BOB WEST ON GOLF: Williamses bask in glow of Games People Play

Published 3:01 pm Saturday, April 28, 2018

Big changes are imminent at the Southeast Texas golfing institution long known as Games People Play.

So, this is an opportune time to deliver a well-deserved salute to the former Bridge City couple – Jeff and Marilyn Williams – who transformed a shabby driving range into a state-of-the-art, award-winning facility.

If you have stopped by GPP recently, you noticed a new name on the front of the building. Going forward, it’s going to be known as 5 Under Golf Center.

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Much of what’s available to golfers will be similar to the Williams’ operation, but exciting new offerings and technology are due to be announced soon.

Jeff and Marilyn, like parents of an overachieving child, will be looking on with pride as their labor of love keeps up with the Jones’ in the ever-changing, ultra- competitive golf business. They have a personal stake, too, as son Austin is an integral part of the brave new world developing at 5945 College St. in Beaumont.

The Star Wars stuff wouldn’t be on the way had it not been for Jeff’s love of golf, and Marilyn buying in, back in 1984. They took over a driving range with 20 tee spots and two leaking portable buildings, and by the turn of the century had transformed it into something that would be a shining star in Houston or Dallas.

From a simple driving range, the Williamses expanded GPP into a multi-faceted operation with a teaching center, a big-time retail operation and the place golfers went to test and purchase top-of-the line equipment. It was also the destination for young and old, as well as good players and hackers, to work on their game.

The operation revolved around an eye-pleasing clubhouse designed by an architect named Mark Schumaker. He’d done upscale pro shops all over the country, headed by Pebble Beach, but was only involved in a couple of off-course properties. His finished product in Beaumont, with the arch and the high ceiling, exuded class.

Proof of what a special facility GPP offered to area golfers came in a series of national awards. For three consecutive years, it was recognized as one of the top 100 golf shops in America and one of the top 100 driving ranges. Williams was stunned when informed no facility had ever been recognized for both in the same year.

After that, he quit entering because the publications sponsoring the contests wanted more information about the business than he was willing to provide.

“When I look back at that it is pretty amazing,” said Williams. “We were up against franchises like Edwin Watts Golf and Golfsmith. Here’s this family-run business in Beaumont being judged against them and earning those kinds of accolades.”

From a staff of two in the beginning, Williams would ultimately employ a staff of 50. Pretty much everybody who was anybody in Southeast Texas golf worked at GPP in some capacity. If they didn’t work there, they could be seen hitting balls there. Just ask Valero Texas Open winner Andrew Landry.

The late Jimmy Fetters taught there. So did former Lamar University golf coaches Brian White and Brad McMakin. Former LU golfer Giles Kibbe, now the attorney for Houston Astros owner Jim Crane, worked there. Mitch Duncan, the current head pro at Babe Zaharias Golf Course, was part of the GPP scene.

“In the beginning, we were just wanting to present a better product for golfers,” said Jeff Williams. “We didn’t have the money to buy the property, so we were leasing it. Any kind of rain and we had to close down. We cut the grass with a Sears riding mower. It was a struggle to just pick up balls.

“A little at a time we kept putting every dollar we could into it. I wouldn’t necessarily say we had a vision. From where we started, it was quite a journey.”

According to Marilyn, a turning point was when customers kept coming in wanting more and more equipment. Calls were made to manufacturers and the dynamic gradually shifted from a mere driving range to an all-encompassing facility that would ultimately explode into a massive and far-reaching retail operation.

“The Internet changed everything,” said Jeff. “That and Austin coming to work for us when he graduated Lamar in 2003. He understood the Internet. We were able to start competing for business nationally and even internationally.”

GPP’s footprint expanded to the point where it had 10 separate revenue streams, including Internet sales, Amazon sales, eBay sales and international sales. It was even managing Beaumont Country Club and Henry Homberg Golf Club. The banner years were 2009-12.

As time went by, however, the golf business experienced a significant downturn. The Williamses also had to rebuild twice because of hurricanes. All the while, Jeff was struggling with the thought he was sitting on 40 acres of prime commercial real estate. He wondered whether a driving range was the best use for it.

A couple of years ago, it appeared a major company was going to purchase the property upon which GPP sits. That fell through, but a deal is close to being finalized for a developer to buy a portion of the range for apartments. Construction could start by October.

“It is a good time for us to sort of back away,” says Jeff. “We have had quite a ride. We are so proud of what were able to make available to golfers in Southeast Texas. It is going to be fun sitting back and watching the next chapter unfold.”

Two thumbs up, then, for Jeff and Marilyn. While making Southeast Texas a better place for golfers, they achieved the American dream.