick David Chung (in the final),” said Peter Uihlein. “He laughed. But he did.”
Uihlein went on to defeat Chung in the final, 4 and 2.
“There will only be one ‘Wrong Ron,’ Uihlein said Tuesday at the Valero Texas Open. “He was one of a kind.”
Balicki grew up in the Corbin Heights Housing Project in New Britain, and was forever grateful that his involvement as a youngster with the Boys’ Clubs of America not only introduced him to golf, but helped steer him onto a better path in life. Through his various stops before settling in Arkansas in 2001, Balicki would stay involved in charity work, including the Boys & Girls Clubs and Big Brothers. He was very involved in church activities at Joplin (Ark.) United Methodist Church back home, handing out coats to needy children at Christmas time.
As a youth, he was a standout baseball player at Pulaski High in New Britain – “and a very mediocre basketball player,” adds Debbie, laughing – and would later become a star shortstop on his traveling Air Force softball team out of Duke Field Air Force Base in Crestview, Fla. Writing was one of several passions. He wrote everything from sports stories to poetry, from science-fiction short stories to song lyrics. He really enjoyed cooking – while living in Houston, he dubbed his large smoker “Big Boy” – enjoyed bird watching from his porch, loved his six cats and "tolerated" his six dogs. (Debbie helps to run a volunteer pet rescue in Arkansas, where Ron playfully was dubbed the group’s ‘token’ male.)
Ron loved to laugh and had a terrific sense of humor, always comfortable enough to turn the needle on himself. Forever challenged by new technology, he’d have relished the irony of being the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter on Tuesday night. (But that’s how much he was universally loved.)
During early doctor examinations last fall, after he had been diagnosed with lung and liver cancer, he wrote the following email after having a CT scan on his brain to see if cancer had spread: “Shocker, they found nothing there. I could have told them that.” And upon learning that chemo might cause him to lose his hair, he proclaimed, “Yay. No shampoo!”
And then he would vow to fight the good fight, and leave you feeling upbeat the way only he could, keeping positive about the long road ahead, always declaring he would do whatever it takes “to beat this sucker.” He was absolute class to the very end.
There are so many words to describe Ron: Friend. Loyal. Optimist. Team guy.
“Dependable,” said Debbie. “Ron was dependable. If he told you he was going to do something, he did it. If he joined some committee, then he’d be at all the meetings.”
You could count on Ron. As we ended our weekly staff planning meetings via teleconference each Tuesday morning at Golfweek, his voice always would be the one to end the call. “Sounds good, guys,” he would say on script.
Seated here staring at the phone in my office, I still can hear his words.
Through the years, he was assigned to cover events at fancy resorts and posh locales (Hawaii, France, Puerto Rico, Chile), but he always was most comfortable at a small amateur event in jeans, at a hotel bar, ordering a beer and a burger. A construction friend recently described Ron quite beautifully: “He is a man with no sharp edges.”
Encouraged by Tim Mickelson, Phil’s younger brother, coaches and players at last week’s ASU Invitational donned green ribbons to show Ron they were thinking about him. When Ron saw a picture of his coaching buddies wearing the ribbons, he wept. At first, Debbie was hesitant to talk to Ron about it, because they had not discussed the prospect of death. Thankfully, she asked her husband, whom she often called Tall, Dark and Handsome, what he was thinking as he viewed the photo.
“I feel proud,” he said quietly. “I feel my work has had value. I feel I've made a difference. And it feels really good.”
He is survived by his wife; his brother, Walter Balicki, from Southington, Conn.; and his six cats and six dogs.
Ron Balicki's life was one great journey, and he made countless friends along the way. To borrow his own words, spoken on the night he accepted his GWAA award for best column nearly 16 years ago, “Not bad for a Polish kid from the projects of New Britain.”
Not bad at all. Already miss you, pal.
– Golfweek's Jim McCabe & Lance Ringler contributed