Midway, Utah – After playing for Oregon State University, Alex Williams put away his golf clubs and taught English in Peru. When he returned to the United States, he returned to golf as a coach.
His career path quickly led him to a job as an assistant coach at the University of Washington, one of the top teams in the country. But that stint lasted just eight months.
“I pretty much got fired,” said Williams, 25, who declined to elaborate on the circumstances of his recent dismissal.
He is now working in the pro shop at the Cedars on Salmon Creek in Vancouver, Wash., while assessing his next career move.
“I made some bad choices,” said Williams, who is playing his third U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship. “I need some time away.”
Williams appeared emotional and distressed as he discussed the topic, and he experienced a similar feeling Tuesday night when he learned that his first-round opponent at Soldier Hollow would be Chris Williams, one the players he coached at Washington.
“I was a little scared, a little uptight about it,” said Alex, who left an assistant coaching stint at the United States Military Academy at West Point to take the UW job.
The revelation followed a stressful afternoon for Alex, who played early during the second round of stroke-play qualifying then drove to Salt Lake City, where he is staying with his sister. Unsure whether his score of 3-over 145 would make match play, he drove 50 minutes back to Soldier Hollow to await a possible playoff.
He qualified with a stroke to spare, leading to his uncomfortable match against the younger Williams. After a cursory handshake on the first tee, there was no communication between the players during the match other than to concede putts or ask ball markers to be moved.
“It was going to be tense because of the situation,” said Alex. “And that was one of the things that I was apprehensive about. It just made it hard.”
In addition to dealing with his discomfort, Alex was facing a formidable opponent, the No. 2 player in the World Amateur Golf Ranking and member of the 2011 USA Walker Cup Team.
“I’m way too familiar with his game,” said Alex, who looked away every time Chris was hitting. “I knew it was going to be down the fairway. I know he’s going to hit it to 10 feet every time.”
Alex may have viewed his opponent as a golf machine, but it was Chris who made the first mistake of the match, three-putting the second hole after rolling his first putt – a downhill 50-footer to the front hole location – off the green. Alex then birdied the fourth to go 2 up.
After hitting a series of loose shots to start the match, Chris played the kind of explosive golf that illustrated why he is one of the best amateurs in the world. On the 511-yard par-4 sixth, which has played as the most difficult on the course, he hit a long drive and a towering short iron that sat dead upon landing, ending up 3 feet from the hole, which was tucked just over the bunker guarding the green. It was the kind of shot that the short-hitting Alex never could hope to hit.
That birdie was the first of four that Chris made over a five-hole stretch in which he took a 2-up lead. The final birdie was on the 445-yard 10th, a crucial moment in the match for Alex, who matched Chris’ birdie to remain just 2 down.
“I told myself there was going to be a turning point in the match, that I could lose it or stay in it,” said Alex, who fell in the round of 32 at last year’s APL at Bandon Dunes Resort. “And that was 10. That was a big putt.
“That gave me confidence that I could at least compete and keep it close until the end. That’s all you can with a guy like Chris, because he’s not going to give you anything.”
But just as he did at its beginning, Chris made some errors over the closing holes of the match. On the 15th hole, he hit his approach from the rough into a greenside bunker and made bogey. On the following hole, he lipped out a three-foot putt that would have squared the match.
At the same time, Alex used stellar putting to regain the lead, making a 40-foot birdie putt on the 12th and a six-footer on the 14th.
So when the Williamses stepped to the tee of the 222-yard 17th, Alex was 1 up. Carrying his bag through the round, Alex was tired from the trek up the hill from the 16th green. Despite the fatigue, he took less club off the tee.
“You hear people talk about how they’re excited and they’re going to hit it farther,” he said. “I hit 6-iron yesterday and that got to the front. I was pumped up. I hit 7 for some reason.”
The ball finished 12 feet left of the hole, while Chris’ tee shot ended up 8 feet away. Again, putting was the difference.
Alex thought his putt would slide right, but he also knew that the mountain, to his right, would influence the ball.
“I trusted it and placed it left center, and it hung on,” said Alex, who pumped his right fist when the putt fell.
Chris missed, losing the match 2 and 1.
“I just couldn’t make the putts when I needed to,” said Chris. “I’ve played [Alex] a lot, and I’ve beaten him a lot. But tournament golf is a little different. He stepped up, and I didn’t.”
After the match, Alex, who was exhausted and relieved, was looking forward to improving on his performance from last year, when he lost to Jonathan Randolph in the second round. But he also realized that his victory in the tension-filled match was one of the biggest upsets in the first round. Medalist James Erkenbeck also lost on Wednesday in 21 holes to Alex Edfort.
“[Chris] just doesn’t make those mistakes often,” he said. “I’m just lucky it happened today.”
Hunki Yun is a senior writer for the USGA. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.