In the 1960s, an era of great Schenectady scholastic athletes that included Pat Riley, Barry Kramer and Dick Grubar among many others, Gail Sykes’ name deserved to be mentioned high.
Gail Sykes Clayton, one of the greatest golfers in Schenectady history and one of the few area players to excel on the national amateur stage, died recently. She was 68.
The sister of Wolferts Roost Country Club standout Elaine Sauers and sister-in-law of former University at Albany basketball coach Richard “Doc” Sauers, Sykes was so accomplished with all 14 clubs in her bag that the Northeastern Women’s Golf Association, one the Capital Region’s premier amateur golf organizations, named one of its major events the Gail Sykes Best Ball Championship.
The veteran high school educator and golf/track coach at East Forsyth High School in Kernersville, N.C., died Jan. 20 in Kernersville, where the funeral was held Thursday. She is survived by her husband of 42 years, L.B. Clayton Jr., her sister Elaine, four daughters and four grandchildren.
Sykes not only captured the New York State Golf Association’s Junior Girls’ Championship in 1964, but she also won the first of two national championships by taking the 1965 United States Golf Association Girls’ Junior Championship at Hiwan Golf Club in Evergreen, Colo. Included in that stellar 88-player field were future LPGA Tour players Shelley Hamlin, Kathy Ahern and Debbie Austin.
Elaine Sauers said her sister was able to beat her peers because of her excellent length with her driver.
“The strength of my sister’s game was that she was so strong for a woman back in the 1960s,” Sauers said. “You’ve got to remember that women didn’t lift weights back then. You were either strong naturally, or you weren’t.
“She could definitely hit it far for the times, especially considering that she used steel shafts, probably fitted for men. There weren’t any graphite clubs back then. She had God-given ability and big hands. My father always wanted her to succeed in the game, and I think it was her desire to make him proud that kept her going.”
The Notre Dame product played golf for Odessa College in Texas and while there won the 1968 national intercollegiate women’s individual championship (now the NCAA Championship). She transferred to East Carolina University, where she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education. Sykes was named to the ECU Athletic Hall of Fame in 2004.
“Of all the great players to come out of Schenectady, and that includes the Duvals and the Philos and Pete Famiano, Gail was the only one to win a national amateur event, and she won two,” said Jack Callahan, the former Siena College standout and Sykes’ longtime friend. “Gail and Elaine were like big sisters to me. We all hung out at the old Stanford Golf Club, and we all knew she was a very talented player. I think Gail was a great mentor for everyone in golf and in life. She was an outstanding player, but I think her resume in life was even better than her golf resume. She was a great competitor who handled her success with class in every way,” Callahan said.
“[Sykes] was a tremendous person, mother and coach who was loved by all. She was a very close friend of mine and one of the finest golfers ever to come from Schenectady,” Callahan added. “I remember being a caddie for Elaine and hanging around both of them while they played. You’ve got to consider the fact that Gail, winning the USGA Junior Girls and the NCAAs, was just like Tom Kite, Ben Crenshaw and even Tiger Woods when you consider that she was a young woman competing in the 1960s. She helped put Schenectady golf on the map.”
New York State Baseball Hall of Fame member John Krawiecki, a Bishop Gibbons graduate who excelled on the mound in high school, New Haven and in the minor leagues, also had fond memories of Sykes.
“This girl was a stud. She was a special, special talent,” he said. “I’ve been around a lot. There was no one better. I don’t even know if Dottie Pepper was better.”
Gail Purdy Brophy, a two-time New York State Women’s Amateur champion (1961 and 1963), was more interested in winter sports midway through her long golf career, but she did get a chance to tee it up with Sykes a couple of times. “Gail was a great asset to our sport, both on and off the course, and a pleasure to play with,” she said.
Sykes also won the 1975 and 1976 Ohio Women’s State Amateur Championship. She was the runner-up in the 1970 New York State Women’s