Gary Williams might not seem like the right fit for the concluding page of this particular issue of Golf World. A youthful 47, his Dennis the Menace features might suggest more "wiseacre" than "wise."
But the Golf Channel's main host of Morning Drive has long carried an old head on young shoulders. Consider that for his first movie as a kid, rather than take in a James Bond blockbuster, Williams saw "The Sound of Music." "My friends were like, 'What are you watching?' " he says. "I left the theater almost not wanting to admit that I loved it. Same thing later with 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?' But inside I remember thinking, 'These movies are phenomenal.' "
Williams has learned to trust his naturally venerable instincts, and it comes through with his combination of authority and authenticity on camera. Among the great mix of co-hosts and guests (full disclosure, I have occasionally been one) that appear on the daily two-hour show, Williams' traditional sensibility is the glue.
"I like to take an opinion and shape the conversation and hope it sparks some debate," he says. "I think smart television is good television."
Williams came to the game at age 4 through his late father, Buck, an ex-college pitcher who became a successful executive while retaining his love of sports. Very soon he took his son to the Greater Greensboro Open and pointed out Arnold Palmer. "My dad loved John Wayne, and the way he described Arnold as the John Wayne of golf made the game that much more alluring," Williams says. After the family moved to New Jersey, young Gary caddied and played at Ridgewood CC, and it wasn't too long before he was being included on golf trips with his dad's friends to places like Pine Valley and Pebble Beach, a tradition that continued almost up until Buck's death in 2011.
Meanwhile, his literature-minded mother, Anne, urged her 14-year-old son to read a book a week, giving him a rolling start with Bobby Jones' Down the Fairway. Williams found he loved reading the game as much as playing it, and began devouring the work of Bernard Darwin, Herbert Warren Wind and Dan Jenkins, whose memoir he just finished. "Probably the best thing that ever happened to me is that I grew up in a house full of romantics," says Williams.
It was an outlook that informed Williams' circuitous and often brave route to his current job. He left Vanderbilt after two years because he didn't feel he was applying himself, and hit the books hard at Guilford College in Greensboro, where, after serving as an intern for then-senator Joe Biden, he graduated with a degree in political science.
But Williams was turned off by the institutional inertia of Washington and drifted back to golf, becoming an assistant pro at the Governors Club in Chapel Hill, N.C. He taught the game, passed his playing test, earned his Class A card and moved on to Seminole, where he lived in the same room at the club one of his heroes, Dave Marr, had once inhabited as an assistant. But with a clear path before him, Williams decided that the life of a golf professional was not for him. When the head pro who had hired him, Jerry Pittman, asked him what he was going to do, Williams confessed, "I don't know."
He went to Charlotte to work in the paper industry where his father had forged a career, but started doing a weekend golf radio show for free. That led to an offer to be the salaried host for a drive-time sports show for the same station. Newly married and having just turned 30, Williams wondered if he was destined to be aimless, when his wife, Julie, gave him courage by saying, "Gary, this is what you love." The romantic spent nine happy years in Charlotte before moving to SiriusXM radio, which led to being hired by Golf Channel to start Morning Drive in 2011.
In his current role, Williams is on a path similar to the rare and exalted one that Bud Collins carved out in tennis -- the expert who was neither a former player nor a famous instructor, and also brings broadcasting chops. Such a combination has been almost unknown in golf, the two most notable exceptions are probably Henry Longhurst and Jim Nantz.
It's an old-school, wisdom-based, and, yes, romantic approach. "My connection with the people we interview and our audience is the love of the game," says Williams. "It made me feel good the other day when Brandt Snedeker said to me, 'You have your dream job.' And I just answered, 'You know, I do.' "