07 Sep 2023 | Industry news | Professional golf |

Clayton: RIP Frank Williams - a legend and one of a kind

by Mike Clayton

Frank Williams
Frank Williams who, with his partner David Inglis, made the Australian Masters the most commercially successful golf tournament Australia has ever seen.

The 1980s was the flying era of Australian professional golf.

Greg Norman was, of course, at his very best, and local galleries flocked to wherever he teed it up.

The supporting cast was awfully strong too – David Graham, Graham Marsh, Bob Shearer, Rodger Davis, Stewart Ginn, Peter Senior, Ian Baker-Finch, Wayne Grady and, not often enough, Steve Elkington who had the best swing of the lot.

Australia also gave the best Europeans, including Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Ian Woosnam and Nick Faldo, a chance to escape their winters and prepare under the sun for the year ahead.

Amidst it all was Frank Williams, an English migrant, ex-caddie (Sunningdale no doubt) and carpet salesman who, with his partner David Inglis, made the Australian Masters the most commercially successful golf tournament Australia has ever seen.

Inglis started the tournament in 1979 and barely scrapped together the necessary $35,000 prizemoney but somehow, with the help of smoke and mirrors, he got it done and the players were paid.

Barry Vivian shot 80 on Sunday to hold off a charging Bob Shearer who managed a 78. It was windy and Huntingdale was a difficult course back then, but still it was only memorable for the height of the scores, and few thought the tournament would last very long.

The previous week’s Victorian Open was infinitely superior, both commercially and organisationally, but Williams, Inglis and Greg Norman changed all that.

Williams was working for Electrolux, one of the early Masters sponsors, and he saw both the behind-the-scenes chaos and the potential of the event.

He tossed his job in and committed to making, with Inglis, the best event in the country.

No one would have put it ahead of the Australian Open if which trophy you’d rather win was the measure, but purely as a spectacle, it was unmatched by the end of the decade.

Gene Littler, the American stylist, beat Davis in a playoff in 1980 and gave Williams a story to dine out on for years.

“I paid him to come and play, flew him up the front of the plane, put him in a flash city hotel and he won the $10,000 first prize as well as a gold putter worth almost as much. Then a couple of weeks later he sent me a receipt for the taxi fare from LA airport back to San Diego!”

Norman won the next year, Marsh the year after, Norman in 1983 and '84 and then Langer in 1985 and, in 1986, Mark O’Meara.

For a tournament not on either the US or European Tour, it was an awfully impressive list of champions, and it cemented its reputation as an iconic local tournament.

By the mid-1980s, the management company, IMG, essentially forced David and Frank to sell them the tournament and they went from owners to employees.

Still, their passion was undiminished and selling and promoting the event remained a full-time obsession for both.

Arguably too, it was the seed of the ultimate demise of the tournament, as once David tragically died of motor neurone disease and Frank left in the early 1990s to live and manage Norman full-time from America, the same passion and commitment to push on as the commercial landscape got more difficult just wasn’t there.

Frank was a born salesman. He was charming, persistent, tough, and utterly committed to what he was selling, and who could turn down the chance to manage early 1990s Greg Norman?

He was there when Greg played his career round at Royal St George’s in the 1993 Open as he was on the worst day at Augusta in 1996.

Eventually the intense high-pressure world of managing Greg wore thin – as he knew it inevitably would - and Frank came back to Australia and retired to Mt Broughton, near Bowral, where he died early in September.

Kathie Shearer – the great Kathie Shearer and wife of Bob – worked for years for Frank as the boss of the media tent at Huntingdale and she understood him better than anyone.

Londoners both, she remembered him as the best dressed man going around.

“He was like the Australian Doug Sanders. Every day he had the beautiful jacket and always Pink on Sunday of the tournament. His only fashion disaster was that gold jacket. Not even Adam Scott looked good in it,” she said.

“He was," said Shearer, "the most generous man when you worked for him. He was bigger than Ben Hur and he truly loved it.”

RIP Frank – you were both a legend and one of a kind.

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