One of Dubai golf’s most popular figures is back where his UAE odyssey began three decades ago
By Kent Gray
James Williams is a stress-free interview. Simply press record, sit back and enjoy a captivating journey through a lifetime in golf as colourful as that famed tan, one that strangely never acquainted itself with his legs. It seems there is a reason seasoned golf professionals wear trousers and if you ask nicely, Emirates Golf Club’s newest “old” pro will likely hitch said slacks to keep a running joke rolling. Self-deprecation is one of the Shropshire product’s endearing trademarks.
But we digress. Back to an interview where probing lines of enquiry, beyond the initial conversation starter, are rarely required.
So, how did you get into golf?
“My golfing life started…actually, I was a much keener cricketer to the extent that I did play a lot of county cricket and got selected for England training. Didn’t get on the team, but that was my true love. Left-handed cricketer, totally right-handed person.”
Williams is a totally natural storyteller too, and clearly just warming to his task as the next 112, almost pauseless minutes prove.
It transpires his introduction to golf came through his father, a bank manager who took up the game later in life. Williams’ Snr saw a neighbour throwing out an old set of clubs one day and seized on an opportunity for young James.
“It was a rusty old pencil bag with about eight clubs in there. Believe it or not they were hickories. We cut them down and of course I gripped it cack-handed because they’re right-handed clubs. I probably would have been world No.1 if I didn’t remain left-handed,” Williams says with a hearty dollop of English jocularity.
He may never have become a world-beater but the then Shrewsbury G.C. member was good enough to get down to a one-handicap and play county golf. And in some illustrious company too.
“I come from a county that at that time had five courses so we had to join forces with a neighbouring county. We played in the Midlands league… [European Tour Dubai chief] Nick Tarratt probably played against me years ago, we didn’t know each other then. [Golf in Dubai President and former R&A chief] Peter Dawson actually played for Warwickshire. They’ve got like 20, 30, 50 golf courses, we had five, got thrashed every time.
“The incredible thing was, we had as our No.1 and No.2, AWB [Alexander Walter Barr or “Sandy”] Lyle and Ian Woosnam. So the other 10 of us turned up and lost most times and those two played together in the foursomes and always won.”
Williams eventually fell into a PGA traineeship and deeply in love with teaching. After cutting his teeth in the UK, foreign adventures beckoned and he soon found himself mixing with 4-Star Generals at Woodlawn G.C., a course within the Ramstein Air Base in southwest Germany which remains today the U.S. Air Force’s European HQ and home to the NATO Allied Air Command.
It was an enlightening life and golf experience but the icy German winters eventually wore thin so Williams applied for a role at a club soon to open in the UAE. It was 1987 and his military pals were worried.
“No one had heard of the UAE but I speculated and put in an application.” Williams sat back and waited for a response. And waited. Six months later he’d almost given up but decided a call to Emirates Golf Club was in order, if only to politely register his disappointment at the lack of a courtesy call to say he’d missed out.
An apologetic Rodney J. Bogg, Emirates G.C.’s first general manager, answered and had a surprise, inviting Williams out for a trial along with two other hopefuls.
“I stayed for a week – gobsmacked! Horrible word, but just gobsmacked by the whole place. I remember walking on the driving range. I’ve been to many golf courses by this time but I was tip-toeing across the grass. I have never seen anything so level, every blade of grass vertical to the ground like a brand new scrubbing brush. ‘Well hit a few shots, guys.’ You know I’m a big ball and turf guy which golfers should be if they are going to strike the ball. But I didn’t dare take a divot, I was just clipping it off the top, didn’t want to be the guy digging up their new range.”
Williams became part of the furniture at Emirates G.C. for the next decade as Dubai grew up around its pioneering grass golf course. The next chapter in his career spans 20 years at Jebel Ali where, as golf operations manager, Williams was the perpetually smiling face of the resort course. Recently though, the grin started to fade as he did a stocktake of his career and realised he was no longer in the customer-facing roles he loved. A hankering to get back to those happy old teaching days become impossible to ignore and thankfully Emirates G.C. were receptive to a home-coming.
