When Mark Williams moved to the Coachella Valley with his family from Blythe when he was just 10, he had never held a golf club.
Seven years later, Williams has become so proficient with a club that he has a Division I golf scholarship.
“That’s always been a dream of mine, to play Division I golf,” said Williams, who signed in December to play at Cal State Bakersfield starting next year.
Williams, 17 and now a senior at La Quinta High School and part of that school’s strong golf program over the last three years, is a kind of desert junior golf success story. While he’s looking forward to playing with the Roadrunners next fall in the Western Athletic Conference, he looks back at The First Tee and other junior golf programs as keys to his evolution.
“When I first went to The First Tee, I didn’t even know how to swing a club,” Williams said. “So the instruction was really what they did for me.”
Dustin Smith, lead instructor and program director for The First Tee of the Coachella Valley in Palm Desert, remembers Williams well and recalls there was something else about Williams that set him apart from the other beginners.
“When he came here, he was a bit of a special kid, due to the fact that he was a nationally ranked quad rider for his age,” Smith said. “When he moved here, from what mom and dad told me, he was nationally ranked, one of the top five in the nation. The transition into golf was because they saw kids getting injured or severely hurt. So they wanted him to have a safer sport.”
Williams said he started riding when he was 4 and started racing the quad vehicles when he was 5. But he stopped riding at 14, just about the time he started playing golf for the Blackhawks.
Smith said Williams’ quiet, almost shy demeanor belies that he can be an aggressive competitor.
“He has the bravado.” Smith said. “He has what it takes to be a snowboarder, a motorcycle racer, that go-for-it attitude.”
But when did Williams decide that perhaps he had the golf game to match his quad riding skills? Williams said it was two years ago when La Quinta played in a CIF-Southern Section postseason event at Los Serranos Country Club in Chino Hills.
“I shot 70, and I had been playing pretty well toward the end of the season,” Williams said. “That’s when I kind of knew.”
In addition to playing for the Blackhawks, Williams has played in traditional junior golf events like the American Junior Golf Association, the Toyota Cup tournaments of the Southern California PGA and other tournaments. But despite some success in those events, Williams admits the offers for college scholarships didn’t flood in. In fact, he received only two true offers, one from a private college in Oregon and one from CSU Bakersfield. The Roadrunners became Williams’ focus.
“They have a good program there and the school, I really fell in love with it when I went to go for my visit there, too,” Williams said. “I didn’t really want to go to a big, big school because of classroom sizes, I wanted to stay smaller. And coach was telling me the class sizes are not that big, either. So that was a big plus for me.”
Bakersfield also offers Williams a chance to concentrate on academics as he will pursue a degree in criminal justice, though he’s not sure what he wants to do with that. But before that, he’d like to take a shot at golf as a profession.
“Hopefully, after college, I’m going to try to turn pro,” Williams said. “And if that doesn’t work out, I’m going to be a, well, I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do. Maybe a correctional officer or a probation officer.”