‘Silly’ game turns into lifelong passion for Roy Williams
17 Min Read
Former UNC basketball coach says he’s been spoiled rotten by the game of golf
Written by Helen Ross @helen_pgatour
If there’s one thing Roy Williams loves almost as much as he loves basketball, it’s golf.
Williams didn’t start playing the game seriously until he was in college after a stint on the freshman team at North Carolina convinced him that coaching, not playing basketball was in his future. But he needed a competitive outlet, and golf was it.
Williams learned the sport by reading instructional magazines and watching golf on TV, trying to emulate swings like that of his favorite player at the time, Arnold Palmer. The game he once thought was “silly,” when he lived across from Asheville Municipal as a kid soon got its hooks into him.
Williams, who retired on April 1 with 903 wins and three NCAA titles as head coach at Kansas and North Carolina, has played with the likes of Michael Jordan and Tom Watson and President Barack Obama. His happiest games, though, are still with his regular group that his calls his Fox Hole buddies.
The Basketball Hall of Famer played Augusta National two days before he announced his retirement, although he admits his mind wandered. He’s a member at Pine Valley and Quail Hollow and Pinehurst, among others, and is the first to tell you he’s been “spoiled rotten” by the opportunities he’s had.
“For me, if they've got smooth greens and grass on the fairway, it's a great golf course,” says Williams, who carries a single-digit handicap that will likely improve as he plays 3-4 times a week in retirement. “But those legendary courses are awful fun to play.
“But if my buddies were in Asheville and they called and said, let's go to Muni this afternoon, I’d be right there with them.”
On Wednesday – which is Roy Williams Day at the Wells Fargo Championship -- Williams plays with UNC football coach Mack Brown, former Kansas golfer Gary Woodland and Wake Forest’s Will Zalatoris in the pro-am at Quail Hollow. He recently spent more than 45 minutes on the telephone talking about his favorite memories in the game. Here’s an edited version of that conversation.
All my buddies think I'm outright crazy, competitively. And I don't think so. I just think it's a normal thing. One of my assistant coaches was trying to get his keys out to open the door and I got mine out quicker and put it in and said, ‘Beat 'cha.’ He said, ‘I didn't know it was a competition.’ I said, ‘Everything's a competition.’ But it was the challenge of golf. I love being outdoors and it was very, very hard. And so, I loved it.
I made one of the best decisions I ever made my first year as a coach in high school. I was going to be an assistant football coach and the head basketball coach. And the principal said, ‘Roy, I hate to do this, but I really do need you to coach a spring sport, too, because we're short on coaches.’ And I said, ‘Well, what sport are you thinking about? He said, ‘I'll give you a choice, baseball or golf.’ And I played baseball from the time I was 11 years old on and everything I remember about the coaches are awfully positive things, except for one thing. I remember them lining off the field and dragging the field and picking up pebbles, but I've never seen a golf coach mow a green. So, I told the high school principal, I said, ‘I'd like to coach the golf team. And he asked me if I could beat one of the other coaches who also wanted to be the golf coach. And I said, yes. And so, I became the golf coach.’
When Michael (Jordan) was playing here I was one of the first guys, if not the first, I really don't remember exactly who was first, but I had him out there hitting balls. And I'll never forget this. And you've heard a story about him breaking Davis Love's driver the week of the NCAAs, I think. And then I think Michael, in the spring of '84, when he decided to go pro I had him play with me and I think it was the first tournament he ever played in at Chapel Hill Country Club. And over the years we played several rounds. Some of them were very memorable. The best group I could ever imagine playing if you're a basketball guy was me, Michael Jordan, David Robinson, John Stockton and Charles Barkley, we played a fivesome at the original Dream Team practice out in California because I was coaching a group of eight college kids that were scrimmaging against the Dream Team. And so, we'd practice and then we went to play golf. But first day we went, that's who it was -- me, Michael, John Stockton, David Robinson, and Charles Barkley. Oh my gosh. How could any basketball person do any better than this?
Michael was the best player. Michael and I, John Stockton's pretty good, too. They're a little better than David and Charles, but Charles was much better at that time. He didn't have the hesitation in his swing at that time. He really didn't. I mean, he would shoot 80 to 85 and he was fine. It was fun. We did have some bets. And I think we were rotating partners, every six holes kind of thing. But then Charles was after David Robinson the entire time. And all of a sudden, finally, David agreed to a bet, so he was going to play Charles for $5 on the last hole. And so, when we were on the tee, Charles Barkley started yelling, ‘Hey, everybody, David Robinson's gambling.’ But we didn't play for that much money, but there was some money that changed hands.
I guess it was the day I retired, Michael and I were visiting on the phone and he was saying so many nice things. And I would say nice things about him and how much I appreciated his help and support over the years. And then I said, one other thing. I said, Michael, when I get a chance, I'm coming to your course and I am not paying. He just laughed. We've had some fun with the golf over the years.
