Bandon, Ore. – Moments after being closed out by No. 2 seed Jonathan Randolph, 5 and 4, in Thursday's second round of the 2011 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship, Alex Williams walked to the back of the 14th green at Old Macdonald and sat down.
His head was buried, the disappointment clearly visible. Williams remained in the position for at least five minutes, trying to cool down.
“I just didn’t want to hurt anybody,” he said. “The bigger picture, I’m not an athlete. I’m a coach, I guess.”
When you consider Williams’ employer, such a defeat is minuscule in the larger picture.
Last fall, the 24-year-old accepted an assistant coaching position at the United States Military Academy at West Point, where the primary objective is to produce future leaders, not touring professionals. Every cadet Williams and head coach Brian Watts works with faces a five-year military commitment following graduation. Many will head to places such as Afghanistan and Iraq to protect the freedoms Americans sometimes take for granted.
These individuals carry far more than a low USGA Handicap Index.
“It can be intimidating sometimes,” said Williams of coaching at a military academy. “Their time is demanding of them and they are tired a lot. I’m a winner and like to compete, so we try to make it as normal as possible.”
But the U.S. Military Academy is hardly your normal college institution. Cadets are appointed and must receive a letter of recommendation from either a senator or congressman from their state.
Needless to say, recruiting is a little different. American Junior Golf Association All-Americans don’t line up at the front gate. Army cadets are much more likely to wind up working at the White House or the U.S. Capitol than the first tee of the U.S. Open or Masters.
Graduates specialize in majors like systems engineering, not golf course management.
“I bet they dream about it,” said Williams of his players possibly making it on the PGA Tour. “We kind of want that. It keeps the fire in the belly.”
It’s certainly not likely, but every once in a while a military academy graduate will find success in pro sports. The Navy’s Roger Staubach won the Heisman Trophy and later quarterbacked the Dallas Cowboys to two Super Bowl titles. David Robinson starred for Navy in basketball and went on to a Hall-of-Fame career with the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs. Recently, Billy Hurley, another Naval Academy graduate, played on the 2005 USA Walker Cup Team and currently has conditional status on the Nationwide Tour.
Army graduates include war heroes and U.S. presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower, and famous astronaut Buzz Aldrin.
“You’ve got to look at a guy who is not just a great golfer, but a leader,” said Williams. “Really smart kids. It makes recruiting tough.”
Williams, who graduated from Oregon State in 2009 with a history degree, had just returned from an 11-month overseas adventure in Spain and Peru, teaching English as a second language when his former OSU coach contacted him about the assistant coaching position.
At the time, Williams was thinking about getting into the profession, so he jumped at the opportunity.
When he arrived at West Point, he was immediately awestruck by the place.
Statues of famous generals dotted the grounds. The place oozed history.
“You just know you are in a special place,” he said. “You are around amazing people, so you are a little timid and a little hesitant.”
What surprised Williams the most were the demands placed upon 18- to 21-year-old individuals. Everything at the academy is regimented.
All cadets must take part in some sort of physical activity from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., whether it is intramurals, club sports or Division I intercollegiate athletics. It is those three hours away from the classroom where the golfers can escape the rigors of academy life. Occasionally Williams will notice the players dragging at practice. After all, they are human, occasionally worn down by the vigorous curriculum.
“We try to make it as normal as possible,” said Williams, a former Oregon Golf Association junior champion who grew up in Vancouver, Wash., across the Columbia River from Portland. “We like to think if you are playing golf for three hours a day, it’s a nice break.”
This year, Army won the Patriot League title, edging hated rival Navy to earn a spot in the NCAA Regionals in Tucson, Ariz., where they finished 13th out of 14 teams. Nobody will ever compare Army with Oklahoma State when it comes to golf prowess.
“We’re trying to make it a little more like Oklahoma State,” said Williams. “We’re competing at a high level.”
After his APL defeat, Williams said he was headed back to West Point to begin summer recruiting. It’s a life he would like to pursue, whether it’s at Army or with another college program. The job keeps him close to the game, and allows him to still compete at the highest levels of the amateur game.
“I want to be around golf,” he said. “I kind of like developing and sharing what I know about the game. I think I have something to share and give back to the game because it’s given me so much.”
David Shefter is a USGA senior staff writer. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.