It had been five years.
Going five years without a national title isn’t a big deal for any other coach. For most, even one national title is a dream come true. But that was a long time for a man like Dave Williams, the University of Houston golf coach.
Worse, it wasn’t even the first “drought” of his career. His team had gone six years without a title before their 1977 win. And now, another five?
The man was cursed by his dominance: it took UH just 15 years to go from zero titles to 12. And he achieved all 12 without the benefit of playing in a major conference.
By the time John Wooden won his 3rd NCAA Basketball championship in 1967, Williams already had 10. As a result, west coast writers had taken to a new nickname for Wooden: the Dave Williams of college basketball.
“He’s made college golf what it is,” said former TCU and Arkansas head coach Bill Woodley. “He publicized it and got in view.”
Despite breaking through for title #13 at Seven Oaks in 1977, UH golf had seemingly fallen off the map. Schools like Wake Forest, Oklahoma State, and Texas had won multiple titles in the decade.
Turning it around
But Dave had a plan. There was a player at Dulles High School that played on back-to-back state title teams. In 1980, he was part of a team that won the 4A state title even though another Viking player, Ignacio DeLeon, won the individual title.
In 1981, as Dulles moved to the newly-created 5A, the school won a second-straight state title. But it was teammate Arthur Lopez that won the individual.
The thing was, the Sugar Land kid was UH through and through. His daddy had played football at the school for three years, and so did his older brother, a two-time All-SWC center. The kid had even been a ball boy for Bill Yeoman. So maybe he’d become a solid addition to the golf team.
He entered school in the fall of 1981 and was assigned a roommate. The roomie was another freshman from Australia, of all places. That freshman was Billy Ray Brown and his Aussie roommate was Steve Elkington.
In high school, Elk came over to play in a junior event in The Woodlands. Dave Williams went to watch him play and decided he needed the Aussie.
“(He) saw me and recruited me,” Elkington recalled. “He called me at home in Australia every weekend for a year. “You’re gonna come here to the University of Houston and play golf on the same team with Billy Ray Brown of Sugar Land, Texas.”
Elkington laughed because he had no clue who “Billy Ray Brown of Sugar Land, Texas” could be.
“Anyway, Williams was persistent, and the two freshmen — Billy Ray and myself, the two guys nobody else recruited — wound up as roommates,” Elkington says.
After several team wins that spring, UH confidently went to the SWC Championships at Quail Valley. It was a home game for Billy Ray Brown. But after building a four-shot lead through two rounds, UH struggled on day three and lost the tournament to Texas A&M. The Aggies beat the Cougars by 11 shots in the final round. Billy Ray closed with a 71 to finish 9th.
After seven-straight SWC crowns, UH lost the conference tournament for the second year in a row.
As bad as the SWC had been, the final warm-up before the NCAAs was worse. At the Thunderbird Collegiate in Phoenix, the Cougars carded just one round under 71 (Billy Ray’s 68 in round 2). As a result, Houston finished 8th as a team – the worst finish in over a year – leading right into the NCAAs.
But here’s where the magic of Dave Williams came into play. The Cougars were struggling individually and as a team. So Dave left the individual work to the players and their teachers and focused on the team.
“So much emphasis at Houston was put on being a team member,” Billy Ray Brown said on the PapaCast podcast. “It was beaten into us every single day.”
Billy Ray bought into being a team player and loved the team aspect.
“There’s less pressure playing individual golf than playing team golf. But Coach Williams made you play for the other 4 guys that were right there,” Brown said.
The 1982 NCAA Tournament was at venerable Pinehurst #2. Despite how poorly the Cougars were playing, a new favorite emerged when coaches and players arrived to find favorable scoring conditions.
“I was going with Oklahoma State until I saw the condition of Pinehurst,” OU coach David Yates said. “When I saw the greens were unbelievably slow and you could hit the ball two miles and get away with it, I thought, ‘Goodness gracious, Houston will be tough.’”
