Legendary golf coach retires after almost a half a century on the course
When a golfer sinks his final putt on the 18th green, the only thing left to do is sign his scorecard. Officially, it is a way to ensure the scores are correct. Metaphorically, it is a signature of completion. Moments and shots from the round will surely stay with the golfer but that round is complete, that job is done.
This spring Coach Richard Sykes walks away from the offices of Lonnie Poole Golf Course after 46 years of being head golf coach for NC State. He says in his characteristic jovial manner that he knew it was time to leave because he is 72, and he wanted to leave at ‘even par’—a significant number to golfers since 72 is par score at most championship courses.
As he shares the memories of his legacy and looks forward to the future, it is as though he is taking those iconic steps from the green to the clubhouse, with the afternoon sun blazing behind the trees, knowing he’s leaving behind the round of his life, a legacy that will be honored forever.
Really, I was a football player…
Richard Sykes came to NC State determined to play football and run track. After one spring practice and a knee injury, both dreams fizzled. “After that, I was not a very good student; I was in and out. I’d do a semester and take one off. I had played golf all my life, but finally, about my junior year, I joined the golf team,” he says.
Sykes honed his game and took a position with the Raleigh Golf Association, dreaming of being a golf pro. At the time, Al Michaels was both the golf coach and the defensive coordinator for Wolfpack football. Needing a little help with the golf team, Michaels reached out to Sykes.
Paid with season tickets to football and basketball, it was supposed to be a short gig, just until he became a golf pro. That all changed in the midst of interviewing for a golf pro position in Eastern N.C. It was exactly what he thought he wanted until he thought, “I’d have to give up the golf team if I do this.” He turned down the job, stayed in Raleigh and his legacy began.
A Mentor and a Friend
Starting in his mid-20s, Sykes wasn’t much older than his athletes when he began coaching. That molded his coaching style as a mentor and friend, a style he’d carry with him through the years.
“The guys, when I get them, are pretty good already so my job is helping them manage the course and manage emotions,” Sykes says.
“For me, coming from overseas, he really took me and made me feel comfortable,” says professional golfer and NC State golf star Tim Clark. “When it came to golf, he was always very encouraging.”
This style and mastery of the game earned Sykes an impressive list of accolades over the span of his career including four ACC Coach of the Year honors (1982, 1988, 1990, 2000) and a 2001 induction into the Golf Coaches Hall of Fame. He led NC State to 23 appearances in NCAA Regionals,12 appearances in NCAA Championships and the ACC title in 1990.
Even more impressive is the success of the players he has coached, including 47 All-ACC selections, 34 All-Americans, six ACC Champions, two ACC Players of the Year, and 2009 NCAA Champion Matt Hill.
“Coach Sykes has an incredible passion for the game of golf and NC State athletics,” says Hill. “He was always making people laugh and smile at his jokes and one-liners. There are so many great memories that we had with coach Sykes during my time at NC State. The State golf program is lucky to have had him for all of these years. I am forever grateful for the opportunity to play for him and improve my game under his guidance.”
Despite all these accolades, the most poignant memory for Sykes involves a runner-up trophy. “It was my second year coaching, and we were in a close race for second place for the ACC Championship. I remember [NC State golfer] Marshall Stewart running out on the fairway shouting, “We Won! We Won!” Because, that’s all we could win,” he says. “Wake Forest was going to win the national championship. We walked away feeling like we won the tournament because we beat everyone we could beat. Nobody knows how much that second place trophy means to me; I hugged that thing for a couple days before I finally took it to [Athletic Director Willis] Casey’s office and gave it to him. I was so excited about it. I can close my eyes now and see it clear as day.”
Recruiting and Inspiring the Lonnie Poole Golf Course
Through the 1980s and 1990s, recruiting was difficult. With UNC, Duke and Wake Forest all recruiting the same kids, NC State would often be checked off the list due to one simple fact, no golf course.
With creativity and his incredible charisma, Sykes continued to strengthen the program despite this hurdle. “I had a daily routine of coming in early and calling golf courses and finding out where we could play,” he remembers. “I’d update the board outside my office to tell everyone where to go. We were like nomads. It was fun though.”
His success with overseas recruits started with a player recommended by PGA professional Nick Price. Sykes says: “When Nick Price calls up your house in Wendell, you listen.”
Later, the father of a former overseas player called Sykes and said, “I’ve got a guy over here that’s better than your best players, I’ll have him call you.” That player was three time All-American Tim Clark.
“I remember the day he picked me up,” says Clark. “I landed in Raleigh on a plane from New York [from South Africa] and there was snow the whole way down. I’d never been in snow before, and I’d just been on flights for 20 hours, but we went straight to the range to see how I could play.”
“It was cold! It was freezing,” laughs Sykes. “I took him straight to Wildwood Green. I knew he had a great record and had a good recommendation, but it was a gamble and I saw covers on his irons. People don’t put covers on their irons; that means they don’t play! As soon as I saw those covers I thought, ‘Lord what have I done?’ But then he just starts hitting balls and they’re landing on top of each other.”
The gamble paid off and led to continued success and more championship level golfers. Sykes had the momentum he needed to make good on the promise he’d been making for decades.
“I’ve been promising people a golf course for 40 years, and now I tell everyone…I just got mixed up on the timeline,” he says. The 200-acre Lonnie Poole Golf Course was opened in 2009 thanks to the dedication of Sykes and the generosity of the Poole family.
It All Started In Raleigh, With Richard
Dozens of athletes Sykes has coached continue to live their golfing dreams as coaches, club professionals or players on the PGA Tour. The fact is one of Sykes’ greatest joys: “To ride down the road with five golfers and have them talk about their dreams and then to see some of those dreams come true. That’s really special. How many people get to do that?”
When Tim Clark won The Players Championship in 2010, Sykes says, “Tim couldn’t have been happier than me. I jumped out of my chair.”
Clark quickly credits Sykes. “The Monday of that tournament I was in Raleigh playing in the golf team fundraiser. I was on the range and called Richard over to have a look. He watched me hit a few balls and said, ‘That looks perfect to me, looks the way you’ve always done it,’ which meant a lot because I was trying to get back to a place where I knew I played well,” he says. “That whole week at the Players Championship, I was relaxed and played some of the best golf of my life, and it all started that Monday in Raleigh with Richard.”
Clark adds something that likely resonates with the whole Wolfpack Golf Community: “I’ll forever be indebted to Richard for the opportunity he gave me. He’s always going to be a big part of my life. I love him very much; I love NC State, and I wish him all the best for the future.”