Tuesday, June 19, 2018

At 86, Al Williams wants nothing more than to share love of golf

First, you must know how much he loves the game.

Only afterward, you will find how important it is for him to help others play it.

It was early in life when golf claimed the heart of Al Williams. It did not matter how hard it was to play. It did not matter how hard it was to get to play.

There was something magical about the little ball, the way it skittered across a green. Golf demands a set of skills that he loved from the beginning, and it filled him as no other sport did. To the black kid on the bicycle, there was nothing else quite like it.

At age 8, Williams would ride through the streets of St. Petersburg, using the large baskets on his bike to deliver shoes that his father had fitted with golf spikes. It was there, at the Lakewood Golf Course, that Williams would deliver the spikes. Eventually, it was there that the young Williams would look up at Elijah Hooker, the head caddie master, and ask if he might teach him about this game.

And so it began, a lifetime ago.

At age 86, he is still waiting for his love to fade.

He would practice in the early hours, at 5 a.m., the precious time he was allowed on the course. His father, the shoeshine man, would pay $5 for a lesson. There was no place to play, but two or three times a year, he took part in caddie tournaments. It was never enough for him.

"Nobody ever conquers golf,'' Williams says all these years later. "It's the challenge. I played baseball and football and basketball, and I probably would have swam if I had a pool. But there was nothing like golf. Of all of those things, my love is golf. I shot an 82 today, but I might shoot a 102 tomorrow.

"It's the ultimate game.''

Williams smiles, and the youth is still in his face. He has lived a life on a golf course, and he has walked a million fairways, and he has leaned over a million putts. In all of his years, the game has never loosened its grip on him, not when he was a dentist, not when he was a college student at Morehouse, not when he was a family man.

All of which might explain why Williams, who said he usually shoots in the low to mid 80s at his age, has a new job.

These days, Williams is in charge of America's First One Legends, a nonprofit organization he designed (and financed out of his own pocket) to help assist black golfers in America. It incorporated in March with the purpose of "providing financial support to assist golfers." He hopes to provide college scholarships, help athletes attend golf academies and golf schools, and assist six golfers the group has already identified if fundraising efforts allow.

"My son (Joshua, also a golf pro) says I'm crazy to be starting a business at age 86,'' Williams says, laughing. "I told him I might not be around when it ends, but wherever I am, I'll have the satisfaction of seeing it get started.''

Good for him. It would be easy enough at his age to stand back and let someone else do it. Williams won't do that. He wants to help.

Yes, it is needed. Remember when Tiger Woods' first Masters victory was going to help spark diversity in golf? It didn't quite happen that way. There is only one man of African-American descent — Woods — on the PGA Tour. The First Tee organization, which launched in 1997, has vastly helped minorities in golf at the lower levels, but professionally, the tour has fewer players than it did in 1976.

The numbers are stunning. By Williams' math, there have been 670,470 slots filled in the PGA, LPGA, seniors and developmental tours since the PGA's Caucasian-Only rule was rescinded in 1961. Of those, only 18 African-Americans have participated on those tours. It's a rotten ratio.

"We need two things,'' Williams said. "We need sponsorship, and we need funding. Golf is an expensive game to play. It isn't like you need one basketball and several kids to play.''

Williams sits at a desk, and he sifts through all the papers he carries with him. The ones on golf. The ones on black golfers. The one on President Barack Obama and his quest to raise funds. Williams is a walking library, with his handwritten notes covering the articles he carries with him. There are photos. There are documents.

"First Tee has done a marvelous job, but they tend to lose kids at about 15 or 16,'' Williams said. "You can't keep them forever. We want to help provide assistance to African-American golfers at all levels. We want to assist with attendance at golf academies and golf schools, with providing individual training and with entrance to all PGA programs.

"I know a lot of golfers, fine golfers, who work and can't go to golf academies. We want to help with that. There are standout golfers ready to go. If they can get the funding, we'll have 10-12 more PGA players within three years. If we can help some of these kids into golf, we can help a lot of kids.''

Williams should know. He has lived his life in parallel with black golf.

He was born in 1928, the year the United Golf Association (which established a tour for those excluded from PGA events) was created.

He began to take lessons in 1936, the year Joe Louis — the American boxer who was an avid golfer — lost a title fight to Max Schmeling, partly, he says, because he had played too much golf and trained too little.

He turned 20 the year Ted Rhodes became only the second African-American to play in the U.S. Open (after a lawsuit). (The first, John Shippen, played in several U.S. Opens before segregation.) He turned 33 the year Charlie Sifford earned his first PGA Tour card. He turned 47 the year Lee Elder played in his first Masters.

He turned 69 the year Woods won his first Masters. He turned 76 the year Sifford reached the Hall of Fame. He turned 82 when the PGA and USGA joined together to create a repository for documents related to African-Americans in golf.

Oh, Williams has seen some things. He was alive when all of the color lines were broken in the various sports. He was there when black men became coaches, and general managers, and owners. He was there when most of the important days happened in civil rights.

For much of his life, Williams has embraced golf much tighter than it has embraced him. Through the days of Jim Thorpe and Calvin Peete and Jim Dent, through the time of Althea Gibson and Renee Powell and Pete Brown, he has worked for a more representative field. Still, he goes along, stroke by stroke, still trying to balance up the score after a lifetime on the green. He's still trying.

Someday, perhaps, golf will look the way the world outside of it looks. Someday, maybe nothing will matter but the colors on a scorecard.

Williams likes this about golf: After all these years, it's still a meritocracy at its core. You get the score you deserve.

"Being rich won't help you,'' Williams said. "You have to be able to compete. That's the important thing.''

First, however, everyone has to get to the opening tee. First, everyone has to have a chance. Williams is determined that will happen.

If that happens, it won't be too many more years before the game looks the way it is supposed to look.

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Published: 06/13/18