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There was no way Wiley Williams could have envisioned what golf would come to mean in his life when he was trying to make some spending money as a 9-year-old caddie at Wilson Country Club in the early 1950s.
Several years later after moving to New Jersey as a young man, Williams took up the game and quickly found success, first as an amateur before turning pro in 1969. He competed in the U.S. Amateur Public Links Champion early in his career and played in the U.S. Senior Open near the end of his pro playing days. In the Newark area, Williams has become somewhat of a legend as a teacher of the game to youngsters. In 2017, Williams, who was inducted into the National Black Golf Hall of Fame in 1994, was honored by his home course, Weequahic Golf Course, by naming hole Nos. 10 and 11, “Wiley Williams Corner.”
Not bad for a poor kid from Black Creek who taught himself how to play golf.
“I can’t complain,” Williams said a telephone interview Tuesday from his New Jersey home. “I did make the National Public Links and I made the U.S. Senior Open. I made it a little late in life but I made ‘em! I made one as an amateur and one as a professional. I don’t know what it would have gotten me if I had won it.”
Williams, who just turned 77, was the focus of a recent article on the New Jersey State Golf Association website, detailing many of his career highlights. He won two Essex County amateur titles and was the only qualifier from the state for the 1969 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship.
“I think it kind of shook up New Jersey a little bit,” Williams said of the latter achievement.
He and fellow Weequahic player Marvin Stith won the Four-Ball Championship, the first African-Americans to win a NJSGA championship.
For Williams, just being able to play golf was not something about which dreamed as a youngster, even though he learned some of the basics of the game as a caddy. Growing up on Wiggins Mill Road, Williams would walk over to Wilson Country Club, which is now Willow Springs Country Club, to earn some extra bucks.
“I didn’t know 10 yards from 50 yards!” he said. “Because I was on a farm all my life and around that time, I was about 9 years old. My people took care of the golf course but you couldn’t play there. But I didn’t worry about playing anyway because I didn’t know what playing was. I just wanted to make some money.”
But that ended when the family moved closer to town on Old Black Creek Road, said Williams, one of 19 children born to Matthew and Lillian Williams.
“I couldn’t get back and forth (to the course) because there wasn’t no buses and I was too young for my dad to let me thumb a ride, you know,” he said. “I did one or two times but I couldn’t keep that up.”
MOVE TO NEW JERSEY
Williams moved to New Jersey, where two of his brothers lived. He was married with two children and two more on the way so he had to work and hadn’t even thought about golf in years.
“I liked golf when I was caddying but I hadn’t seen a golf stick anymore until I came up here,” he said. “I didn’t even know that you could play golf up here. I didn’t start playing until about ’62, I got here in ’61. I had two kids, one born in ’59, the other in ’60.”
Williams’ brother Leroy helped him land a job in a candy factory in Newark, where he toiled for a couple of years.
“My brother Willie was working at Westside Tire and Battery on West Langley Street and he got me a job out there, paying more money,” Williams said.
He learned how to refinish floors from Leroy, a skill that proved profitable for Williams.
“I wound up building me a business from that,” he said.
And he rediscovered golf — for the first time.
“I could hit it but I didn’t know where it was going!” Williams said with a chuckle. “So I aimed to the left and it went to the right and sometimes it ended up going all the way back across the fairway!”
But it didn’t take long for the golfing bug to bite Williams hard and he started to improve a little at a time.
“I didn’t know I was going as far as I went with it,” he said.
He was doing floors at night and hitting balls by day, trying get better.
Williams turned pro in 1969 and played in some mini-tour events over the years while still operating his business.
“Now, I’ve got four kids and although I had a business, a lot of times I was playing in Jersey as an amateur, I thought I should have won a couple more tournaments,” he said. “But I’d be on the job out there doing them big department stores like Bradley’s and K-Mart and things.”
Williams started teaching youngsters how to play when his own kids were in high school and played golf.
“I told them they needed some competition and they didn’t like it, but that gave me the idea to work with kids,” said Williams, who noted that some of the young players earned scholarships to play golf in college.
With many family members still living around Wilson, Williams periodically visits his hometown. He said he used to stop off and play against folks he knew in Wilson at Wedgewood Public Golf Course when he was traveling on I-95 to and from tour events. He praised the course.
“You had to think your way around,” Williams said. “You had to move the ball and, at that time, I could do that, so I had a big advantage over them.”
On one trip home, he finally got a chance to play at Willow Springs on the course where he had caddied, but was unable to play as a youngster, due to segregation. Another time, Williams said a friend who was a member of Wilson Country Club took him to play on the course.
“I said, ‘You sure I can go out there?’ and he said, “Yeah!’” Williams said.
Williams said that he was related to longtime WCC course maintenance worker Snookie Smith.
Looking back on his career, Williams was aware of the irony that he developed a love for golf despite the fact that he was only allowed to caddy and not play when he was first introduced to it. But he said he didn’t concern himself with that kind of injustice.
“I never looked at it,” he said. “I just want to play. Where it was going to take me, I didn’t know. I hadn’t thought about that.”