When Evan Williams bombs one, caddies cower, Jack Nicklaus sticks his fingers in his ears and owners of property anywhere near the fairway get nervous about their picture windows. Williams, ladies and gentlemen, is the world's longest driver. No one can match his monstrous hits, or his prodigious misses. Stand back there! Give the man room!
Give the man lots of room! With a two-iron, Williams can outdrive Nicklaus. He can hit a wedge shot 200 yards. He can drive 400-yard holes, knock down caddie shacks with a two-wood and, says Chi Chi Rodriguez, "make the ball look like a flying saucer." But best of all, as far as Williams is concerned, is that in a game that can reduce the most composed golfer to a blithering idiot, he does not have to keep score. Tee it high and let it fly is the long driver's way.
Nicknamed "Big Cat," Williams has won the National Long Driving Championship each of the last two years, blasting a 307-yard winner into a head wind at Congressional Country Club in 1976 and triumphing at Pebble Beach last year with a smash of 353 yards. Jim Dent, the longest hitter on the professional golf tour, finished sixth in 1977 with a "measly" poke of 316 yards. George Bayer, who in his day was golf's longest driver, says that Dent "not only uses a graphite shaft, he has graphite arms." Where she stops, nobody knows.
Big Cat is 6'6" and weighs 215 pounds, a boyish and ebullient 30-year-old who lopes through life looking for a cocktail party when he isn't wrecking driving ranges. He expects to make more than $75,000 this year, giving exhibitions at $1,500 a clip before galleries that are dumbstruck when he does his number. There is an other-world quality to a well-struck Williams tee shot as it whooshes off and up and away, the ball hanging for what seems an interminable time, growing smaller and smaller, finally descending, just a bouncing speck now, rolling to a stop somewhere between three and four football fields away. Often, after one of these mammoth pokes, the onlookers are so stunned that they fail to applaud, at which point Williams will turn to them and with a big smile, nodding his head up and down, begin clapping in self-congratulation.
June 4, 1978
Long hitters are admired, even adulated. Good putters are resented, as if somehow it is unfair for them to score well by doing something as delicate as pitty-patting a ball into the cup. The story is told of a long driver, a man who belittled putting as "golf needlework," entering his club's putting tournament and, to his and the other members' surprise, winning it. "Gentlemen," he said, "I've never been so ashamed in my life." In truth, it is rare to find anyone who brags about being a good putter, though one of the most telling phrases in golf, especially when uttered by a powder-puff hitter, is, "Drive for show and putt for dough." Asked to name his favorite person in the game, Big Cat Williams says, "Mr. Alternate Fairway."
By the nature of things, a long driver is going to be peering from behind trees and refreshment stands a lot. That will happen when he unloads a 540-yard drive, as Bayer once did on a sun-baked hole in Sydney, Australia. Off the course Bayer was friendly and amicable. But while playing, he would grouse and mutter dire imprecations over every misfortune, particularly when he sliced one. In 1957 during the Kentucky Derby Open, he became so frustrated that he took out a seven-iron and simply chipped the ball one-handed down the middle of the fairway, finishing with a 17 on the hole. For his transgression, Bayer was given a 30-day suspension, which was later reduced to a $200 fine and 90 days' probation. Bayer, for his part, denied the charge of disorderly conduct. "Both my hands were on the club," he protested.
With his ability to draw a paying audience and not having to worry about the score, Williams has no such hangups. He laughs off his occasional mishits and simply tees up another ball. Last year he visited nine countries and countless backyards, scattering people and lawn furniture. At a recent exhibition at Champions Golf Club in Houston, former PGA champion Dave Marr watched Williams blast one past the driving-range boundaries and into a homeowner's garden. "Most people don't go that far on a vacation," said Marr.
"Any questions on the two-iron?" Williams asked his gallery of business executives.
"We don't ever use a two-iron," said one of the men.
"Normally I don't either," said Williams.
Life and golf are just a drive and a wedge for Big Cat (Marr compares his disposition to that of "a big lapdog"), who is held in some awe by many of the touring pros. Last March, in the Tony Lema Pro-Am at Marco Island, Fla., Williams was blasting away on the driving range when Frank Beard edged up to Dent on a nearby putting green.
"There's a guy over there that wants some of you," Beard needled.
Dent looked up, made a disgusted "humph" sound, and went back to his needlework. That day Dent won the Pro-Am with a 67 and told interviewers that on a 230-yard par-3 he had had to hit a three-wood. Williams, playing right behind him, used a three-iron—a feat that was more discussed than Dent's winning score.
Unfortunately, a strong head wind deprived Williams of a chance at the $500 prize offered to anybody who could drive over a water hazard on the 16th hole, a shot requiring a carry of 300 yards. The man who put up the prize was a club member who had never seen Williams but doubted the word of a friend who said he thought Big Cat could probably blast one over the lake. Williams often is approached about friendly wagers, but after the prospective bettors watch him hit a few shots, they tend to keep their money in their pockets. Larry Ziegler, one of the tour's big hitters, once smashed a drive during a practice round with Williams and the Cat's friend, pro Billy Ziobro. An onlooker made a challenging remark about "try and catch that one."
