There is more to being a golf professional than having the ability to play the game at a higher level.
That is a given for the members of the Northern Ohio Section of the Professional Golfers Association of America.
Each year, the NOPGA recognizes its members and associates who have made significant contributions to the varied aspects of the game and have elevated the profession in Northern Ohio and beyond.
Here are the 2020 honorees:
NOPGA GOLF PROFESSIONAL OF THE YEAR
The Northern Ohio PGA Golf Professional of the Year Award is one of the highest honors the NOPGA can bestow on a working club professional whose total contributions to the game best exemplify the complete PGA Professional. This award embraces a wide range of services executed by the club professional, such as outstanding leadership abilities, strong moral character, and outstanding service to the Association and the game of golf.
2020 Honoree: Gary Robison, Brookside Country Club
The definition says, “The complete PGA Professional.”
Is there a more fitting description of Gary Robison? If so, it has yet to be invented.
Robison has displayed all the above traits during his 41-year Hall of Fame career in the NOPGA as a player, teacher and administrator, first at Firestone Country Club, and for the last 13 years as the Director of Golf at Brookside Country Club.
Competitor. Instructor. Sportsman. High character. Those words and more all apply.
Robison’s playing record speaks for itself. He is the most accomplished player in the 74-year history of the NOPGA and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Here is a sampling of his numerous highlights:
- Inducted into the Ohio Golf Hall of Fame in 2017.
- Has been named NOPGA Player of the Year eight times.
- Has been named NOPGA Senior Player of the Year 12 times.
- Is one of the few men to win both the Ohio Open and the Ohio Senior Open.
- Has qualified for 28 PGA National Club Professional Championships and 16 PGA National Senior Club Professional Championships.
- Has played in three PGA Championships, three U.S. Senior Opens and one U.S. Open.
- Has played in six PGA Senior Championships.
- Recognized by Golf Digest as one of Ohio’s top 20 teachers.
- His record in the Ohio Cup is 37-10-10.
- Has won nearly 40 individual NOPGA tournament championships, including the 2020 NOPGA Senior Professional Championship at Brookside and the Senior Division of the Denny Shute Memorial Match Play at Portage.
The list goes on.
Robison has won with class and lost with dignity. No one questions his humbling demeanor or character, on the course or off. He reluctantly accepts congratulations.
“This is a big honor and I am very humbled to receive it,” said Robison. “It is a real honor, the kind you don’t achieve by yourself. I have been very fortune to always be surrounded by good people. I think that is key to anyone’s success”
Robison, 66, has announced his retirement and soon will be returning to his native Indiana. He promises to return to his “second home” every once in a while. He will always be welcome. And, we will relish the time he has been here.
“Success in this game depends less on strength of body than on strength of mind and character.” – Arnold Palmer.
That is Gary Robison.
THE NORTHERN OHIO PGA HALL OF FAME
The Northern Ohio PGA Hall of Fame was established in 1987 to honor those NOPGA Members who have made great contributions to the Northern Ohio Section and the PGA of America. The criteria used to select potential inductees include they must be age 55 and older, must have been a member of the Section 10 years or PGA of America Quarter Century Member, and must have displayed excellence in one or more of the following categories: service, playing, promotion, teaching, coaching and leadership. The nominees are selected each year by the Northern Ohio PGA Hall of Fame Committee which consists of all current Hall of Fame Members.
2020 Inductee: Judd Stephenson
His name appears repeatedly in the annals of the Northern Ohio PGA Section . . . the 1999 Merchandiser of the Year . . the 2011 Golf Professional of the Year . . . the 2012 Youth Development Award recipient . . . the 2014 Professional Development Award recipient . . . two-time recipient of the Bill Strausbaugh Award . . . long-time Executive Director of the Ohio Girls Golf Foundation . . . has served as NOPGA Secretary, Vice President and President . . . won three NOPGA events as a player, from 1992 to 1994 . . .
Now, you can add the title of Hall-of-Famer. It all seems so fitting.
Stephenson, 55, recently became the Director of Instruction at Avon Oaks Country Club, a position he has held since 2019. An accomplished piano player with a strong business background, the Ohio University graduate has been a PGA member since 1993.
Stephenson’s list of accomplishments and honors seems endless. So, too, does his dedication to his family and the game of golf. This honor struck an emotional chord. “This is the highlight of my professional career,” he said. “How you are thought of by your peers and the HOF committee is very humbling. For those people to accept you is something special.” “Simply by observing the process I know I was considered before,” he said. “Just to be considered is an honor. To actually receive it is very, very special.”
