Debbie Williams-Hoak spent the first part of her life blazing new trails to get where she wanted. Since then, she’s spent her life helping youngsters find their own way.
Williams-Hoak, who golfed on the LPGA Tour, is known well to Saline’s young golfers and their families. She’s coached boys and girls golfers at Saline High School. She also coaches at Brookside Golf Club. Last year, she was named Michigan High School Girls Golf Coach of the Year for her work with one of the best golf teams in Saline High School history.
In January, the LPGA presented Williams-Hoak with the Sandy LaBauve Spirit Award, which goes to a person who has gone above and beyond to inspire the lives of juniors through their passion and dedication to empowering girls through golf.
Sandy LaBauve, the award’s namesake, was an LPGA teaching professional when she founded LPGA*USGA Girls Golf in 1989. The program bills itself as the only national junior golf program specializing in girl-friendly environments for juniors to learn the game. Williams founded the Washtenaw County branch of the program.
“Debbie Williams-Hoak thrives on helping others on the golf course and in the community," said LaBauve. "She is a tremendous leader and role model. Her passion is contagious. I am honored that she chose LPGA*USGA Girls Golf as her vehicle to impact young women and inspire them to dream big, work hard but have loads of fun along the way."
It’s one of many honors bestowed upon Williams-Hoak over the course of her storied career. Most recently she was announced to the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame.
From the Playgrounds of Euclid, Ohio
Williams-Hoak grew up in Euclid, Ohio, just east of Cleveland. Her family wasn’t wealthy. She remembers waking up on Christmas when she was young and not having Christmas gifts.
“I remember thinking, ‘I was a good girl. I thought I deserved Christmas presents. Did I do something wrong?’ It was a terrible feeling,’” she said. That feeling eventually inspired the Magic of Christmas Program that has delivered Christmas presents to hundreds of Washtenaw County families over the years.
When she was young, Williams-Hoak couldn’t have afforded the rates of your average golf pro in Washtenaw County. But she loved sports. She spent her time playing in Euclid’s parks.
“There were great programs with terrific instructors in Euclid. I lived at the playground every day,” Williams-Hoak said.
Williams-Hoak started high school in Euclid just as girls’ sports were becoming accepted. While some schools offered interscholastic girls sports, Ohio didn’t have state tournaments until 1975.
“It wasn’t like it was today. Back then if you were a girl interested in sports, people could be pretty mean to you,” she said, recalling one time in junior high when a girl put gel and hairspray into her hair. “It’s unbelievable the way it is today. It’s come a long way.”
It has come a long way - in part because of people like Debbie.
Williams-Hoak was making a name for herself as an athlete, starring in track and field, tennis and basketball. She also competed in national championships in those sports, golf and softball.
In the past, Williams-Hoak has described her young self as someone driven by the desire to live a better life.
“I was hungry. I didn’t have a lot of things growing up. I saw athletics as a way to get ahead,” she said.
That’s exactly what happened.
As a senior, she threw the discus 137 feet, six inches to win the Class AAA title. Her throw was not only farther than the winners from the bigger Class A and Class AA state meets, it set a new Ohio all-class all-time record.
Some of the biggest schools in the country were offering scholarships -- including Ohio State. Williams-Hoak wanted to be a Buckeye, but Ohio State’s coaches wanted her to choose between discus and basketball. So, Williams-Hoak kept an open mind. One day, Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler came to her high school to speak at an athletic banquet. Schembechler’s sister was married to the athletic director at her school. Michigan track coach Red Simmons asked Schembechler to sell Williams-Hoak on becoming a Wolverine. She bought it.
“After the banquet he talked to me. I committed to Michigan the next day,” she said. “It was one of the best decisions I ever made.”
She became known as the only female ever recruited by Bo Schembechler.
She left the basketball program at Michigan but continued to star in track and field. She picked up yet another sport - the javelin. As a freshman she threw the javelin 154 feet, 11 inches, to break the existing record by 20 feet and become Michigan’s first-ever Big 10 champion in track and field. She went on to win the Big 10 championship all four years. The All-American who finished second in the NCAA finals nearly qualified for the US Olympic Team in 1984.
After college she continued her athletic pursuits, trying to qualify for the Olympics in softball and track.
At the age of 30, after recovering from a shoulder injury, she decided to try and forge a career as a professional golfer.
“I moved to Florida and dove into golf,” she said.
A year later, she was Michigan Publinx champion and two years later she was Michigan amateur champion. At 35, she turned pro and then made the LPGA in 2000 at the age of 40. She golfed one year on the LPGA. Ever since leaving the tour she’s spent her time teaching the sport to others -- especially girls.
“I had so many people who’ve helped me along the way, so coaching has been a great way to give back,” she said.
Over the years, many of Williams-Hoak’s all-state Hornet golfers have gone on to play in the college ranks. Emily White golfs at Michigan. Samantha Kellstrom golfs at University of Findlay. Catherine Loftus recently committed to Ohio University.
Kellstrom began working with Williams-Hoak when she was in seventh grade.
“She was my first professional coach and she helped me develop some of the skills that I still use today including a pre-shot routine, positive swing thoughts and visualization,” Kellstrom said.
Kellstrom heeded her advice about playing in tournaments.
“The best advice she gave me back then was to start playing junior tournaments in order to begin to feel the pressure of competition which prepared me for high school golf and, ultimately, college golf,” Kellstrom said.
Hoak-Williams can’t make every girl the kind of athlete who can pick up any sport and become a champion. But she’s helped girls develop a mental approach to the game, Loftus said.
“She really has so much knowledge of the game -- and especially the mental game was where she helped me the most. She has so much experience and was able to provide daily sessions during the season to better my mental game,” Loftus said. “She also was so helpful during matches and tournaments, keeping me in the right frame of mind, no matter if I was playing well or not.”
In terms of the game, Loftus said Williams-Hoak helped her with tips on pitching and chipping.
“I think her pointers helped propel my game to the next level,” Loftus said.
Both girls are wowed by Williams-Hoak’s dedication to the sport and the young people who play it. Thanks to Williams-Hoak, the Saline girls golf team worked at the LPGA Volvik tournament at Travis Pointe Country Club.
“It was such an amazing opportunity to help at the Volvik and I really love watching women’s professional golf. Having an event so close to home was great. To be able to attend with friends and watch the professionals play a course I was familiar with was special,” Loftus said.
Kellstrom sees Williams-Hoak working through the LPGA*USGA Girls Golf Program, which is helping to introduce the game to girls in the inner cities. She’s seen the impact of the Magic of Christmas program. She knows all of the Saline Hornets who’ve learned the game from Williams-Hoak.
“Many of us on the girls’ team volunteered to help at her events, which helped give me a sense of the positive impact that I could have on other people’s lives,” Kellstrom said, “Everywhere we went, people would come up and give her hugs, which is a testament to how many lives she has touched.”