“I was the first pro to get here, and sadly now I’m the oldest pro,” Williams jokes of being back on the tools as part of Dubai Golf’s Peter Cowan Academy Dubai team.
“It is fabulous fun. I’ve got to rebuild my clientele but a lot of the original members have already come back. It never goes fast enough for me because I want to show that it’s worth Emirates having me back but it’s been very encouraging so far. I hope it’s been for the club. I couldn’t be happier.”
The role means Williams now has the joy of working even closer to his 25-year-old son Robbie who is part of the Golf in Dubai team behind the Omega Dubai Desert and Ladies Classics and increasingly the face of the MENA Tour. Like his father, Williams Jnr’s first love wasn’t golf either, rather football. He was good enough to play for England Schoolboys and sign junior papers with Wolverhampton Wanderers but also cunning enough to see a good opportunity when the father of Emirati golf, Mohamed Juma Buamaim, offered him an internship.
“As a Dad, to see him growing and getting all this experience, yeah, I’m very proud. I will say that there is no one prouder than me seeing him on television doing the Desert Classic presentation. I’d be shaking like a leaf and apparently he was but he doesn’t stumble over his speeches like me.“
James Williams is equally proud of his daughter Anna-Louise, a physiotherapist in London, and grateful to his understanding wife Heather for allowing him to pursue a career where weekends and family time are a precious commodity. “She’s been very patient with her husband. You’d better get that in writing before she divorces me!”
Conversation reverts back to his beloved cricket but this time with a golf spin, not unlike the leg-breaks he used to “turn a yard”, at least the ones that bounced anyway. His childhood hero was the elegant left-handed West Indian batsman Sir Garfield Sobers so imagine the thrill when, during his initial stint at Emirates G.C., Bogg asked him to look after the visiting cricketing knight one day.
“He was just the greatest guy to talk to. When your hero turns out to be as nice as that, it’s one of the biggest things that has happened to me out here. Perhaps in our own countries we would never meet all these famous people. Is it a big deal? To me it has been. To actually see these people and find out they are normal like us has been a thrill.”
Williams played in the first three Desert Classics but his biggest playing kick came before the inaugural event in 1989 when he was asked to guide another idol, Tony Jacklin, in a reconnaissance lap of the Majlis course. The 67 he shot in the company of the Ryder Cup legend is a treasured memory and made all the practice beforehand, and some predictably nervy play in the tournaments proper afterwards, worth it.
“We were working 14 hours a day preparing everything for the first Desert Classic so I’ve hardly played and I’m going to look stupid in front of the members. All of a sudden I’m feeling a lot of pressure. So three weeks before I fished my clubs out. I would finish giving lessons at 10 o’clock at night, quickly run home, have a shower, half an hours kip, and then put the range lights on and belt balls all night long, over and over and over again until I actually had an awful cut down here [pointing to his left palm] because of a poor grip and soft hands. I don’t think we paid for the electricity in those days but I’ve paid with a scar for life.”
Williams would love to play more often and has a goal of teeing it up in the Sharjah Senior Masters if he can get his game, and his now 59-year-old body, to co-operate. But it’s teaching that really inspires him.
“I don’t think I’m really somebody, maybe not good enough, to be at the sharp end teaching top professionals but that was never been my goal. I actually don’t think you get as much satisfaction as seeing someone that’s come along, dead keen, they finally get the ball up in the air, they’re running around jumping in the air, like whoopee!
“I’m sure some people here think I’m a bit of a pain in the arse, but for people to say its really nice to have you back, and there’s been too many saying that for it not to be half true, it’s humbling. I think maybe they just like my enthusiasm, that I care. It is lovely to be back.”
The feeling from friends old and new at Emirates G.C. is mutual. For lessons, and yarns, delivered with genuine enthusiasm, the club couldn’t have hired anyone better.