By Kevin Price for AmateurGolf.com
- Kevin Price photo
You hear amateur golfers and even the professionals talk all the time about those goose bumps they get driving down Magnolia Lane as a first-time participant at the Masters Tournament in Augusta.
For St. Simons Island resident and local golfer Josh Williams
, driving into Ocean Forest Golf Club on Sea Island to play a game he loves stirs the emotions in much the same way. He could be playing in a local scramble to raise money for a good cause, hitting the links for a friendly 18 holes among friends or competing in a field of world-class players like the one assembled this week for the Jones Cup Invitational
It doesn’t matter what the setting or the stakes are. The career amateur who never had much desire to play golf professionally gets a little extra juice in his swing and swagger in his step when he goes to the first tee on the demanding course located along the shore of the Atlantic Ocean which provides breath-taking views especially at the finishing holes.
“This place means a lot to me,” said Williams, who performed admirably this week and finished tied for 22nd at 7-over-par 223. “It’s a special place.”
There probably wasn’t a player in the field with deeper ties to Ocean Forest than Williams, who was born and raised in the Golden Isles of Georgia. The golf-crazy coastal area remains his home, and it is where he is raising his family while running an extremely popular family-owned seafood restaurant, Crabdaddy's Seafood Grill, was started many years ago by his parents on nearby St. Simons Island where Williams and his parents still reside.
- Kevin Price photo
Williams, who turns 43 in late March, actually worked on the course maintenance crew when Sea Island opened Ocean Forest as an exclusive private club back in the mid-1990s.
“I helped lay the first piece of grass out here,” he said. “We put it down near the bunker off the left-hand side on Number 6. I don’t know why, but we did.”
Williams was 16 years old at the time and worked at Ocean Forest as a summer job. Taylor Adams, a Sea Island vice president who later served as tournament director when Ocean Forest hosted the 2001 Walker Cup competition, set him up with the gig.
That same summer, something also happened to Williams that still affects his daily life and impacted his golf game. While Williams was working out on the course one day, a piece of treated wood got stuck in his leg. It took a cutting procedure to remove the wood, but his problems were only just beginning.
A rare virus that doctors believed entered his body as a result of the incident made him seriously sick for several months and led to him losing most of his sight in his left eye. And still today, he has to take regular shots to help his throat muscles work properly.
“My junior year of high school, I pretty much laid in a hospital bed down at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville (Fla.),” Williams explained. “I was sick all over. The doctors believe the chemicals from the wood may have gotten into my bloodstream, and I was sick for several months. The virus, it ate through my eye and basically left a hole in it. I do have a little bit of sight in that eye. I can see colors and have some peripheral vision. I can see a little but, but not much.”
Williams was playing golf at Glynn Academy, one of the powerhouses in Georgia high school golf under legendary coach Herman Hudson at the time, but didn’t play his junior year because of his illness.
Even though he was able to return to the course, Williams struggled to play what he considers quality golf. He admits he didn’t take the game all that seriously back then, which didn’t help matters any. He liked to fish and hunt more than play golf, he says.
He never wanted to blame his vision issues on his less-than-stellar play on the golf course, but after repeated questions about it during his Sunday interview with a local writer, Williams admitted it caused problems that led to major frustration.
He went a few hours from home to NCAA Division II Valdosta State University to play collegiate golf, but says he lasted just a little more than a week in the program.
“I liked to party too much,” Williams said. “But honestly, I was still having a little trouble with my eye. It was hard to go away and play against guys I didn’t know and who were better than me.”
Williams didn’t last much longer in school, either. He returned home to work under his father, Charlie Williams, at Crabdaddy’s Seafood Grill, the family-run establishment located on Ocean Boulevard on St. Simons Island which runs along the beaches of the bustling Coastal Georgia barrier island.
He played little golf for nearly two full years before coming back to the game which he started to like more than ever after the long layoff.
“I was disappointed, and it just got to where golf wasn’t fun anymore,” Williams said. “I started enjoying it again for what it is. It is a special game. I love it now.”
Williams would continue to get better and better over time, and he is quick to answer why that was.
“Definitely my chipping and putting,” he said. “I used to hit the ball better than I do now, but I couldn’t chip and putt. If I miss a shot now, I can get it up and down, whereas before I couldn’t because I really didn’t care.”
Williams has played some of his best golf in recent years.
He won the prestigious Golden Isles Invitational
at the Brunswick Country Club back in 2013. That tournament, played on a Donald Ross course that has been redesigned by Davis Love III and his brother and former caddie Mark Love, has a who’s-who list of champions that includes Love III and his son Dru, Steve Melnyk
, Andy Bean and Bill Ploeger who put together an illustrious career as a lifelong amateur.
Williams has won the club championship at the Brunswick Country Club several times and has received an special invite to play in the Jones Cup from the tournament committee the last several years.
He said Sunday this was his fifth time playing in the event which started back in 2001. Williams once finished higher than he did this year, but he says his showing the last three days was his best-ever in the 54-hole affair.
“I’ve finished inside top-20 before, but this is the best field they’ve ever had here,” said Williams who wasn’t alone in that opinion. Nathanial Crosby
, captain for the 2019 and 2021 U.S. Walker Cup team, said as much following the tournament while several players believed that, too.
Williams has posted numbers way lower than the 3-over-par 75 he shot in Saturday’s second round. But when asked, he said there was no doubt his play in the brutal conditions was his best in any official tournament round. The morning rain, cold and damp conditions along with the gusting winds, made for near six-hour rounds for the players and a stressful walk along the lush green fairways of the Rees Jones original design.
