Before there was The First Tee of Essex County at Weequahic Golf Course in Newark, there was Wiley Williams.
It is Williams – a prominent golfer and member of the National Black Golf Hall of Fame – who has taught the game to children from Newark and the surrounding area for decades, long before the opening of The First Tee at Weequahic in 2006. Since becoming a Professional in 1969, Williams has made it his vocation to teach golf and give back to the game, saying “Golf has been good to me. Golf made me. Giving back to golf is what God told me to do.”
The East Orange resident has drawn upon his vast personal and professional experiences to impart knowledge of life and the game of golf onto generations of students. Countless youngsters have relied upon the guidance of Williams, whose upbringing, career, and legacy is inspiring and motivating.
STORY OF PERSEVERANCE
The remarkable story of Wiley Williams is one of perseverance, skill, and love for the game. Born in 1942, he was one of 19 children and the son of a sharecropper in Wilson, N.C. As far back as he can remember, Williams was picking cotton and doing farm chores. He married at age 15 and had two children by age 19, when he moved to Newark to join several of his brothers to start a better life for his family. His first job was in a candy factory in Newark. He also worked at night with his brother, Leroy, in a floor-waxing business which Wiley still owns.
Williams’ golf journey began as a caddie – rather than as a player – at age 9 at the Wilson Country Club in Wilson, N.C., where he caddied for Arthur Ruffin Jr., who was the Carolinas Golf Association Four-Ball champion in 1959. His first foray as a player was in 1962, when his brother, Roscoe, handed him a set of used Sears and Roebuck clubs and brought him to Weequahic.
Self -taught, Williams would hit as many as 3,000 balls early in the morning after he had finished waxing floors the previous evening. “I started out hooking and slicing, but I fell in love with the game. I decided to get better after I lost a lot of quarters in matches against my friends,” Williams said.
He improved and started winning those quarters back. In 1967, Williams won his first of two Essex County Men’s Championships, which set the stage for the pinnacle year of his amateur career in 1969. That summer, he was the sole New Jersey qualifier for the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship held at Downing Golf Course in Pennsylvania. Shortly thereafter, Williams and Marvin Stith (also of Weequahic) bested defending champions Russ Helwig and Howard Liddle of Branch Brook for the NJSGA Four-Ball Championship at Suburban Golf Club. It was a transcendent moment for both Williams and Stith as they made history in becoming the first African Americans to win a major NJSGA Championship.
IN GREAT COMPANY AMONG THE PROFESSIONAL RANKS
Later in 1969, Williams turned professional, trying to earn some extra money. Oftentimes, he would attempt to qualify for tour events on weekends so it didn’t take him away from his family and business. Williams credits the improvement to his game during this time to valuable advice received from local PGA professionals Pat Schwab, Peter Famiano, Bob Toski, Wes Ellis, Lou Barbaro and Art Silvestrone.
Known as a long hitter off the tee, Williams won two mini-tours events – the Brooklyn Classic Golf Tournament and the Cleveland Open. While on tour, he befriended and competed against the best African American golfers of the era, including Jim Thorpe, Charlie Sifford, Calvin Peete, Lee Elder and James Black.
Locally, Williams competed in the NJSGA Open Championship several times, and was in position to win the 1977 Open at Navesink Country Club, but a fourth-round 78 landed him at 295 and in a tie for 23rd place. Later, he served three years on the golf staff at Shackamaxon Country Club in Scotch Plains, working most of the time on re-gripping clubs and club repairs.
In 1981, he was recognized as a special friend of the Professional Golfers’ Association and New Jersey Junior Golf for helping to break down racial barriers.
Williams qualified for the U.S. Senior Open in 1996 won by Dave Stockton at the Canterbury Golf Club in Beachwood, Ohio, checking himself out of the hospital just four days after being involved in a serious auto accident.
Over the decades, Williams played golf with many celebrities, including television personalities Bob Hope and Telly Savalas, basketball stars K.C. Jones and brothers Ray and Gus Williams, and tennis/golf standout Althea Gibson. For a number of years, he would have Elder host the Michelob Classic at Weequahic.
A LASTING IMPACT
The profound impact of Wiley Williams on young Newark-area golfers has spanned generations. The longtime resident of East Orange remains a fixture at Weequahic Golf Course where he works closely with Tim Christ, the Director of Golf Operations for the County of Essex. “Wiley is an extraordinary human being. He is one of the friendliest guys you ever want to meet. He has a big heart. He’s an educator who loves the game and gives back any way he can,” said Christ.
Williams, who will celebrate his 77th birthday on February 19, has never stopped teaching area youngsters about golf, and life. “I’ve seen him working at Weequahic with inner-city kids who don’t even have clubs. He’s helping every one. You don’t bump into a lot of guys like that. The number of young golfers he has helped is incredible,” said friend Rich Chisholm.
Through all the years, all the hard work and all the memories, it’s the small things that make Williams emotional. “I just wanted to play golf. I had no idea how far I was going in the game. When I look back now at how many friends I’ve made, golf has been great to me.”
He continued, “I like to talk to kids about golf. It teaches you etiquette, consideration and honesty. If they lived by those rules, they’d better people. Nothing means more to me then when one of the kids I’ve once taught recognizes me years later and says “Thank you.” I live for that.”
In 2017, Williams was honored with a large bronze plaque at Weequahic, which commemorates his storied career and dedicated service to the game. The “Wiley Williams Corner “at Holes 10 and 11 was named for him and "will be an inspiration to the young golfers who participate in The First Tee program at Weequahic," Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo said.
A small but fitting tribute to a trailblazing golfer who has meant so much to so many.