Top-ranked Husky just a normal guy, until he swings a golf club
He checks the wind direction, moves quickly to his ball, and with a smooth swing of his wedge, launches the ball toward the hole 121 yards away.
It ends up short.
A foot short.
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On the next hole, after a perfect drive, he hits a wedge 140 yards that finishes 4 feet from the hole. His playing partner, junior Trevor Simsby, asks sarcastically, “Why don’t you hit it a little closer?”
So this is what a round of golf is like when you’ve been the No. 1-ranked amateur in the world for nearly a year.
This is what it’s like to be University of Washington senior star Chris Williams.
Williams easily makes the 4-foot birdie putt to go to 4 under through six holes at Broadmoor Golf Club.
The great start has nothing to do with the caddie. I know that, because I am carrying Williams’ bag.
For someone so imposing on the golf course, Williams certainly doesn’t look imposing. He is 5 feet 11, and weighs 160 pounds. That’s 20 pounds more than he weighed last fall after getting mononucleosis. “I lost 10 pounds, and I didn’t have 10 pounds to lose,” he says.
The only thing that stands out are his new purple golf shoes.
He certainly doesn’t make a big deal of being No. 1. In fact, he seems not to care.
“I never pay attention to the rankings,” he says. Not even at the end of last summer, with berths in this year’s U.S. Open and British Open at stake.
“I still didn’t pay attention,” he says. “If something happened that I needed to know about, I knew (coach) Matt (Thurmond) would tell me.”
I believe him.
The intrasquad qualifying round begins at about 1:40 p.m. at the course not far from the UW campus.
Williams gets there at 1:30.
After a few quick putts, and a short walk to the tee box, Williams asks for his driver.
No time on the range? “It’s no big deal,” Williams says.
He promptly drives the ball down the middle of the fairway, about 280 yards.
“The driver is the best club in my bag, so I use it as often as I can,” he says.
It has already been a long day for Williams. He was up at 6:15 a.m. for a team workout. Then, from 9:40 to 11 a.m., he was at Madrona Elementary School tutoring first graders.
“The kids are so great, and when I am doing it, it takes my mind away from everything else,” he says. “They get so excited to see me, and they’ll cheer when I get there.”
Williams has been tutoring as part of a sociology class, “but I like it so much that I think I am going to continue doing it even after the class ends.”
Williams brings the kids small gifts, like UW golf balls. “They’re all Husky fans,” he says.
After attending an 11:30 a.m. class, he has to hurry to Broadmoor, maybe a mile south of campus, for his round. In the rush, Williams’ 60-degree wedge was left in the van.
Not that it matters on the par-4 second hole. After pulling his second shot to the right of the green, he discovers his wedge of choice is missing and he asks for his 54-degree wedge instead. He is at least 40 feet away, but the ball seems to have radar for the hole, dropping for a birdie.
Williams, not known for his long drives, is playing with a new Ping driver that seems to have given him extra distance. He gives his playing partner, Simsby, some good-natured ribbing when he outdrives him on the second hole.
Simsby jokes that it doesn’t happen very often.
Thankfully, Williams’ bag is not too heavy, because this is no dawdling round at Broadmoor, a historic course that is one of Williams’ favorites. He doesn’t mind the well-known challenge of the wind.
“It blows at all different angles here, and it’s hard to read,” he says.
I figure Williams will aim at specific parts of the greens on approach shots, but he continues to aim right at the flag. “You just don’t want to go long on the holes here,” he says.
His coach marvels at Williams’ ability.
“He is so accurate and at such a different level, he can go at the flag every time,” Thurmond said. “Occasionally he misses it. But it’s interesting that he doesn’t need to think about what other players think about.”
Going for the flag certainly doesn’t bother him on the 133-yard fifth, when he just misses a hole-in-one. (His only hole-in-one, in the NCAA regionals in 2010 as a freshman, is the only hole-in-one I have seen in person.)
I am happy when he makes his fourth birdie of the day on the next hole, because I quit worrying that I might be hindering him. But on the seventh hole, a tough 236-yard par 3, Williams hits into the right bunker.
He would have used his 60-degree wedge, but with it in the van, he asks for his 54-degree wedge again and blasts out with that. He is unable to save par on that hole, nor on the 11th and 12th holes, when he also gets into bunkers and can’t get up and down without his preferred club.
While Williams doesn’t throw tantrums, he is obviously angry with each of his bogeys. But he gets over it by the next hole.
“I try not to dwell on it when I make a bad shot, because if you do, one bad hole can become two bad holes,” he says.
As we walk down the fairway, a bald eagle flies about 20 yards over our heads. I am amazed, but Williams has seen this before.
“Come over here, I will show you the nest,” he says.
Then, in an instant, his mind is back on his game. He doesn’t seem to take himself real seriously, but he is very serious about his game, even in an intrasquad qualifying round when there is really no pressure. If he didn’t qualify, he would be a coach’s pick for the next tournament.
After the bogeys on the 11th and 12th, Williams says, “In a couple of holes we’ll be going downwind, and we can make some birdies.”
We don’t have to wait long. On the next hole, he hits a 5-iron approach 175 yards into the wind; it finishes 12 feet from the hole. He makes the birdie putt, then birdies the next two holes as well.
The bogeys of 11 and 12 are forgotten. Maybe that’s why Williams doesn’t dwell on bad shots. A great one is never far away.
His run ends when he misses an 8-foot birdie putt on the 16th. It’s a putt he thinks he should have made, but after showing some anger he quickly gets over it.
While walking down the 17th fairway, Williams marvels at how fast his time at UW has gone. Big changes are on the way.
He plans to play as an amateur in the U.S. Open in June and in the British Open in August. He says he has not decided if he will play in prestigious amateur events in late summer or turn pro before that. I believe he really doesn’t know.
Williams has won six times, a school record, and is second in top-10 finishes at 28. A case can be made that he’s the greatest player in school history.
“Winning six times, being No. 1 in the world for this long, I can say pretty comfortably that there probably hasn’t been anyone any better,” Thurmond said.
But this is golf. The game humbles even the great players, and Williams hooks his tee shot into some deep rough on the par-5 18th.
“I’ve never been here before,” he says, approaching his ball. He decides to lay up short of the green but the ball sails way right, out of bounds.
Without saying a word, he drops another ball into the same spot, and hits it into the bunker in front of the green.
This has the potential to be a very bad hole, but he promptly hits his bunker shot to a few feet, even without the right club.
I didn’t see the putt go down for a bogey because I am raking the bunker.
It has been 3 hours and 20 minutes since we teed off. I have seen some amazing golf, a 67 without warm-up or his sand wedge. I have seen a bald eagle and six birdies. But what I’ll remember most is the company. The No. 1 amateur in the world is just another guy — that is, until he has a club in his hand.