This might be a sad story if Chris Williams didn’t seem so content, happy and relaxed.
In the summer of 2013, Williams had just finished a remarkable college golf career at Washington and seemed like a can’t-miss professional star.
Williams had been the world’s No. 1 amateur for almost a year, won the Hogan Award, college golf’s version of the Heisman Trophy, and had just signed a deal with Nike through 2018.
But nothing is certain in golf.
After six years of near-constant travel, the ups and downs in his game, and the pressure of trying — and failing — to advance past the Canadian tour, Williams needed to stop. It didn’t matter that he had just had his best year, he was mentally done. So, what to do?
Come back to school, and accomplish something he thought he might never do: get a college degree. Williams is taking two classes this spring at UW while working as an intern in the athletic department, and is expected to finish up in summer quarter.
“It always weighed on me,” Williams said of not getting his degree.
And after graduation? Not even 28, he’s got a lot of options. He might return to pro golf. He might not.
He has time to figure it out, and as he casually talked over lunch at University Village, it’s clear he’s not stressed about it.
Whatever the decision, he will be more prepared than the last time he left school. If only he knew then what he knows now.
• • •
So much promise
Williams wasn’t highly recruited out of Moscow, Idaho, but won the Mickelson Award in 2010 as the nation’s top freshman. He won six times at UW, second most in school history; his 28 top-10 finishes is also No. 2.
Williams became No. 1 in the world amateur rankings in the summer before his senior year, staying there for 46 weeks until he turned pro.
The next spring, Williams joined former teammate Nick Taylor (2010) as the only Huskies to win the Hogan Award. As the No. 1 amateur in the world, Williams had exemptions into the 2013 U.S. Open and British Open, but elected to turn pro after the U.S. Open, making headlines by signing with Nike through 2018.
It meant forgoing the British Open. He would have had to remain an amateur to keep his exemption for that event.
“I thought I’d play in many (British Opens),” he said. “Depending on what happens, I may never get that opportunity.”
• • •
Williams was a confident golfer at UW. And why not? When he got into rare slumps, the self-taught Williams worked himself back into form with long hours of practice.
“The real talent in the game to me is the ability to concentrate for a long period of time, and he has the ability to practice and work longer than probably anyone I have ever been around,” said Matt Thurmond, Williams’ coach at UW before leaving for Arizona State. “He has such a great capacity for effort.”
But the confidence began chipping away. It started during his senior season at UW, when he began tinkering with his swing.
“I always hit a big draw, a big hook,” said Williams, who had several top-10 finishes as a senior but no wins. “Being a naive 20-year-old, I said, ‘I’ll just fix it. It’s simple, right?’ I started trying to hit it a little bit straighter, and I didn’t know how to go about it. All of a sudden I was hitting it both ways, and I lost confidence. Everything I taught myself and everything I referred back to, didn’t work.
“I could still compete, I could still score, but in my opinion, that’s why I never won as a senior. When I got in those situations, I wasn’t confident I could do it.”
He lost more confidence when after signing with Nike, he changed to its equipment right away, and never felt comfortable with it.
“They never pressured me, but I felt an obligation,” Williams said. “Being naive again, I thought I could play anything.”
As a decorated amateur, Williams received a few PGA Tour sponsor exemptions after turning pro. He finished 30th in the Travelers Championship, his first event, but missed the cut the next week at the end of June. His next sponsor’s exemption wasn’t until August, when he finished 56th; then he missed the cut again two weeks later.
Williams said the long break between sponsor exemptions left him rusty. In hindsight, he wished he had done what Cheng Tsung Pan did when he left UW. Pan went to PGA Tour Canada qualifying school during his senior season, allowing him to play in Canada when he wasn’t in a PGA Tour event.
“I play my best when I am competing and playing week after week,” Williams said.
• • •
Stuck in Canada
Williams got four more exemptions the next season on the PGA Tour but made just one cut, ending his chance of making enough money in those events to earn his PGA Tour card.
Instead, he would need to advance from the Canadian tour to the Web.com Tour and then to the PGA Tour. To make the Web.com Tour, he would need a top-five in the Canadian tour standings or to advance through Web.com Tour qualifying school.