You can’t think of Avon Oaks without thinking of Stephenson. He has been at the club for nearly 30 years, accepting an offer from Dominic Antenucci after working one year as a trust accountant for AmeriTrust. “I was newly married and had to take a job outside of golf,” he said. “But I missed the golf business a ton and when Dominic had an opening I decided to take it.”
Stephenson, a native of Athens, had an opportunity to attend the Naval Academy coming out of high school but remained close to home and graduated cum laude from Ohio U with a double major of marketing and management.
He is married to the former Kimberly Mulligan and the couple have two children, Nicholas and Bailey.
He will soon open a 3,000-square foot performance center in nearby Avon.
NOPGA ASSISTANT PROFESSIONAL OF THE YEAR
The Northern Ohio PGA Assistant Professional of the Year Award is the highest honor the Section can bestow on a working Assistant Golf Professional whose total contributions to the game best exemplify the complete PGA Professional. This award embraces a wide range of services executed by the Assistant Golf Professional such as outstanding leadership abilities, strong moral character, and outstanding service to the Association and the game of golf.
2020 Honoree: Adam Stinogle, Beechmont Country Club
Now in his fifth season at Beechmont, the native of Ligonier, Pa. is a graduate of Kent State after attending the University of Mount Union for two years, where he played basketball. He worked at Ligonier Country Club, Rolling Rock Country Club and Oakmont before joining the staff at Beechmont.
“This is an incredible honor to win this award,” he said. “As I have told many people, no matter if you are an assistant, the head professional or anyone else in the business, we all have sacrificed a lot and put in a lot of hours in our jobs. It is really nice that your peers recognize you.”
THE NORTHERN OHIO PGA PATRIOT AWARD
The Northern Ohio PGA Patriot Award bestows special recognition on a PGA Golf Professional, who personifies patriotism through the game of golf and demonstrates unwavering commitment and dedication to the men and women who have valiantly served and protected the United States of America.
2020 Honoree: Dr. Renee Powell, Clearview Golf Club
The Renee Powell story adds another virtuous chapter with her being named as the recipient of the Northern Ohio PGA Patriot Award.
In 2011, Dr. Powell launched Clearview H.O.P.E (Helping Our Patriots Everywhere) a cost-free, year-round therapeutic and recreational golf program specifically for women veterans. Several years later she added a similar program for male veterans. Her programs are the only two in Ohio and she said she would like to see identical programs sprout up in the Section.
In all, she has about 65 enrollees in the two programs.
“I am thrilled to receive this award from the Section,” she said. “Every award anyone receives is so different and so important. I am truly honored.”
As a sought-after public speaker, Renee has informed, inspired and enlightened countless audiences locally, nationally, and internationally.
Well known for her connection to Clearview Golf Club in East Canton, where she’s keeping her father’s legacy of “Golf for Everyone” alive, she devotes countless hours throughout the community by serving on several boards, including the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Mercy Medical Center, Pathway Caring for Children and the Rotary International, as well as, the Northern Ohio PGA.
In 2015, she became one of two American women given honorary membership into the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Scotland. Other notable awards include being named PGA of America First Lady of Golf, the LPGA Rolex For the Love of the Game Award, the PGA Tour Card Walker Award, the USGA Ike Grainger Award, and the LPGA Pioneer Award.
In 2008, Dr. Powell became the third American, and the only women golfer, to receive an honorary doctorate from The University of St. Andrews, Scotland.
NORTHERN OHIO PGA TEACHER OF THE YEAR
The Northern Ohio PGA Teacher of the Year Award is designed to recognize a PGA Professional who is an outstanding teacher among the ranks of PGA membership. This award is based on a professional’s overall performance in teaching; unusual, innovative and special teaching programs initiated or implemented; articles published; as well as, outstanding golfers the professional has instructed.
2020 Honoree: Michael Dessecker, Golf Galaxy/Dick’s Sporting Goods
Ever since he can remember Michael Dessecker has had a passion for teaching. Whether it was as an assistant at Congress Lake, Avalon Lakes or Little Mountain, or in his present position as Director of Instruction at the new combined, 80,000-square foot Golf Galaxy and Dick’s Sporting Goods at Belden Village, Dessecker feels just as comfortable teaching golf as playing it.
Dessecker, a native of Kent and a product of the Roosevelt High programs under Dick Pfeiffer, said he gives between 1,300 to 1,400 lessons a year and it can be said that Dessecker, 47, is Ohio’s “Teacher to the Stars.” Many of his students fall into the celebrity line . . . football Hall-of-Famers Paul Warfield, LeRoy Kelly and Mel Blount . . . comedian Steve Harvey . . . singer/songwriters Jeffrey Osborne and Johnny Gill . . . and Rock Hall-of-Famers The O’Jays . . . all have taken lessons from Dessecker.