"Tell you what," said Ziobro. "He'll not only outdrive it, he'll hit it past it on the fly." Which Williams did.
When he does keep score, Williams normally shoots somewhere between 72 and 79, depending on how many of his drives wind up out of bounds or simply disappear. In 1975 he tried to qualify for two tour events, the B.C. and Southern Opens, but shot a 74 and an 81. He decided what his future should be several years ago when he played in a series of 18-hole sectional tournaments in New Jersey, shot a 71 one week and a 70 the next, yet made only $9. His first taste of fame came in 1974 when he defeated Dent, who was then golf's Sultan of Swat, by seven yards in a challenge driving match at a Catskills resort. After watching Williams, Joe DiMaggio said, "They ought to lock him up in a cage." The first open National Long Driving Championship was held the following year but Williams was too wild in the regional qualifying and was eliminated. He made the next one, at the Congressional in Washington, and, aided by a tip from former U.S. Open champion Hale Irwin, who told him to tee the ball higher, Williams won the competition easily and took his show on the road.
Most of the big hitters in driving contests have wild swings. Jeoff Long, a 15-handicapper and former major league baseball player from Fort Mitchell, Ky., won the first open with a swing that had more chance in it than a roulette wheel. Williams, however, is orthodox, taking the club back in a smooth, compact motion and generating tremendous club-head speed with a strong leg drive and powerful wrists that uncock at the last moment. Bayer gripped his club so softly that he never wore a glove, and Williams says the secret of long drives is the ability to relax, plus quick reflexes. "I'll be good until my 'speed power' leaves me," he says. "As long as I keep my reflexes, I'll still hit it long."
Williams believes he is the biggest hitter of all time, longer than Bayer, who now is 52 years old and a club pro at the Detroit Golf Club. Williams' monsters include a 397-yarder in New Jersey that was measured with an odometer; a smash that ended up 15 feet from the cup on a 430-yard par-4 at a Fort Lauderdale course; and a "480-yard-plus" bomb in Thailand last winter. And though he never has made a hole in one, he does have stretches of accuracy. Several years ago, in the days when Williams collected only $200 for an exhibition, he went out to the 18th fairway at Upper Montclair, N.J., 380 yards from the green, and hit 10 balls, six of which wound up on the green, four of them within six feet of the cup. Of course, the precision doesn't last. "I don't know how many picture windows I broke as a kid," he says. "I was off and running before the ball hit the window."
Like many pros, Williams grew up across from a golf course, in his case the 5th hole of the Englewood (N.J.) Country Club, where he acquired his first set of clubs by trading in golf balls he found. As a high school senior he was 6'4" and a spindly 158 pounds, a sports nut who "went steady with a basketball for 10 years." Big Cat played two years of basketball at Canisius, in upstate New York, where in a moment of glory his freshman team defeated St. Bonaventure's—and he outjumped a fellow named Bob Lanier for the tipoff. After two years, he transferred to tiny Franklin (Ind.) College, where he set records in golf, basketball, football and track and gained a reputation for irreverence. A 76-yard punt got him invited to a St. Louis Cardinal tryout camp, and 36-point and 27-rebound games induced the New York Knicks to contact him.
Williams got his nickname as a result of a minor scuffle at a basketball practice in which he unceremoniously fell over some folding chairs. That same night' Muhammad Ali knocked out Cleveland (Big Cat) Williams in the Astrodome and the following morning Evan's teammates were calling him Big Cat. And he got his, reputation as a blithe spirit at halftime in a game when his coach was berating him for missing all five of his free throws in the first half. "What are you thinking about up there?" the coach railed at him.
"I'm thinking I'm going to miss," said' Williams, being accurate for once.
This year's National Long Driving Championship will be held in August, just before the PGA Championship at Oakmont Country Club near Pittsburgh. Williams says he is at the top of his game and should again win the $15,000 first-place check because he has won the last two titles by a comfortable average of eight yards. Marr and a lot of his friends on the pro tour wonder what Big Cat would be like if he could tame his vagrant impulses, nocturnal wanderings and insouciant approach to the game. They point out that big bombers like Bayer, who joined the tour at 29, Mike Souchak and even Nicklaus all were better golfers after they stopped trying to blast the ball.
However, Williams is in no particular hurry to change his game. During his early 20s, when he was a struggling assistant pro, an elderly aunt living in Fort Lauderdale often advised him, "Someday you're going to forget about this and get a job." Now he sends her postcards from all over the world. He has a residence in Orlando, Fla. and another in Leonia, N.J., a city that, appropriately enough for golf's King Kong, is within sight of the Empire State Building. For all of that, a golf course to him is just another driving range. "If I shoot 72 or 70, it's a bonus," he says. "But if I shoot 80 and hit the one or two long drives, I've done my job. Hey, it's a good time." And nice work, if you can get it.