Texas’ best ever? An Austin amateur champ is thankful to remember a fallen hero this season.
In a state that’s produced some of the game’s greatest players — Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite and Jordan Spieth to name a few — there’s a case to be made that one of the best golfers, if not the best, in Texas history remains a relative unknown, more recognizable for the Austin municipal golf course that bears his name than the potential he displayed in less than a quarter-century.
Certainly, Morris Williams Jr. didn’t build a career resume to stack up with those listed above, but those who saw him play before his tragic death at 24 saw something special, something that not only embodied the game’s etiquette, but the tenacity needed to become a superstar.
And Billy Clagett, an Austin icon who has been a star amateur golfer in the state’s capital for four decades — winning the city’s prestigious Firecracker Open six times — wasn’t about to let Williams’ legacy fall by the wayside, especially as newcomers continue to stream into the area.
It wasn’t easy, but Clagett is thankful this year that his efforts have finally seen the light of day.
Along with others, Clagett proudly unveiled a new memorial to the decorated hero who won the Texas junior, amateur and open titles all within a one-year span, marking the only time that feat was ever accomplished. The pieces for the new memorial have been assembled inside the lobby at Morris Williams Golf Course, which sits just a few miles from the center of downtown in one of the nation’s most vibrant communities.
Clagett said at the memorial’s opening that tracking down info on Williams was no simple assignment.
“When you’re trying to get information and pictures and text from something that’s happened 70- something years ago — before cell phones, before a lot of photography, before videos, before anything except the printed word practically and telephone calls — it’s tough,” Clagett said. “But we assembled as much as we could and I hope it stays like this.”
The story of Williams starts with his namesake — Morris Williams Sr., who originally worked in the print shop at the city’s newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman. When Statesman editor Charlie Green decided the paper needed someone to cover the growing sport, Williams offered his services as a way to maneuver into the editorial department. According to numerous reports, Williams assumed it would be a temporary gig, but when he retired 33 years later, he was one of the state’s most prominent golf writers. The name of Williams’ column, “Fairways,” is referenced in the restaurant at the golf course — Fairways Cantina.
His only child, Williams Jr., took to the game right away, as the family grew up on E. 40th Street in Austin, across from what is now Hancock Golf Course, a nine-hole track that would later serve as the original home of Austin Country Club. Clagett assumes that Williams’ laser-like iron play came from the family’s location, an area that allowed him to practice wedges each day.
Williams blossomed when he went to the University of Texas and worked with famed teacher and coach Harvey Penick. In fact, Clagett said Penick treated Williams like an adopted son and mentioned him in his famous series of instructional books.
In every recollection, Williams is mentioned as a kind-hearted soul off the course and a bulldog once he got to the tee box. In the 1950 Southwest Conference Championship, Dan Jenkins, who played at TCU and later became one of the nation’s most revered golf writers, squared off against Williams in the deciding match at Colonial Country Club.
Adding an extra dose of intensity to the match, nine-time major winner Ben Hogan was on hand as a spectator.
With two holes to play it appeared an even match had swung when Jenkins — on a testy par 4 — worked some magic from the rough, dropping a shot through the trees to within inches for a tap-in birdie.
Williams followed by holing out a 7-iron for eagle to take the lead. Jenkins three-putted on the next hole and the Longhorns were champions.
Jenkins later told a reporter prior to Williams’ posthumous induction into the Texas Golf Hall of Fame that, “he was one of the greatest young amateurs in the history of Texas. He’d have been a big star on the PGA Tour if he’d lived.”
But while many who saw him play insisted he would rival any of the game’s top players, Williams went into the Air Force before joining the PGA Tour. At that time, Tour players made a modest living and Williams hoped to build up a nest egg before setting off to a pro golf career.
On September 13, 1953, however, he was killed during a training flight. The F-86 jet-plane piloted by Lt. Morris Williams Jr. crashed during gunnery practice at Eglin Air Force Base in west Florida.
“Harvey Penick got the call from the Air Force,” Clagett explained to a silent room during the ceremony. “And Harvey was the one who gave Morris senior the news. It’s been said that when Harvey told him he collapsed in Harvey’s arms. He was brokenhearted and he died in ‘57, just a few years later. He never could really get over his son’s death.”
Clagett hopes the new memorial, which includes rare photos of the 1949 UT golf team and the Williams’ home, will help educate those who play the revamped course.
“I hope it stays like this,” Clagett said. “And I want all of us in this room to be caretakers.”