Perhaps fittingly, Dessecker did his PGA Apprenticeship and received his Class A certification at DisneyWorld Golf Resort. While he spent a brief time on mini-tours and polished his craft in Florida, it is in Northeast Ohio where he has flourished.
“I have been up for this award several times but I was never able to win,” he said. “I am honored and floored to finally win. It is quite an honor.”
NORTHERN OHIO PGA PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT
The Northern Ohio PGA Professional Development Award recognizes the PGA Professional who is the model educator of PGA Golf Professionals. This award is designed to give special recognition to a PGA Professional for outstanding and continuing contributions to professional education.
2020 Honoree: Todd Casabella, Barrington Golf Club
As the son of a long-time golf professional Todd Casabella began learning at a young age about the life of a teaching professional. He hasn’t stopped learning and he hasn’t stopped teaching. Education is the key word in Casabella’s vocabulary.
Casabella, whose father, Rich, was the long-time head professional at Elyria Country Club, has an impressive resume of teaching with stops as the lead instructor at the Golf Digest Schools in Orlando, Fla. and the Mike Bender Golf Academy, where he oversaw the development of future collegiate and Tour players. He also worked at Grey Hawk Golf Club in Lagrange and Barrington Golf Club in Aurora since 2016.
He estimates that he has given approximately 18,000 lessons over the last 10 years. He was chosen as the NOPGA Teacher of the Year in 2017.
“I have been able to spend a lot of time, probably three to four weeks a year, educating myself and others about the game of golf by attending clinics and seminars across the country,” he said. “Whether it is putting or the short game or any other aspect, I have been able to help people play better golf.”
NORTHERN OHIO PGA BILL STRAUSBAUGH AWARD
The Northern Ohio PGA Bill Strausbaugh Award is designed to recognize PGA Professionals who by their day-to-day efforts have distinguished themselves by mentoring their fellow PGA Professionals in improving their employment situations and through service to the community. They must demonstrate an extensive record of service to the Section and the Association, proven leadership ability, have extensive involvement in civic activities and local charitable causes within the community.
2020 Honoree: Bob Barto, PGA of America Life Member
Barto, who retired two years ago after selling his West Pines Driving Range, spends a lot of time organizing golfing get togethers around Northeast Ohio for several of his old professional friends. He doesn’t feel like it is work.
“It’s more fun than anything else,” he said. “I certainly don’t consider it work. I’ve been doing it for years and it’s no big deal to make a couple of phone calls. I am happy to do it.”
Still, he is appreciative of the recognition.
“It is very nice and I am humbled by it and all they have done,” he said. “I feel real good about it.”
NORTHERN OHIO PGA YOUTH PLAYER DEVELOPMENT AWARD
The Northern Ohio PGA Youth Player Development Award recognizes the PGA Professional who is a leader in junior golf and who reflects the ideals of those who work with youths in such endeavors as involvement in the promotion and development of junior golf at the club level, support of national junior golf programs, proven interest, concern and ability to provide opportunities and experience for juniors to learn and play golf.
2020 Honoree: Erin Craig, North Olmsted Golf Club/The Turn
Erin Craig began her career picking up range balls at the old Range in Avon at the age of 13. After high school (Southview) and college (Findlay) she had an eye on PGA merchandising. The goal changed when she worked as an Assistant Golf Professional at Fox Meadow, Fairlawn, Rosemont, Avon Oaks and Elyria country clubs, formulating and building junior programs.
“Everywhere I went and every job I have had my favorite part was the junior golf program,” she said.
Craig is in her first full year as an Assistant Golf Professional at The Turn at the Wharton Center at North Olmsted Golf Club, where she works with youngsters and adults with physical disabilities with concentration on the juniors.
“I love seeing the little ones, the kids 3-years-old to 5-years-old out there playing,” she said. “They just want to be normal. That is the part that touched my heart. When I came to The Turn and what it can provide to these people it really opened my eyes.”
She captained The Turn’s PGA Jr. League team in 2020 and plans on expanding on The Turn’s Junior program. She concentrates on making the game fun. “I don’t get too technical,”she said. “If the kids are having fun they are likely to come back. The children are the future of our game.”
NORTHERN OHIO PGA PLAYER DEVELOPMENT AWARD
The Northern Ohio PGA Player Development Award bestows special recognition on a PGA Golf Professional, who has displayed extraordinary and exemplary contribution and achievement in the area of player development. The award considers the PGA Professional’s growth of the game leadership, commitment at the Section and National levels in the player development arena, and the meaningful impact made at the facility.