“You had to commit to every shot,” he said. “You better be committed. If not, you’re asking for trouble. There was a triple bogey awaiting with every swing.”
Williams, who estimated he has played Ocean Forest somewhere between 40 and 50 times, didn’t make worse than bogey on any hole in round two. He finished with six bogeys and three birdies for his 75 score on the par-72 track.
George Warwick, who locals know by his nickname Moon, said he has never seen Williams play better. Warwick, also a restaurant owner, has caddied for his good friend in each of his Jones Cup appearances and has played too many rounds to count with Williams at area courses including the country club on the mainland.
“It was a grind, and that I was the best round I’ve seen him have,” said Warwick, co-owner of the also-popular Marshside Grill which sits along the water near the Sidney Lanier Bridge that leads from Brunswick to Jeykll Island. “He was really focused on every shot. He had probably the best ball-striking round I’ve seen him have. He missed maybe two shots all day.
“It was tough. We had to hold the umbrella parallel to the ground because it was raining sideways. He probably averages 265-270 yards off the tee, and he had one drive on No. 4 that went maybe 190 yards. No one in our group reached the fairway. He hit driver, three-wood, eight-iron in there and hit them all good.”
Williams opened the tourney Friday with a 1-over 73 which included a triple-bogey. After his impressive showing again on Saturday, he was playing steady golf early in Sunday’s third and final round. He made seven straight pars before closing his front nine with a birdie and a par to shoot 35 going out.
He started his back side with a bogey on the par-5 10th after being slowed down with several groups waiting on the tee. He immediately bounced back with a birdie on the par-4 11th, and with that, he moved into the top-10 on the leaderboard.
But then, Williams hit a rough patch where he made bogey on four straight holes. He stayed in the moment, however, and would close with three pars to stay inside the top-25 for a pretty good week for someone who didn’t play the two weeks prior.
He didn’t practice any, either. “I like to play. Practice is detrimental for me. If something isn’t right, I like to play through it,” Williams noted.
“I keep it simple, point and shoot. I try not to over-think it.”
Williams doesn’t waste time thinking what might have been either, had he not had the vision issues and played better during his junior, collegiate and earlier amateur days.
He is perfectly happy with how things are now and takes satisfaction in knowing he can keep up with the young guys who consistently fly it past him off the tee.
Williams appreciates what golf lends to the older player like himself, such as the chance to play in premier events like the Jones Cup in special settings for the game like Ocean Forest.
He added his game plan likely won’t change for the future despite his strong play here this week. He will play as much as he can and plans to enter a few more Georgia mid-amateur events than maybe previously he might have. He said he also may try to play in a few more United States Golf Association championships such as the U.S. Mid-Amateur and U.S. Four-Ball in the coming years.
In late April, he also will play in the Timuquana Cup Invitational
as he was invited to participate in the Jacksonville, Fla., event by Melnyk, a former British Amateur and U.S. Amateur champion who honed his skills in the game at the Brunswick Country Club where Williams mostly plays these days.
His competitive schedule will remain limited, though.
“I play maybe once a week,” Williams said. “Other than that, I’m at home with my wife Beth and kids or at work at the restaurants.”
The rounds he plays are mostly close to home, too, at places such as the local country club and Sea Palms Golf Club on St. Simons Island - Williams has memberships at both - and Sea Island Golf Club, where his dad and mother E.J. are members.
Some of those rounds could from time to time include touring pros who also make their home in the Golden Isles including Love III, Zach Johnson, Harris English, Brian Harman, Patton Kizzire and J.T. Poston and young pro Scott Wolfes, a fellow graduate of Glynn Academy.
Otherwise, Williams, who friends describe as super nice guy, will be seen playing with his regular partners including fellow former Golden Isles champion Jay Cason, BCC club champion Jason Webster and former NAIA All-American Dylan Freeman who led College of Coastal Georgia to its first national championship back in 2014.
“I like playing Retreat (at Sea Island), especially with Mark Love,” Williams said. “He and Davis redesigned it, and growing up playing there when it was the St. Simons Island Club, I like to hear him talk about that. It’s a different course.
“I also like what (Mark and Davis) did at the country club. I like seeing people who have never played it try to read those greens. They change so much, depending on the time of year because of the grain coming in when the Bermuda is growing.”
This week, Williams also played the first two days with fellow mid-amateur Stewart Hagestad
who seems to be a shoo-in for the U.S. Walker Cup team as the highest-ranked mid-am player currently in the world amateur rankings. He finished tied for 11th Sunday at 3-over for the three rounds.
“He’s gonna go down as one of the best amateur players ever,” Williams said of the 2016 U.S. Mid-Am champion and member of the previous two victories U.S. Walker Cup squads.
This week, several golfers playing in the Jones Cup also visited Crabdaddy’s and Fiddlers, which the Williams family opened this past summer on St. Simons Island. One of those was Joe Deraney
, the fifth-ranked mid-am in the U.S., who won the 2003 Golden Isles Invitational in Brunswick.
Williams, Deraney and Cason joked about the former Mississippi State golfer “stealing that one” from Cason who was in the final group with the Statesboro, Ga. native and grew up playing the BCC course. Cason won his first Golden Isles the next summer.
“I appreciate Bill Jones who started this tournament and the Jones family,” Williams said of Sea Island’s founders. “What they’ve done here, what they’ve given to this community and how they’ve helped people like Moon and myself and our businesses is incredible.”
Jones, who was there to present the winner’s trophy to Ludvig Aberg
, saw Williams play a few holes late Sunday, greeting him with a hug before he played the 16th hole.
“I have no regrets. To play in events like this, this is my golf career. And, I’m good with that,” Williams said.