As a young boy, George Williams would shave down tree limbs and fashion them into golf clubs he could use to perfect his swing. Now nearing his 100th birthday, Williams is well into the back nine but is still racking up new accomplishments in a life filled with accolades on and off the course.
A 20-time Coharie Country Club champion and winner of a plethora of tournaments and invitationals in and out of North Carolina, the Sampson County Sports Hall of Famer still plays regularly. He shot a 78 the other day and plays with guys a third of his age — sometimes younger — and beats them.
On Saturday night, during a special recognition at Coharie Country Club, a bronze plaque bearing Williams’ name was unveiled revealing that the putting green where he has spent countless hours over the years, a stone’s throw from his driveway, will now bear his name. Club president Randy Barefoot presented the plaque to Williams as part of a celebration marking the 70th anniversary of the golf course and honoring those who contributed to its rich history along the way — a past of which Williams was very much a part.
“I cry every time I think about it,” daughter Venetia Mann said of the honor for her father. She was told of the plan ahead of time, but it came as a surprise to Williams. He was also given the Key to the City by Clinton Mayor Lew Starling, an honor only a select few have ever received.
Modest to a fault, Williams eschews the attention.
“I told my wife, I wish it wasn’t happening,” said Williams, speaking from inside his home last week. It is located right off the first tee box, where he has been since the early 1960s. Williams gave a hearty laugh. “I’m satisfied to just march along.”
Williams can walk right onto the golf course at Coharie, which he does often. He has been a member since 1948, the year after the club opened. While he takes it easy during the hot summer months these days, only playing the course maybe once a week, he will walk over to the practice green nearly every day to hone his short game.
“He doesn’t miss a day unless it’s raining,” said Linda, Williams’ wife of 43 years. They have two children between them, a son, Chip of Columbia, S.C., and daughter Mann, a teacher at Clinton High School.
When he’s not on the course, he is reading constantly — the news, following the stock market, working on a newspaper puzzle. He always keeps busy. Earlier this year, Williams hired someone for the first time to assist with the landscaping around his home, which he did entirely himself up to that point.
“I still try to stay active,” said Williams. “I still feel good.”
He grew up in Clinton, where he graduated from high school in 1934 before going off to college. He was in the U.S. Navy for six years during World War II, serving on several different ships. He captained a Patrol Coastal (PC) ship in the South Pacific and in the early 1940s, was part of the Guam invasion and the Battle of Guadalcanal.
“I enlisted in the service in 1940,” said Williams. “I enrolled in the V7 program, which is officer training.”
He went to the United States Navy Reserve Midshipmen’s School at Northwestern University in Chicago. Midshipmen’s schools were established on college campuses around the country starting in June 1940 to train tens of thousands of Naval officers in preparation for WWII.
“I was there for about four months in school and then I was commissioned. From there, I had a varied career in the Navy,” said Williams. “I got in the fall of 1940 and I was released from active duty and came home in December of 1945.”
He was 28 years old when he got out of the Navy, and went into law school. He was in his early 30s when he began practicing law in Clinton. His older brother John Blaney Williams Jr. was an attorney, and he began practicing with him.
“I was a late starter,” said Williams, the second youngest of John Blaney and Effie Britt Williams’ nine children and the only one still living. Williams’ father served as the Clerk of Court and Register of Deeds for Sampson County.
Williams was a lawyer for 52 years, retiring at the end of 1999 at the age of 82.
“I just figured it was time to quit. The computer age was coming in,” he conceded with a laugh. “I figured 52 years was long enough.”
Williams served on the Clinton City Board of Education for 10 years during the height of integration. He was also on the board of directors for Sampson-Duplin Mental Health and United Carolina Bank as well as on the Campbell University Presidential Board of Advisors and the Morehead Scholarship Selection Committee at UNC-Chapel Hill. He taught Sunday School for many years at First United Methodist in Clinton, where he is a lifelong member.
Linda has known George her whole life and knew his first wife, Jane, whom she described as “a lovely person.”
She recalled when George asked her to accompany him to the Clinton Savings and Loan Christmas party in 1973. Linda, a school teacher with a young child and more than 20 years George’s junior, told him she appreciated the invite but didn’t go out during the week.
“He is real modest. It was hard for him to call, I’m positive of that,” she said. Linda then told her mother about the call and she told her daughter she wasn’t going to stay home. She urged her to call him back. “So I called him back, and that was it.”
They were married the following summer.
“It just gets better,” said Linda of their 43 years of marriage. “Not many people stay together that long. I just admire and respect him. We talk a lot. We communicate and we always have something to talk about. I think that’s our secret.”
“She’s been real considerate about my interest in golf,” George added.
It is more than an interest. It is a lifelong passion.
Williams has had five holes in one in his life and has won so many golf tournaments there is barely enough room on the shelves, walls and cabinets around the Williams’ home to accommodate the trophies, plaques, clocks and other trinkets bestowed to him. He played in the Carolinas-Virginia tournament — representing the Carolinas team — in which top golfers from North Carolina and South Carolina face off against those from Virginia and West Virginia.
When he was 75, he won the Jacksonville Invitational Tournament. When he was 80, he shot a career-low 65 at Coharie. He has played the course at Coharie for all of its 70 years, dating back to when it was a 9-hole course that had to be played through twice for an 18-hole score. His home was one of the first on the grounds.
As he walked along his property, Williams recalled the time he played storied amateur golfer Billie Joe Patton, who nearly won the 1954 Masters Tournament, coming within a stroke of a three-man playoff with Ben Hogan and Sam Snead.
The two faced off in Patton’s hometown of Morganton, N.C., three years after Patton earned fame at Augusta. Williams and Patton played to a tie through 18 holes. Williams won on the 19th.
“I beat him in 19 holes,” Williams beamed.
Today, playing against golfers the same age he was back then, he still chases that feeling with every trip to the course.
“Staying involved with young people I think keeps you young,” Williams attested, when asked the key to a long life. “The first thing is having good genes. And I think you have to stay active — wake up every day and have something to look forward to. I stay busy.”
Williams will be featured on WRAL’s Tar Heel Traveler on his birthday, Aug. 29. The segment is scheduled to air at 5:55 p.m. that day.
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.