2020 Honoree: Trevor Hazen, The Turn/North Olmsted Golf Club
For the last 17 years Hazen has been the Program Director at The Turn, formerly the Northern Ohio Golf Association’s Charities & Foundation Return To Golf program. And, for the second time in the last three years, Hazen has received this award.
The Turn is committed to serving people with physical disabilities and offers innovative, free-of-charge programs to more than 200 participants annually.
Participants are faced with a large range of physical disabilities, from stroke survivors to amputees. They have suffered traumatic brain injuries, visual impairment, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy and Parkinson’s disease.
Under Hazen’s supervision and with the help of physical therapists, the participants receive personalized fitness services designed to improve balance, coordination, flexibility and mobility.
“I have been here for 17 years and I am very proud of what we have built and what we have accomplished,” said Hazen, who was named the NOPGA Teacher of the Year in 2019. “We change lives on a daily basis. We are growing leaps and bounds and I am extremely excited about the future.”
NORTHERN OHIO PGA MERCHANDISERS OF THE YEAR
The Northern Ohio PGA Merchandiser of the Year Award is designed to recognize those PGA Professionals who have excelled as business persons/ merchandisers in the promotion of golf. The PGA honors PGA Professionals in three categories: Private, Public and Resort facility.
Private Club 2020 Honoree: Bill McKinley, Canterbury Golf Club
Bill McKinley is about to complete his 14th season overall and fourth as the Head Golf Professional at Canterbury. While he has been singled out by the Section, he does not hesitate to share the award.
“It’s always nice to receive an award that is picked by your peers, but I see this as more of a team award,” he said. “I think it speaks more to our staff and shows we’re all on the same page and working together for our members.”
McKinley credited First Assistant Blake Nienhuis, Nick Orr and Will Tighe.
“Blake has been a constant presence in all aspects of our operation, a real leader,” he said. “Nick has done a terrific job with all our fittings and Will came on in June and hit the ground running as our retail coordinator. All three of them share in this award.”
Public Club 2020 Honoree: Brian Tolnar, Mill Creek Golf Course
This marks the third time in the last five years that Tolnar has won this award in Ohio and the fourth time overall, having won earlier when working in the Western New York PGA Section.
Now in his sixth season as Director of Golf at Mill Creek, Tolnar, 43, stresses the importance of pro shop display.
“I think it is important to keep it fresh, provide a wide selection and learn what your customers want, what styles they like and things of that nature. It takes a while to learn those things.”
Tolnar, one of a handful of Certified PGA Professionals in Ohio and 136 nation-wide, earned a number of awards before arriving at Mill Creek.
While working in the Western New York PGA Section he was honored as the 2012 Junior Golf Leader, the 2013 Merchandiser of the Year, the 2013 Player Development Award winner and the 2014 Golf Professional of the Year.
The American Junior Golf Association named him as its National Golf Professional of the Year in 2019, sandwiched between his NOPGA Merchandising Awards in 2016, 2018 and 2019.
NORTHERN OHIO PGA SALES REPS OF THE YEAR
The Northern Ohio PGA Salesman of the Year Award is the highest honor the Section can bestow upon a Sales Representative. This award is bestowed upon the individual who the majority of the Membership feels delivered outstanding service and products to our Section Members throughout the year.
2020 Honoree, Soft Goods: Neal Furlong, Multi-line Rep
A salesman is only as effective as his contacts and Neal Furlong has a lot of contacts. There probably isn’t a head professional in Northeast Ohio that hasn’t dealt with Furlong in some capacity.
He began his career with Spalding but has since gone on to represent everything from range finders to head covers and golf bags to gift ideas. He currently serves 70 accounts in Northern Ohio and 180 in his entire territory.
“I am extremely honored and surprised to win this award,” he said. “Honestly, winning the award is fantastic, but it is the relationships and friendships with the accounts that I have gained over the years that I value most. Also, a big thank you has to go out to my wife, Ann. She has supported me throughout my entire career. A thank you goes out to the NOPGA as well.”
2020 Honoree, Hard Goods: Michael Connor, Bridgestone Golf
Michael Connor has been with Bridgestone Golf since 2017 after a 17-year career as the Head Golf Professional at Beechmont Country Club. So, it has taken him just three years to be recognized by the NOPGA for his service and providing top-notch product. Connor services 220 accounts in Northern Ohio and the Greater Pittsburgh area.
“The golf ball is based on what’s right for the individual player,” he said. “Through our research we fit the ball to the player through our ball-fitting. It is one thing to tell you what ball you should be playing. It’s another thing to show you.”
Tim is a Contributing Writer for the Northern Ohio PGA. Award-winning golf writer and sports reporter for the Plain Dealer, now retired. Contributor to the Akron Beacon Journal, Canton Repository, AP, other national publications.