The next wave of golf stars out of college should prove to be both riveting shot-makers and profitmaking performers.
Jordan Spieth, the 2011 U.S. Junior Amateur winner at Gold Mountain Golf Complex near Bremerton, can’t play in any tournament for the University of Texas without agents lurking.
Patrick Cantlay, a UCLA sophomore, has made more major-championship cuts in the past year as an amateur than the likes of PGA Tour veterans Ernie Els and Jonathan Byrd.
Lost in the shuffle, perhaps, is a small-town phenom who is well on his way to becoming the University of Washington’s all-time best golfer, no small achievement considering UW’s James Lepp won the NCAA individual championship in 2005.
His name is Chris Williams – born and raised in Moscow, Idaho.
Unfamiliar with him? You won’t be for long. Consider:
• He became the Huskies’ all-time tournament wins leader when he captured the title at the Bandon Dunes Championship on March 18 in Oregon. He has five wins, moving past Brock Mackenzie (2001-04) and Nick Taylor (2007-2010). Williams, a junior, also won the Husky Invitational on Sept. 27.
• Heading into this week’s NCAA regional in Norman, Okla., he has 19 top-10 finishes for his career. Only Mackenzie (32) and Taylor (24) have more.
• His 70.28-stroke average is on track to be the lowest in school history for one season. Mackenzie set the current record at 70.60 in 2004.
• Including his final-round 66 at Bandon Trails to win the Bandon Dunes Championship, Williams holds the lowest-round scoring record at 16 different courses.
• Williams and Mackenzie are the only two Huskies to play on a U.S. Walker Cup and U.S. Palmer Cup squad. Williams also qualified for last summer’s U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., but missed the cut.
• The 2010 Pacific-10 Conference and NCAA freshman of the year is a three-time All-American, and could be the consensus choice as college’s best player next season.
“You can look at it by record and accomplishment or golf skill and make the case he is the best we’ve ever had,” UW coach Matt Thurmond said. “But I don’t necessarily see him as a finished product, either.”
Williams does not make headlines, or stir attention like some of his peers. He is more wry Opie than flamboyant “American Idol” in personality.
That’s because he is from Moscow, a town of just under 25,000 that is home to the University of Idaho.
A smaller city was what Varnel Williams had in mind after growing up in Los Angeles. He met his wife, Linda, at the University of Idaho, where he graduated with a degree in horticulture in 1986.
He applied for many jobs, but ended up taking one right across the state line as horticulturist for Lawson Gardens and the City of Pullman.
“(My dad) actually wanted to live off the land, be a farmer and live outside the city so he could grow his own food,” Chris Williams said. “My mom said, ‘No way.’ ”
At 4, Chris Williams, the youngest of four children, followed his father around the University of Idaho golf course with a brass mallet-shaped putter in hand to hit golf balls.
Eventually his father built him a starter’s set of cut-down golf clubs for practice. By eighth grade, Williams was getting so proficient the family had a decision to make – one influenced by Kirk Triplett, the former PGA Tour pro who grew up in Pullman.
“One of (Triplett’s) friends ran a junior golf program, and we asked him about Kirk and focusing on golf,” Varnel said. “He said Kirk stopped playing other sports in the eighth grade.”
That is what Chris Williams did, too. He and his father couldn't make it to California or Arizona in the winter months to practice. Instead, they drove to Lewiston to play Bryden Canyon, which is open all year.
“It was usually 30 degrees and completely frozen over,” Williams said. “I did not want to, but it was my dad’s idea. He loved it.”
All through his years at Moscow High School, Williams could be found fine-tuning his fluid home-built swing at the University of Idaho Golf Course in the spring and summer months – from dawn until way past dark.
“He was there past 11 p.m.,” Varnel Williams said. “He obviously had a dream, and he was trying to fulfill it. And we felt comfortable with him being out in Moscow that late.”
Williams was a four-time Idaho high school champion. He finished third at the prestigious Callaway Junior World Championships in 2007 that eventually netted him a scholarship to UW.
It seemed like the ideal fit, too. Thurmond seemed to have an affinity for small-town golfers because he was one himself – from Burlington, about an hour’s drive north of Seattle.
“Matt has that small-town edge to him,” said Garrett Clegg, Thurmond’s former UW assistant who is now the head coach at Washington State. “Chris has it, too.”
Williams also sees how that bond has formed.
“Most of the guys from small towns, they do not have country clubs,” Williams said. “And at those places, usually a lot of things are handed to you. I did not have that – that was never a possibility for me. And Matt did not have that, either.”
A period of adjustment came for Williams when he arrived at UW in 2009. Seattle seemed way too big. He was homesick. And for the first few UW road trips, he was left behind.
The moment when his UW career kicked into high gear came the first spring. The Huskies were at Sea-Tac Airport to board a flight to Hawaii for a tournament. Williams, still a freshman, was back in his dormitory room.
Williams got a phone call from Taylor, who was not only UW’s top player at the time, but also the No. 1-ranked amateur in the world.
“He said he knew I wasn’t traveling with them but he said I was good enough to travel, and that the team needed me,” Williams said. “It was the coolest thing anyone had ever said to me. And I thought, ‘If Nick believes in me, I knew I needed to believe in myself.’ ”
A few weeks later, Williams won his first collegiate event. He hasn’t stopped.
“He has always been in touch with the reality of the world – what a dollar is worth and what a day’s work is worth. He works very hard, is very resourceful and appreciates everything he gets,” Thurmond said.
“To this day, he sometimes sees himself as a kid that is not even that good. And there is something charming about that.”email@example.com 253-597-8442