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Zion the golfer? Another Duke athlete has the No. 1 pick in the swing of things

The crowd is mesmerized as Duke forward Zion Williamson (1) goes in for a thunderous dunk in the second half of play. Duke defeated Eastern Michigan 84-46 at Cameron Indoor Stadium In Durham, N.C. Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018.
The crowd is mesmerized as Duke forward Zion Williamson (1) goes in for a thunderous dunk in the second half of play. Duke defeated Eastern Michigan 84-46 at Cameron Indoor Stadium In Durham, N.C. Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018. cliddy@newsobserver.com

When the trade creating a titanic impact on his future team came down, Zion Williamson got the word while engaged in a sport where he’s a raw neophyte.

A basketball behemoth destined to be the No. 1 overall pick in Thursday’s NBA Draft five days later to the New Orleans Pelicans, Williamson was hitting golf balls with power and speed -- but not much control -- on Duke University Golf Club’s driving range when he heard the Pelicans traded All-Star center Anthony Davis.

Duke golfer Quinn Riley befriended Williamson over the past year. He invited the 6-foot-7, 285-pound basketball all-American to give his sport a try.

As you would expect from an elite athlete like Williamson, whose basketball highlights garnered millions of YouTube views while he was becoming the consensus national player of the year, he can already do eye-popping things when golf club meets golf ball.

“Efficiency is not on his side when it comes to hitting drives,” Riley said. “His power and speed are there. He’s probably swinging anywhere around 120-130 miles per hour with the fundamentals he has so far, which is crazy.”

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Duke golfer Quinn Riley Reagan Lunn Duke athletics

The PGA Tour started tracking swing speed and efficiency in 2007. The average swing speed on tour is 113 mph. Tiger Woods and Gary Woodland, Masters and U.S. Open champions this season, both average 122.

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But don’t think for a minute Williamson believes he’s a natural at his new sport.

“It’s not as easy as you think,” Williamson said Wednesday in New York, according to News & Observer news partner WTVD. “It’s very hard. If you are a competitor, you mess up so much that you want to keep doing it and get better.”

As everyone who’s seen Willliamson play basketball knows, he is a serious competitor.

“He’s really just out there to have fun,” Riley said. “I think for some people they use golf to de-stress. In a sense he does that, but I also think he uses it as a way to compete. He’s honestly, at the end of the day, without the ability and the God-given talents and the size and everything, he is one of the most fierce competitors I’ve ever seen.”

Riley played five seasons of golf at Raleigh’s Ravenscroft High, helping the Ravens to a state championship in 2017. He and Williamson entered Duke together as freshman athletes and students last summer.

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When they first met at a campus social event, Riley told Williamson to come out and hit some golf balls with him sometime. As their friendship grew over the school year, Williamson took him up on the offer.

“He put me on to golf,” Williamson said.

Playing with a newbie to the sport isn’t something Riley would normally do. Williamson’s competitiveness, though, makes him an exception.

“Most of the time when I practice and play with other people, I don’t want to compete with them if they’re not at the same level,” Riley said. “But he competes so hard, it still challenges me in a sense, which is honestly really cool because I’ve never seen that before.”

Williamson regularly visits Duke’s course. He calls is a nice break from basketball. But that fact that Riley is a college-level golfer does feed Williamson’s competitive spirit, too.

“It’s nice,” Williamson said. “He plays a sport so he’s still competitive.”

At some point later this summer, Riley said, he’ll take Williamson on the course to get a few holes in.

It would help, though, if Williamson gets some clubs built for his unique body type. Riley said he’s playing with clubs built for someone a foot shorter.

“He can hit it as far as humanly possible,” Riley said. “He needs clubs that are engineered for someone his size.”

As the draft’s top pick and someone whose marketing rights are so valuable they’re caught up in a pair of multi-million dollar lawsuits, Williamson will soon have plenty of cash to spring for them if he chooses.

In the meantime, Riley is happy to see his friend’s basketball career take off as expected and quick to say what a good friend he is.

“He’s a very friendly guy once you get to know him,” Riley said. “He just presents himself as a normal human being. Like there’s nothing flashy about him. He’s not cocky in any way. I know players that get to the highest level they can let their ego get the best of them. But that’s definitely not the case with Zion. He’s definitely a family guy and a friendly dude.”

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An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.
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