Life and golf are just a drive and a wedge for Big Cat (Marr compares his disposition to that of "a big lapdog"), who is held in some awe by many of the touring pros. Last March, in the Tony Lema Pro-Am at Marco Island, Fla., Williams was blasting away on the driving range when Frank Beard edged up to Dent on a nearby putting green.
"There's a guy over there that wants some of you," Beard needled.
Dent looked up, made a disgusted "humph" sound, and went back to his needlework. That day Dent won the Pro-Am with a 67 and told interviewers that on a 230-yard par-3 he had had to hit a three-wood. Williams, playing right behind him, used a three-iron—a feat that was more discussed than Dent's winning score.
Unfortunately, a strong head wind deprived Williams of a chance at the $500 prize offered to anybody who could drive over a water hazard on the 16th hole, a shot requiring a carry of 300 yards. The man who put up the prize was a club member who had never seen Williams but doubted the word of a friend who said he thought Big Cat could probably blast one over the lake. Williams often is approached about friendly wagers, but after the prospective bettors watch him hit a few shots, they tend to keep their money in their pockets. Larry Ziegler, one of the tour's big hitters, once smashed a drive during a practice round with Williams and the Cat's friend, pro Billy Ziobro. An onlooker made a challenging remark about "try and catch that one."
"Tell you what," said Ziobro. "He'll not only outdrive it, he'll hit it past it on the fly." Which Williams did.
When he does keep score, Williams normally shoots somewhere between 72 and 79, depending on how many of his drives wind up out of bounds or simply disappear. In 1975 he tried to qualify for two tour events, the B.C. and Southern Opens, but shot a 74 and an 81. He decided what his future should be several years ago when he played in a series of 18-hole sectional tournaments in New Jersey, shot a 71 one week and a 70 the next, yet made only $9. His first taste of fame came in 1974 when he defeated Dent, who was then golf's Sultan of Swat, by seven yards in a challenge driving match at a Catskills resort. After watching Williams, Joe DiMaggio said, "They ought to lock him up in a cage." The first open National Long Driving Championship was held the following year but Williams was too wild in the regional qualifying and was eliminated. He made the next one, at the Congressional in Washington, and, aided by a tip from former U.S. Open champion Hale Irwin, who told him to tee the ball higher, Williams won the competition easily and took his show on the road.
Most of the big hitters in driving contests have wild swings. Jeoff Long, a 15-handicapper and former major league baseball player from Fort Mitchell, Ky., won the first open with a swing that had more chance in it than a roulette wheel. Williams, however, is orthodox, taking the club back in a smooth, compact motion and generating tremendous club-head speed with a strong leg drive and powerful wrists that uncock at the last moment. Bayer gripped his club so softly that he never wore a glove, and Williams says the secret of long drives is the ability to relax, plus quick reflexes. "I'll be good until my 'speed power' leaves me," he says. "As long as I keep my reflexes, I'll still hit it long."
Williams believes he is the biggest hitter of all time, longer than Bayer, who now is 52 years old and a club pro at the Detroit Golf Club. Williams' monsters include a 397-yarder in New Jersey that was measured with an odometer; a smash that ended up 15 feet from the cup on a 430-yard par-4 at a Fort Lauderdale course; and a "480-yard-plus" bomb in Thailand last winter. And though he never has made a hole in one, he does have stretches of accuracy. Several years ago, in the days when Williams collected only $200 for an exhibition, he went out to the 18th fairway at Upper Montclair, N.J., 380 yards from the green, and hit 10 balls, six of which wound up on the green, four of them within six feet of the cup. Of course, the precision doesn't last. "I don't know how many picture windows I broke as a kid," he says. "I was off and running before the ball hit the window."
Like many pros, Williams grew up across from a golf course, in his case the 5th hole of the Englewood ( N.J.) Country Club, where he acquired his first set of clubs by trading in golf balls he found. As a high school senior he was 6'4" and a spindly 158 pounds, a sports nut who "went steady with a basketball for 10 years." Big Cat played two years of basketball at Canisius, in upstate New York, where in a moment of glory his freshman team defeated St. Bonaventure's—and he outjumped a fellow named Bob Lanier for the tipoff. After two years, he transferred to tiny Franklin ( Ind.) College, where he set records in golf, basketball, football and track and gained a reputation for irreverence. A 76-yard punt got him invited to a St. Louis Cardinal tryout camp, and 36-point and 27-rebound games induced the New York Knicks to contact him.
Williams got his nickname as a result of a minor scuffle at a basketball practice in which he unceremoniously fell over some folding chairs. That same night' Muhammad Ali knocked out Cleveland (Big Cat) Williams in the Astrodome and the following morning Evan's teammates were calling him Big Cat. And he got his, reputation as a blithe spirit at halftime in a game when his coach was berating him for missing all five of his free throws in the first half. "What are you thinking about up there?" the coach railed at him.