In anticipation of the 44th annual World Long Drive Championship (August 30-Spetember 4), we’re highlighting a collection of past world champions in a series titled “World Champion Reflections” leading up to this year’s Championship. Next up is Evan “Big Cat” Williams, winner of the first two editions of the event, in 1976 and 1977.
Evan “Big Cat” Williams is a well-known figure in the long drive community. Williams won the first ever World Long Drive championship in 1976, and backed it up with a second title the following year in 1977.
At the time of his first win, the world of long drive was just getting off the ground. The competitions were held prior to and in conjunction with professional events – namely the PGA Championship. In fact, Williams’ first world championship win was at the prestigious Congressional Country Club, which staged the 1976 PGA Championship later that week at a venue that’s hosted three U.S. Opens, a PGA Championship, and a U.S. Senior Open.
“Because of [winning the World Challenge Long Drive Contest] in ’74, I got a lot of publicity from it like from the New York Times, so I was probably the favorite,” said Williams of his chances in 1976. “And, I knew if I hit my normal shot that I was going to win.
“In the first set, right away, I hit it 307. Then the top three [hitters] come back for three more [sets] and you could improve your position, and I hit it 307 again. After that, the top two [hitters] come back for three more [sets], and whoever was leading would go first. And I hit it 305. So, I hit five out of 10 balls in the 305-307 range.”
While those numbers might pale in comparison to driving distances of today’s World Long Drive competitors, it’s only fair to consider the technology that was available at the time.
“In ’74 when I hit in that contest, I used a McGregor Persimmon head with a steel shaft that was standard off the rack and I think I hit it 368 [yards] and spun it back because it hit the side of a hill,” said Williams of his first competition driver. “Then, the one I had at Congressional was an old George Bayer head. I put an Aldila R shaft in it and I tipped it eight inches because I was trying to get the flex point further down the shaft so it would react quicker into the ball. And that’s the driver I won both of my [World] Long Drive Championships with. It was 44 inches, and you couldn’t make it any longer because it felt like swinging a sledge hammer.”
Making what those like Williams were doing even more impressive is the fact that they were using the old Balata balls, which weren’t exactly a great recipe for increasing distance, combined with the fact that club manufacturers weren’t on-site at every long drive event like they are today.
“I had a guy in Florida who I would take my clubs to and a guy in Detroit,” said Williams. “I didn’t really trust anyone else with my clubs. It’s not like today where guys can walk to the end of the range and get things taken care of.”
In the inaugural World Long Drive Championship in 1976, Williams wasn’t fazed by the equipment, or by the stage, given the fact that PGA Tour players were competing alongside him. In fact, it was the following year’s edition of the event that had him in his own head.
“I felt more pressure at Pebble [Beach],” said Williams on the 1977 World Long Drive Championship that was held at the famed Pebble Beach Golf Links in Monterey, Calif. “I was the defending champion, and I knew if I won, the little business I had started – doing corporate outings and fundraisers – could really take off if I could back up [my first world title].”
Williams, being the defending champion, was forced to sit and watch the majority of the field take their cuts before being given the opportunity to see how his numbers fared in comparison.
“At Pebble, I went toward the end because I was the defending champion. The first guy out carried it 346 [yards], and it was 72 degrees and perfect conditions. When I went, the temperature had dropped into the 50s, and he had a 20-something yard lead. I was really nervous because the conditions had deteriorated so much.”
The nerves quickly subsided, as Williams was swift in proving that his win in 1976 was anything but a fluke.
“I just missed the fairway right out of the gate, but the last one I hit, as soon as I hit it, I knew that it was good. That one I hit 353 [yards] and then we came back out again. I hit it well, but that first set, I was a lot more nervous than I had been before.”
Nerves aside, Williams went on to win for the second straight year, establishing himself as the first household name in World Long Drive. It’s a role he’ll always hold, for the rest of his life, and for as long as the World Long Drive Championship continues to be contested.