We called it the Doug Moe Invitational. Doug had been a great player at North Carolina and played professionally, coached in the NBA and Doug would do the invitations and we'd go down (to Pinehurst) and play. And it was it was tremendous amount of fun, and it was more high dollars than I would normally play for but so much fun. And a quick one -- it will show you how crazy times were. We were at Country Club of North Carolina, I think it was, a car pulls up and two little boys, jump out, go run across, up to the first tee, two pieces of paper and get Michael to autograph them. They ran right by three people, got Michael's autograph, turned around and ran back to the car. The three people that were standing with Michael on the tee box were Dean Smith, Jerry West, and Dr. J -- and they didn't even ask any of those people for their autographs. They got Michael's and got back in the car.
As for the most nervous I've ever been, it's one of the Doug Moe Invitational deals. We'd have a Ryder Cup contest, and it was all tied at the end. So, they picked me and one other guy to go out and play on this one hole for $300. And it wasn't just my $300, it's the other, I think there were 12 guys on these teams, so for the other 11 guys. So that was a little bit pressure. But no, I've been really fortunate. I could play with Michael and Coach Smith and people like that.
A couple of years back, three years back, I guess, the year that Jason Day won the tournament in Charlotte, I told everybody that both of us birdied 17 and hit the same club. I hit my 7-iron from 155 and he hit his 7-iron from 210, I think it was, but I did knock it in from about 40 feet off the back of the green in the hole for a birdie. So, I told everybody Jason Day and I both birdied at 17 with the same club.
But I will tell you that, I guess for a split second, I was a little nervous, September 21st, 2019. I got a chance to play with President Obama and it was really fun. ... Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase, Maryland. We played 18 -- me and him played two of his guys that worked for him, some younger guys, I called them young pups. I said we're going to take on the young pups. ... He called ‘em young pups the rest of the day. But we were on like 15 and he said, Coach, I heard about you playing so fast. You're dragging us around. He says, we may have time to play nine more, do you want to play nine more? I said I’m in. I'd seen a recruit at 7 a.m. that morning. So, I'd already got some work done. So, we played 27.
I guess when he was trying to become the Democratic nominee, it was the spring of 2007 and he came on his campaign through Chapel Hill. And then one of his guys that worked for him was a friend of one of the guys on my team. He loved to play little pick-ups, so we played. We set it up in the Smith Center in the practice gym where my entire team got to play pickup with President Obama. And it was great. And he was so gracious to all those kids. It was really an inspirational thing to me. And I really liked him to begin with, just loved the way he treated me, my team, all that kind of stuff. And so, then he became President and then he picked us to win the championship on the bracket on national television in 2009 and we did win, so then we went to the White House.
And then he was campaigning in ‘15, I guess it was fall of ’15, for Hillary (Clinton). ... And he was there and asked to say hello to my team again. We took a team picture and he said, how'd you play this summer? I said, not bad. I'd love to play with you one day. He said, let's make that happen. And so that year he came over and watched us play Duke at Duke. And it was the famous Zion Williamson blow-out shoe game. And he came to our locker room before the game and went to Duke's locker room and the whole bit. And so, the same guy that had helped set up the pick-up game was still working for him. And I said something to him, and he said, no, if he said that, he said he means it. And so, I got in touch with him, and we set it up. I gave him any day that ended in a Y and any number that was less than 31. He could pick any month, any day, and I'd make it happen kind of thing. But it was one of the great rounds that I've ever played just for enjoyment.
I was just so awestruck about how he treated everybody. And it was just a great, great day for me. Not too many people know that. I mean, they really don't. I've got a picture of me and President Obama when we finished, but none of the sports writers, I never gave them that information about playing with him that fall or anything like that. ... It was like playing with my buddies and yet he was President of United States. Well, I think that's what golf does. I really believe that. I mean, golf allows people of different backgrounds, different ages, different everything to enjoy being out there on the golf course, playing that game. And I think that's part of the beauty of playing golf.
People have asked me if I had a fantasy foursome and I'm being very sincere. I say, no, I don't because the most fun I have playing golf is playing with my buddies. So, if it were me, if I could choose a group to play with, it would be my regular buddies. And that's what I love more than anything. I’ve always said I don’t care that much for business golf at all. When I'm out there, I'm trying to beat their butts. And that's what Coach Smith loved, too. We loved to play with each other, and he's been known to make a few wagers, to say the least. I was his partner a lot. And we had, we had a great deal of fun beating Bobby Knight and his partner on two different occasions. And Coach Smith loved that part of it, too.