After three years in Canada, not only had he not advanced, but he was coming off his worst season.
“At the end of 2015, I said, ‘I am going to give myself three years,’ ” Williams said. “And that was on top of three years of already playing and going through the motions and learning the ropes. I followed my plan. Unfortunately it didn’t work out.”
It wasn’t from lack of effort. He practiced so much he would burn himself out.
Williams noticed that he played his best golf at the end of the Canadian Tour’s season. To be more ready for the start of the Canadian tour, Williams played on PGA Tour Latinoamerica in 2018.
“I needed to play more in the spring, in tournaments where I really cared,” Williams said of playing on PGA Tour Latinoamerica, with stops in Mexico, Central America and South America. “It was perfect. I was starting to play really well right toward the end of that tour, which went right into Canada.”
For the first time, he got off to a great start in Canada last year. He lost in a playoff in his fourth event, his best career finish. But the good play didn’t last.
“The last three events I played in Canada were probably the worst three events I played all year,” said Williams, who still was a career-high 13th on the Tour’s order of merit.
Williams regrouped and played in a couple of PGA Tour Latinoamerica events to prepare for his sixth attempt to get past the Web.com Tour’s second stage of qualifying school.
“My finishes were good, but I felt like I was going through the motions,” Williams said. “I hated that feeling and I couldn’t really put a pinpoint to why that was.”
It didn’t help that his clubs got lost in transit coming home from Central America. Forced to use an old set at Web.com Tour qualifying school in November, he failed again to advance.
“To go there with a different set of clubs, it took everything out of me, and to miss it then for the sixth year in a row, it was painful,” Williams said. “It was tough to swallow. You get through second stage and you’re in the finals and you have (Web.com Tour) status. And I could never get through it.”
• • •
Williams played in the PGA Tour Latinoamérica championship in early December, and told his agent, “This might be my last tournament I play as a pro. I am so burned out.”
Williams had checked out. An admitted “home body,” he realized he had been home (in Bellevue) only about 10 to 12 weeks in the prior year.
“I thought, ‘I gave myself three years, and I’m going to be true to my word,’ ” Williams said. “I have buddies who are 32, 33, 34 who are still playing in Canada. That wasn’t going to be me, because for a lack of better words, those guys are miserable.”
Williams decided to take advantage of the Finish Line program for athletes who come back to finish their degrees.
“I was nervous because I wasn’t a good student,” Williams said. “School doesn’t come easy to me. This was like playing in a tournament for the first time in six years. I’ve got to really work and I’ve tried to be in class and actually learn the material as opposed to just trying to get by.”
Williams needs one more class this summer to get his degree in sociology. He plans to attend next year’s graduation ceremony with longtime girlfriend Elizabeth Tuesley, “who graduated when she was supposed to, but missed the ceremony to be with me at the U.S. Open.”
Williams said Tuesley always supported his dream, even when he was going through tough times.
“She almost pushed me out the door to go play in more tournaments,” he said.
Time away has made Williams realize he never lost his love for the game. He was thrilled when former teammate Pan won on the PGA Tour last month, and “rooted like crazy” for childhood friend Joel Dahmen, another former Husky, when he finish second last month.
“Seeing Pan win and Joel almost win — there is still a drive there, still a passion for it,” Williams said. “The love of the game will never leave. The love of the professional aspect wasn’t there — the travel and the grind and the mentality of it.”
Williams has connections in the insurance business if he wants to leave the game, but said he would prefer to stay in the game, and might like to be a college coach someday.
“My best time was at college, being around college kids and being on a team,” Williams said. “That is something I have thought back to multiple times. Because my relationship with Matt was so positive, I want to be that influence with a kid.”
Thurmond, though flattered that Williams might like to coach, would like to see his former star give pro golf another shot.
“I don’t know why it didn’t go the way he would have thought, but I still think he’s got it in him,” Thurmond said. “Those things don’t leave you. If he has any gas left in the tank to play, I would love to see him continue to pursue that because I still think he is a superstar player.”