Chris Williams Latest In Line Of Young Players At Travelers

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CROMWELL

Chris Williams spent the final hours of his amateur golf career as a spectator. He walked five holes Saturday at the U.S. Open following his college teammate, Cheng-Tsung Pan, after he had walked 36 holes at Merion with a club in his hand the previous two days.

"I've got to say it's no fun outside the ropes," Williams said Tuesday as he prepared to make his professional debut on a sponsor's exemption at the Travelers Championship. "It was a learning experience for me. I learned, 'Don't miss the cut.' "

Yes, the top-ranked amateur in the world for nearly a year would spend his final hours as an amateur watching the big boys. On Sunday night, he climbed aboard the jet chartered by Travelers that took the Open golfers on the 45-minute flight from Philly to Hartford. Williams' brother Pete, who caddied for him at Merion and will again this week, was with him. So were his mom, Linda, and his girlfriend, Liz Tuesley. Small town by upbringing, shy by nature, Williams studied the familiar golfing faces on the flight. He didn't budge from his seat. He didn't want to bother anybody.

"I don't think any of them knew me," Williams said. "I knew all of them.

"This is a dream come true for me, especially for a guy who comes from a small town in Idaho."

It is a dream that has started at TPC River Highlands for many over the years. This one started in Moscow, Idaho, hard on the border of Washington. Williams uses a 10-fingered grip, a baseball grip, something favored by beginners and almost no pros. And, oh, yeah, this small-town boy guy can shoot the lights out. He played on the 2011 Walker Cup team, in the 2012 World Amateur Team Championship. He played on two Palmer Cup teams. He won six titles over four years at the University of Washington. He capped it all by winning the Ben Hogan Award as the top college golfer.

Different courses and PGA Tour stops are known for various reasons. Big crowds have been the hallmark of Cromwell. Yet as the years pass, the tournament has also become known as the place where a young golfer gets a sponsor's exemption to make his pro debut.

David Duval did in 1993. Justin Leonard did the same in 1994. Stewart Cink made his pro debut on a sponsor's exemption in 1995. All three went on to win majors. J.J. Henry, Charles Howell and Jeff Overton are on a long list of guys who have debuted at Cromwell and remain loyal to the tournament. The legacy continues every bit as strong, if not stronger with Travelers.

"We're one of five hometown sponsors on the PGA Tour and for us it's about wanting to treat people like family," said Andy Bessette, Travelers executive VP and chief administrative officer. "Our philosophy is young athletes need a break. Chris Williams is a great, young athlete. This philosophy has worked so well … A guy like Webb Simpson wins the U.S. Open and he comes back. It's like watching a flower grow."

Simpson made his pro debut in Memphis in 2008, but the next week he used a sponsor's exemption to play at the Travelers. Guys don't forget the chances afforded to them when they are young. The pay back is in a number of established names returning year after year. Yes, a tournament held a week after a major is going to lose players. On the other hand, Europeans looking to fulfill commitments to keep their card before they return home might play River Highlands. The spiffy new practice facility — essentially these guys' office — is a big draw. And with elite younger players at the end of their college career, after one last amateur whirl at the Open, the tournament is well placed to kick off a pro career.

"It is one of the reasons I like our place on the calendar," tournament director Nathan Grube said. "We are strategic and careful. This is the only time in their career when you have this kind of relationship with a player. They are, in essence, recruiting us. From then on we'll be recruiting them."

Williams was watching when Patrick Cantlay shook up golf with the 60 he shot in the opening round of the 2011 Travelers. It was the lowest round ever on the PGA Tour by an amateur. Cantlay had been given a sponsor's exemption and when it came time to turn pro he did it at Cromwell last year.

"We're good friends, played together on the Walker Cup." Williams said. "It was awesome to see the way Patrick started out here and since then it was my hope to do it, too. We share a lot of stuff and he said this is the tournament to do it."

Williams played TPC River Highlands on Monday and again Tuesday.

"It's a lot of fun," said Williams, who missed the Open cut by one stroke. "After the high stress last week, this course gives you a chance to actually go low."

Williams' dad, Varnel, was at the Open, but had to return to his job as a horticulturist for the city of Pullman, Wash., eight miles from Moscow.

"I worked at the University of Idaho," Linda Williams said. "My husband [who's from Los Angeles] became a horticulturist. We thought we'd go there for school and get on with our lives and then we realized, oh, this may be our life. It's funny, in golf it's kind of exotic to be from Moscow, because nobody is from there."

Williams told the Tacoma News Tribune that his dad wanted to live off the land, be a farmer and his mom said no way. Still, it was Varnel who grew his son's game, putting a mallet-shaped putter in little Chris' hands and later building a starter's set of cut-down clubs.

"We have pictures of him swinging clubs at 4 or 5," Linda said. "His drives weren't long but they were straight. He exhibited skill at an early age."

Enough skill to decide in the eighth grade to concentrate on golf, something former pro Kirk Triplett from Pullman did at a similar age. Williams gave up baseball, a sport he loved. He kept the baseball-style grip Bob Estes once used. Scott Piercy is one of the few around today who does.

The overlapping grip is used by at least 80 percent and the interlocking grip by most of the rest. The wisdom has been the dominant hand on the 10-finger grip forces hooks. Not for Williams.

"Baseball was my sport growing up," Williams said. "Golf was boring. The one time I used the other grip, I shanked it. The 10-finger feels natural. It's a baseball grip but it works for me."

In a sport filled with players from Florida, Arizona and California, the Williams family gets a hoot when he is introduced as being from Moscow, Idaho. It's like being introduced from Moscow, Russia. Everybody goes, where? Still, Moscow had its advantages.

"We really didn't have a driving range," said Williams, a four-time high school state champ. "It was a pasture. So for me to practice I had to go out on the course [at the University of Idaho] and it was great because no one was there. The town is 25,000 and that's with 10,000 students. It's like a ghost town in the summer. I could play and practice on the course as much as I wanted. I had the whole place to myself."

He spent all day and well into the summer night, shaping shots, measuring putts — the ultimate small-town kid with the big, big dreams.

"Practicing on the course worked out best for me, but I learned the hard way that's not how you're supposed to do it," Williams said. "I'd go to Seattle and play those country clubs and members didn't like me taking a bunch of divots and ball marks."

So here he is now, ready to turn 22 on Friday, a deal signed with Excel Sports Management, ready to turn on the bright lights of his career. He has exemptions to play at AT&T, Reno and Wyndam after the Travelers.

"It's awesome we're here," Linda Williams said.

The awesome part for the Travelers is her son surely will be back.

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