Best score at Augusta National was 77. So, we started on 10. I played pretty well and get to the seventh tee and I'm 2 over. I hit a good drive and hit my second shot and the caddie said, Coach, that's eating it up. And the pin was stuck left behind the bunker and it buried in the top of the bunker and I had to hit it out sideways and knocked it up on the back. Walk off there, made 7, but then I parred eight, nine for 77. But I love it. It's a challenge. And when they Tiger-proofed it, they Roy-proofed it, too. There's a lot of guys named Roy that don't shoot the scores they did there at one time either.
I had made the decision (to retire) and I was trying to just get my mind off of it. But I would hit a shot and then I'm walking down to the next shot and I'm still thinking about what I'm going to say on Thursday. So that was the most difficult two rounds of golf at one of the greatest places in the world (Augusta National) to be enjoying golf. And usually, I lose myself into the golf round, but as I say, I knew what was coming on Thursday and I felt comfortable with the decision, but what was I going to say? How was I going to say it? Was I going to remember to thank everybody? Was I going to make it something that I would feel good about the way I announced it? So, my mind was straying off the golf course quite a few times.
The reason I was giggling was because that’s the silliest Roy Williams being Roy Williams. Yes, we went to Scotland in 2010. We had a great time. We played 36 a day for six straight days and just loved it. ... When we got to St. Andrews they had a lottery going. So, there were eight of us ... and they picked four of us to play and the other four would be playing on the New Course. ... And I was one of the names that got pulled that could play The Old Course. .... I said, no, if all eight of us can't play, none of us will play. And so again, later that night, I told the other three guys who were also chosen. They were mad at me, but it was just Roy Williams. ... It's who I am because team stuff has always been the most important thing to me in my life outside of my family. ... And so, looking back on it, I made a lot of bad decisions, but that's kind of ranked up there. It's the second worst golf decision I've ever made.
The worst? Oh, this one's easy. We lose in ‘92, the NCAAs. I'm at Kansas and a car dealer had a place out in Palm Springs. And another friend of mine had a place in Palm Springs. So, Wanda and I went out there just to hang out and spend a couple of days. The other guy I'm playing with is Russ Meyer, the CEO of Cessna, who was a Kansas guy and was really a great friend to me. We're on like on No. 16. And the plane comes over the course and he said, that's Arnie. And I said, what do you mean? He said, yes, Arnold Palmer. He's going to have lunch with us. You've got to be kidding me. And so we just play in and it was a great day.I made four 2s -- I birdied every par 3. Sure enough, Arnold Palmer sits down and has lunch with us. He was sitting right beside me. And I was thrilled. I kept calling him Mr. Palmer. He kept telling me to stop calling him Mr. Palmer. I said Mr. Palmer, I can't do that. And one time he said, well, Coach, he said, we're going to play 18 more if these guys are man enough. You going to be able to play with us? And I just died. And I said to him, I said, Mr. Palmer, it's just my wife and I out here. And she's back there by herself. And I told her, I was just going to play 18. He said, well, maybe we would get a chance to do it some other time. And so, I go back to the little apartment condo and I tell Wanda immediately what I had done. I thought I was going to get some credit. She said, that's the dumbest thing you've ever done in your life. So that was the dumbest thing in golf that I’ve ever done. I thought I was going to get some credit. I got no credit. All I got was criticism.
(Gary Woodland) was in college at a Division II school in Kansas and we played them. There were only four non-Division I teams in the whole state of Kansas. And every year I would play one in an exhibition game and give them money to help their program and one in a regular game to get them. And then the next year I played the other two. So, we're playing Gary's team. ... And we were really freaking good. And he had to chase Kirk Hinrich around the whole game. The story is that he went to the basketball coach and said, I've just realized that basketball is not my future. And after that year, he left and transferred to Kansas to play golf.
I played probably 12, 15 rounds with Tom Watson. So, basketball and golf has taken this little kid from Western North Carolina so many places that it's hard to even imagine. I'm as lucky as you can possibly be. In ’94 the PGA is at Southern Hills in Oklahoma. And I'm walking around with his teacher Stan Thirsk and Tom's missed a 4-footer, missed a 5-footer, missed a 6-footer. I'd say, gosh, if he could just make a putt, if he could just putt as well as I putt, he'd be in the lead. And Stan Thirsk gave me the greatest compliment ever. He turns to me and said, Roy, if he could putt as well as you putt, he'd have won four more majors. And that was something. … Dana Quigley tried to steal my putter once. He said, no basketball coach can put that well. So, I've had some good stories and good times with those guys.
I’m as lucky as I can be, and I want to watch them win a hell of a lot more games before I go croak. ‘Cause it's what I really wanted to do was coach, win a championship and then the next day croak, but it didn't work out that way because I didn't feel like I was doing as good a job, but I love watching them. I love the program. What the University of North Carolina and North Carolina basketball did for me, it was off the charts. So, I'm as lucky as I can be and feel good about it.