Since 2002, 18 players have received the Ben Hogan Award as the most outstanding male college golfer of the year. Those players have produced a combined 38 PGA Tour victories, and 17 of the 18 recipients have reached the big leagues.
The only exception is Chris Williams, a former University of Washington standout who once claimed territory at the top of the World Amateur Golf Ranking for 46 weeks. Williams did about everything a player could in a college career. He won the Phil Mickelson Award as the nation’s top freshman, qualified for two U.S. Opens, set what then was a school record with six tournament victories, medaled at an NCAA regional, was an All-American and went 2-1 during the 2011 Walker Cup. All of that culminated with the 2013 Hogan Award as a senior.
If you look at players in recent history who amassed similar records during college – Patrick Cantlay’s résumé at another Pac-12 school, UCLA, is almost identical – it would seem inevitable that Williams would have gone on to be among the bright lights in professional golf.
That didn’t happen. After Williams left Washington, he played in the 2013 U.S. Open as an amateur and then turned professional, forgoing an invitation to the Open Championship. He never got back to that stage. The even bigger surprise is that Williams didn’t come particularly close. He initially relied on sponsor exemptions to play in a handful of PGA Tour events, but when he didn’t do enough to earn his card and also failed to get through Web.com Tour Q-School, Williams left to play the Mackenzie Tour in Canada.
Six years later, he had not advanced past that level, even failing to reach what is now named the Korn Ferry Tour. His last season as a pro, in 2018, was actually his best as he finished No. 13 on the Mackenzie Tour and had strong showings on the PGA Tour Latinoamérica. But upon leaving a tournament in Miami that December for a six-hour flight back home to Seattle, Williams knew his pro career resembled a golf ball stuck deep in thick woods with no hope of escape.
“I put myself through the ringer,” Williams said, reflecting on his pro career. “I didn’t know what I was doing and I was out on my own. I had some great advice given to me that I needed to find a mentor, and I didn’t follow through on that. I kind of flung that off and said, ‘I know what I’m doing. I’ve never had a swing instructor, I’ve never had a coach and I’ve been able to figure it out this far.’ I learned the hard way that I didn’t know what to do.”
Many are curious about Williams’ lack of success at the highest level after dominating in college, and there certainly are tangible reasons. Williams signed a five-year endorsement deal with Nike, changed equipment coming out of school and struggled to acclimate to it. That coincided with a swing change in which he tried to eliminate the big draw he leaned on throughout most of college.
His biggest adjustment, however, was transitioning from playing on a team to playing alone. The coach at Washington, Matt Thurmond, fostered a close relationship with Williams, who had been a lightly recruited kid from Moscow, Idaho, and made an immediate impression with his intense work ethic. That relationship and the feeling of playing for someone else made Williams a terrific college player who became lost and burdened when he started competing for money in a cutthroat environment.
“I don’t know if I was a great teammate in college,” Williams said. “I loved having teammates around, but I don’t know if I necessarily helped my teammates as much as I could have. When I got out of school, I realized the importance of having a team. … Coach Thurmond had brought in all of these specialists to help us in every area and, all of a sudden, they were all gone when I turned pro. You have to go and find them. For the six years as a pro, I missed that more than anything.
“Being on your own, I struggled with that a lot. It took me a long time to figure out that golf is a lonely sport.”
Williams describes professional golf as a heavy weight, a grind that muted his passion for the game. To succeed, he told himself, he had to put his head down and figure everything out on his own. A golfer against the world.
That approach ran contrary to his experience in college. For all of his outstanding play, Williams’ favorite memory is of his team winning the conference championship his freshman year despite a poor performance on his part. He still remembers going up to Thurmond after the round and learning that if his teammate, future PGA Tour player Richard H. Lee, made par on the last hole, Washington would win the tournament. Williams couldn’t believe it. He assumed his personal failure that day had ensured a losing result for the team, but it turned into a celebration once Lee clinched the title.
There is no team like this in professional golf. Everyone wants to beat you and they don’t mind if you crash.
