Richard Sykes has been N.C. State’s golf coach since Richard Nixon was president.
Let that sink in for a few seconds in thinking about longevity.
In Sykes’ 46 years as Wolfpack coach, there have been nine presidents and seven N.C. State chancellors. There have been 10 Wolfpack football coaches and now seven men’s basketball coaches.
And six athletic directors – Willis Casey the first, the one who asked if Sykes wanted the golf job in 1971, and now Debbie Yow.
“I got $200 my first year,” Sykes said, smiling, “It wasn’t really a salary. Willis came by at the end of the year and gave me $200. They had already given me football and basketball tickets. That was good enough for me.”
The one constant in the 46 years has been working with young men, all wanting to better their golf swings, shoot low scores, win golf tournaments, get an education and have a good college experience. Sykes has done all he can to see they do that, being both a coach and mentor, treating each as he would one of his own four children.
Sykes, who likes to say his age is an “even-par 72,” will retire after this school year, and many of his former players returned Thursday night for a reception at Reynolds Coliseum to honor their coach. Yow announced the NCSU athletic department was making a $25,000 gift to name the study room for the men’s and women’s golf teams at Lonnie Poole Golf Course for Sykes.
“I can’t think of a single coach who coached at the same school for 46 years,” Yow said Thursday. “And I have heard nothing but wonderful stories, positive memories, from our former players about their association with Richard as their coach.”
Bring that many Pack golfers together and, yes, stories will be told about Sykes, the Wendell native whose good-natured Southern humor and folksy one-liners have become legendary.
Uly Grisette recalled a tournament in Florida in the 1980s when the Pack and North Carolina’s Tar Heels were sharing a practice range. Grisette was at the end of the range hitting balls next to UNC’s Jack Nicklaus Jr., one of Jack’s sons and his namesake.
“All of sudden there’s a helicopter coming down and we all know who it is,” Grisette said. “Big Jack comes rolling off, walks by us and before long he’s standing behind Jack Jr., watching him hit balls and giving him advice.”
Sykes soon came over and stood behind Grisette, doing the same.
“Richard said, ‘Just think, you’ve got a one-eyed guy from Wendell giving you a lesson and the guy beside you only has the best golfer who’s ever lived,’ ” Grisette said. “Richard said it loud enough for everyone to hear it. Jack, too. Everybody was laughing.”
Sykes lost his right eye at an early age and has a glass eye. It didn’t prevent him from becoming a good athlete. Sykes ran track at N.C. State before a knee injury, then joined the Pack golf team.
It was a different time and era. Al Michaels, the Pack’s defensive coordinator under football coach Earle Edwards, also served as golf coach in the offseason. After graduating from NCSU in 1968, Sykes helped out Michaels with the golf team while also working at Raleigh Golf Association and then Wendell Country Club.
Edwards retired after the 1970 season. Michaels was named interim head football coach for 1971 and the Pack needed a new golf coach. Football and basketball tickets, and $200, were enough.
“I absolutely fell into the job,” Sykes said. “I had no plans to do it. I was going to be a golf pro.”
Sykes said he never really had a budget for years. He said he wasn’t able to sign an out-of-state golfer until 1988, at a time when schools such as Wake Forest were recruiting nationally, bringing is such golfers as Lanny Watkins and Curtis Strange, both Virginians.
The Pack won an ACC men’s golf championship in 1990. It’s Sykes’ only ACC title but was the first in school history, and he has had several nationally ranked teams and coached Matt Hill, a Canada native who was the 2009 NCAA Championship medalist and national player of the year.
Among his 34 All-Americas was Tim Clark, who came from South Africa to play for the Pack after Sykes received a recommendation from a future World Golf Hall of Famer.
“I pick up the phone one day in Wendell and it’s Nick Price,” Sykes said. “He said, ‘I’ve got a guy who can beat the guys you’ve got.’ Before long Tim is on his way to Raleigh.”
Clark landed in January to find snow on the ground. Sykes wanted a quick look at his golf swing and took him to Wildwood Green Golf Club to hit balls, only to notice Clark had covers on his irons.
“I said, ‘Oh, God, what have I done now’ because anybody who has covers on their irons over here doesn’t play much,” Sykes said. “Then he got a bucket of balls at Wildwood Green and those balls were landing on top of each other. I started thinking I was going to get covers for everybody’s irons.”
Once turning professional, Clark’s ball-striking would help him win the 2010 Players Championship on the PGA Tour and he was the runner-up to Phil Mickelson in the 2006 Masters.
“When I think of him I think of the opportunity to come over here and play golf at State,” Clark said. “Without that, who knows where my career would have gone.
“For me, he was always very encouraging, with my game and life in general. I was a long way from home but he always made me feel comfortable, and that’s important for a young kid leaving home.”
Sykes has the respect of his peers, being inducted into the Golf Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2001. He was named ACC coach of the year four times.
Sykes coached Nolan Mills, the 1983 ACC champion and All-America. He now has Nolan Mills Jr., a sophomore from Charlotte, on his final N.C. State team.
Mills was the medalist as N.C. State won its Wolfpack Spring Open this weekend at Lonnie Poole Golf Course – the 53rd career team title for Sykes. The Pack finished 13 shots ahead of Clemson, and Mills won by four shots after rounds of 66, 67 and 67.
“I thought it would be awesome if we got Coach Sykes one more team win, one more individual win, so that was my goal,” Mills said.
Sykes said the duty of a coach these days has evolved into being more a golf manager than instructor.
“Course management, teaching kids patience, how to deal with ego,” he said.
There were some hard times. Former Wolfpack star Carl Pettersson once was disqualified in an NCAA Regional for signing an incorrect scorecard, preventing the Pack from winning the regional and advancing to the NCAA Championship.
“That was tough,” Sykes said. “Everybody felt so bad for Carl, not themselves.”
Asked if he had any regrets after 46 years, Sykes said, “Not really.” He then laughed and said, “I regret I got old this fast. I read somewhere that ‘age is undefeated.’ I gave it a hell of a run for its money for a while.”
N.C. State still has golf to play. There’s the ACC Championship and the Pack hopes to receive another NCAA bid and make a 24th NCAA appearance under Sykes.
For more than 30 years, a part of Sykes’ recruiting pitch was that the Pack would one day have an on-campus golf course. The building of Lonnie Poole GC, an Arnold Palmer design, on Centennial Campus finally fulfilled that dream in 2009, and Sykes believes the Wolfpack program is positioned for bigger things.
“I can’t wait to see what my successor does,” Sykes said. “I think N.C. State golf is ready to go up. I’m proud of where it is, but there’s no telling how good it can be. I’m looking forward to it.”