UH teammates Brown, Fuller, and John Slaughter proved Yates prophetic as each shot 70 on the first day. Paired with David Tentis’ 72, the Cougars were in control at -6 (282). Houston led Arizona State by three shots.
The three Coogs at 70 played the three par-fives in six under.
“We can reach two of the par fives in two,” Slaughter said. “And on the longer par fours, we’re hitting short to middle irons on our second shots while a lot of other people are hitting long irons.”
Billy Ray seemed relieved after the first round.
“Everybody was playing well in practice nothing great, nothing like today,” he said. “We just played really bad the last couple of weeks of the season.”
The Cougars slipped in the second round as three players went over par. But David Tentis shot 69, and Slaughter finished with a 71, as the Cougars escaped with an even-par 288.
Tentis’ 69 was a breakthrough as his last nine rounds for the Cougars had been even par or worse. He helped keep the Cougars in control of the tournament by going low and leading the team. Oklahoma State shot four under and had gotten within three shots.
“We’ve got five guys who can shoot under par,” Slaughter said that day. “That really takes the pressure off. Last year, we only had three, and if one of us wasn’t playing well, it really made it tough.”
The Cougars took control of the tournament in the 3rd round as Mark Fuller (68) and Slaughter (71) shot under par. Tentis shot a counting-75, but even that couldn’t hurt UH. Billy Ray Brown went low – very low – finishing with a 7-under 65. Brown erased a four-shot deficit and now led the tournament by two shots.
His 65 is the lowest round ever shot by a Cougar in the NCAA Championships (Michael Perras shot 65 in the 2016 regional).
UH’s scorching 279 (-9) increased the lead to 12 over Oklahoma State.
“We knew this was coming, we just didn’t know when,” Brown acknowledged. John Slaughter agreed. He emphasized the young talent that this Cougar team had.
“This year, Oklahoma State had us by 11 shots after two rounds in the All-America (in Houston),” Slaughter relayed that day. “And we wound up winning by five. That really helped our confidence because we’re such a young team (no seniors).”
Final Round: NCAA Champions
Saturday, May 29, 1982, dawned a great day for the Cougars to win national title #14 and, perhaps, an individual title for the freshman Billy Ray Brown.
UH played conservatively on the final day and had sewn up the team title with a few holes to play. Billy Tuten and Slaughter had posted 75 and 73, respectively, and Oklahoma State had gained only two shots with half the counting scores in.
Brown’s two-shot lead over Oklahoma State’s Andy Dillard had held all day, but he didn’t realize it.
“I was certainly not aware, with nine holes to play, how close I was to winning an individual title,” Brown said.
Mark Fuller signed for 74 and a four-day total of 285 (-3) to tie Slaughter for 3rd place. Now, all Billy Ray had to do was finish for the Cougars to win the national title.
“Once the team played well, I could focus on my individual game,” Brown said of those final holes. “(Coach Williams) let me know, ‘hey, you’ve got a one-shot lead right now for the individual title for the NCAA.'”
Brown finished the tournament shooting 70 to beat Dillard by two shots, becoming just the third freshman to win the NCAA’s.
The only downside of the championship week was Steve Elkington’s absence. Elk had to fly home to Australia and miss the NCAA’s.
When I asked him about his reaction when he heard that Billy Ray had won, Elk said he thought it was the “greatest thing ever.”
Dave Williams finally secured his 14th national championship as UH’s coach alongside Brown’s individual title.
“When we won our first championship in 1956, everyone said I should retire on top,” Williams said. “But I decided to go for two, and then for a half-dozen, and then for 10.
“I decided I may as well as go for a dozen and then I wanted to get into the teens. Now I hope we can go for sweet 16.”
Brown loves talking about his years at the University of Houston, especially the national championship in 1982, saying, “being part of it was awesome. Those years were probably the most influential years of my life. It groomed me for who I am right now.”