“All I know is that I crave that feeling of being on a team,” Williams said. “I wanted that again.”
His pro career has all the components of a cautionary tale, and perhaps it always will. But listening to Williams talk now, he sounds like a man who has found relief from the expectations. There’s a freedom to him as he discovers redemption. Golf can be an unkind game that will make you suffer, or it can be what Williams feels now as the recently appointed assistant coach of the men’s team at Marquette University.
He had put the possibility of college coaching in the back of his mind during his playing days, but it came to the forefront at the beginning of this year. The first phone call he made was to Thurmond, now the head coach at Arizona State. From the beginning, Thurmond implored his former player to do whatever was necessary to get into coaching because he believed Williams could excel in that arena.
“Coaching Chris was inspiring,” Thurmond said. “He’s tough, passionate, kind, sincere, and very driven. He’s an incredible golfer with countless victories and awards. Many times he got locked into courses and facilities well past dark because he was quietly practicing beyond what anyone could imagine. That drive led him to become the top amateur golfer in the world and someone a coach could always count on to be prepared and ready to play great. I’m confident that if he puts that same energy into his coaching he will be a tremendous coach.”
Being hired at Marquette required more of that work ethic Williams is known for. A college degree is a prerequisite for being hired as an assistant coach, and Williams didn’t have one. He went back to Washington and finished his bachelor’s degree in sociology, a process that took from January until August.
The problem with that timetable was that most assistant coaches are hired in late May or early June, right after the spring season ends. Williams began to concede that he would have to wait another year until he could be hired. But Marquette assistant coach Trake Carpenter left in August for a position at Stanford, which opened a potential position for Williams.
That day, Thurmond texted Marquette coach Steve Bailey with four simple words: “I’ve got your guy.”
He was right. Williams, who confesses he didn’t even know what state Marquette was in until doing some research, spent an hour and a half on the phone talking to Thurmond about the opportunity and what would be required of him.
“He’s the first person I’ve talked to on the phone for an hour in 25 years,” Thurmond joked.
Pretty soon, Williams was on a plane to Milwaukee to spend 12 hours with Bailey. The two instantly connected. He was hired early last month and already has started wearing the many hats required of an assistant.
“It’s already paying dividends,” Bailey said. “Just the attention it’s attracted. And when he’s on the road recruiting players, he already knows what he is looking for.
“Obviously he had a lot of good in his amateur career and then he had trials and tribulations as a professional. Now that he has a chance to be on the outside looking in, I think he has a little clearer picture of maybe why some things didn’t work. There are lessons he can pass down to our players. And not that I’m ancient, but in this day and age, it’s nice to have someone who is a little closer (in age) to those guys. They’ve already struck up a connection with him from the start.”
Williams is 28 and not far removed from his brilliant amateur career. He’s not willing to give up competitive golf just yet – he recently contacted the USGA about regaining his amateur status and can envision himself giving mid-amateur golf a try.
But right now, he is a college coach obsessed with the game again. Marquette recently played a tournament at Conway Farms in Illinois, and Williams walked with the team’s best player, Hunter Eichhorn, throughout the event. Eichhorn opened with 65-66 to take a big lead before tying for the individual title after a final-round 76.
“It was some of the best golf I’ve ever seen,” Williams said. “Through two days he was 11 under and it was the absolute worst he could have shot. He could have easily been six or seven shots lower. Not that I deserve any of the credit. It’s pretty easy when you say, ‘Hey, Hunter, hit it here and he does.’ ”
Eichhorn comes from a small town and hits a big hook, two parallels Williams can understand better than anyone. This time around, Williams wants to impart the advice he wishes he could have taken for himself.
“We sat and talked after the tournament ended, and I told him to never change his swing,” Williams said. “There will be days he doesn’t love it, and trust me, there were days where I didn’t love hitting a hook. But those days are few and far between when you start winning.”
As a coach, Williams is hitting his hook again. And what a beautiful spectacle it is.
Top Photo: Chris Williams during the 2014 Farmers Insurance Open (Todd Warshaw, Getty Images)
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