William Register stood on the final green of the Hope Valley Country Club in Durham. As he bent down to line up the crucial putt on the 18th hole, he felt the two tees poking out from his back pocket—they were there, like always.
Register, then a junior, was tied with first-year teammate Austin Hitt. The pair already knew they would qualify to represent UNC in the upcoming tournament, regardless of the outcome of Register’s putt. One, therefore, might call the shot inconsequential.
Register would not.
A chirp from Hitt cut through the silence of Register’s focus, reminding him of what he already knew.
“Will, we’re tied man," Hitt said. "You don’t want to let the freshman beat you.”
Register’s ensuing tap-in gave him a third-place finish for the qualifier. That was good enough to secure a spot in UNC’s next tournament — but not good enough to beat Hitt.
Hitt’s good-natured ribbing reveals something about the pair’s friendship. They like to joke around and keep things light, even when others seem to be too serious. And, yes, they sometimes like to talk a little trash.
Though the trash talk is all in good fun, Register wouldn’t let the loss go unavenged. Hitt saw the results of this during the next qualifier.
“He ended up beating me by a lot.”
The battle between the two shows what motors Register — competition.
“He is a very, very dangerous player and one of the best players in the country when he is exceptionally motivated,” said Andrew DiBitetto, head coach of the North Carolina men’s golf team.
Register — now a senior economics major — has had an illustrious collegiate career. He has two tournament wins and 12 top-10 finishes. He posted the eighth and 10th best single-season stroke averages in North Carolina history and, at an average of 72.19, he boasts the second-best career stroke average in UNC history.
How has he been able to stay motivated and successful throughout his career in golf? To answer that, it’s best to listen to the man himself.
“It’s important to always surround yourself with people who are good or better than you,” Register said. “If you don’t have anyone that’s beating you consistently, then it’s hard to push yourself to get better.”
Register was born with a natural competitor by his side — an older brother. Robert Register, who also played college golf at UNC, is three years older than him. The two picked up golf together at the ages of 5 and 8, and played every day after school in Burlington. But their competition wasn’t limited to the green confines of the golf course.
“Anything we could be competitive in, we definitely were,” Robert said.
The Register home wears the signs of youthful exuberance. The boys constructed a makeshift basketball court to play one-on-one inside. They hung up a plastic goal and put down tape on the carpet to mark off the foul line and the three-point line.
But basketball wasn’t all they played in the house. Sometimes, they even played football.
“I was the quarterback and one of our buddies was the receiver, and William was playing defensive end,” Robert said. “I threw the ball to his buddy, and William tackled him through the wall. There’s a silhouette in our playroom of his friend going through the wall.”
That silhouette in the wall is still there in that house, forever a marker of both childhood rambunctiousness and the competitive spark that ignited inside of William.
Once that fire kindled, it grew along with Register’s success as a golfer. He steadily improved, cutting his teeth playing against his brother and a group of older friends and eventually found himself doing well in junior tournaments and as a high schooler.
“I used to play with older people all the time,” Register said. “I never played with people my age, really. I think that helped me out, looking to those guys and learning from them — and trying to beat them, too.”
No matter how well he did against the competition, though, an important bellwether was always his performance against his brother.
During William’s first year at Walter Williams High School, he and Robert played together on the school’s golf team. Powered by the two future Division 1 golfers, Walter Williams was a high school powerhouse. The duo led the school to a state championship, with both brothers finishing in the top three. However, William’s immediate reaction wasn’t what Robert expected.
“I finished second and he finished third,” Robert said, “and I just remember it took him a little while to get over the fact that I beat him in the tournament to realize that we had actually won states.”
Underneath that fierce competition, however, there lies a bedrock of love.
When William had to make a decision about where to go to college, he followed his brother to UNC. During that first year, Robert helped ease his transition by introducing William to his friends and giving him advice.
The bond between the two became evident to their coach — as well as the fiery aspect of their relationship.
“Robert is a very nurturing person, so I think he was always looking out for his brother,” DiBitetto said. “(He) always, always had his back, always had Will’s best interests in mind. But at the same time, as a younger brother, you always, always want to beat up on your big brother. It’s something that you take a lot of pride in. I think that’s where the fire and the confidence and the competitiveness came from with William.”
During that first year of college, Register also began to form relationships that would continue to drive him competitively throughout his career — including with teammate Ben Griffin.
In the mountains of Meadows of Dan, Va., Register was on a tear through the first six holes of the Primland Collegiate Invitational.
The first six holes have multiple par fives, allowing opportunities for more birdies and lower scores. At 4-under, Register was confident and comfortable with his play, but when his coach told him that Griffin was performing better, that soon changed.
“DiBitetto came up to me and was like, ‘Alright, Ben is 5-under through six’,” Register said. “So that’s when I turned it on in that round and started making birdies.”
From that point, Register went on to have the best performance of his career. He won the tournament, posting scores of 66, 65 and 68 and finished 17-under par.
“It was kind of a blackout moment where everything feels effortless,” Register said. “I loved the place, and I just went out there and killed it.”
Register’s win at Primland was one of the highlights of a stellar first collegiate season. At the time, Register’s 199 at Primland set the UNC record for a score in 54 holes. At 17-under, he also tied the school record for score against par — until Griffin beat it at the 2017 Tar Heel Intercollegiate.
Register was on a roll and never slowed down. He won two tournaments, had four top-five and 10 top-20 finishes in the 2014-15 season, all of which were career highs. His 65 at Primland is still tied for the lowest round of his collegiate career, and he finished the year at a stroke average of 71.63.
Since then, he has never quite matched the accomplishments of his first season. He hasn’t captured another tournament win, and his stroke average climbed in both his sophomore and junior seasons.
Yet Register doesn’t feel any pressure to duplicate the individual success of his first year. His career will not be a loss if he does not win another tournament. He judges the strength of his play by how he contributes to the program. It’s about the team, not himself.
“Individually, comparative to other years, I don’t really care about that,” Register said. “I feel more pressure for the program because we have such a good opportunity to do something big.”
North Carolina, which is coming off of a sixth-place finish in the ACC Tournament, will likely head to an NCAA Regional from May 14 to 16, and Register believes the Tar Heels have a chance to do something special.
The competitive fire that Register has cultivated could propel the team to that special finish. And as his collegiate career draws to a close, Hitt may provide Register some special, individual motivation.
“We keep a tally of our head-to-head in the tournaments,” Hitt said, “so any tournament we’ve ever played in, we like to keep a tally of who’s winning through the two years.”
Ahead of the NCAA and ACC Championships — the last two of Register’s collegiate career — Hitt held a slight lead in the overall tally.
“He wouldn’t want me to tell you that,” Hitt said, the corner of his lips tugging upward and forming a sheepish grin. “I’ve got him by a few shots right now. It’s going to be very tight with the last few tournaments left.”
At last weekend’s ACC Championship, Register posted seven birdies in his final round to finish the tournament 3-under par — six shots ahead of Hitt.
As Register prepares for the NCAA Championship, it’s not clear whether that performance was enough to wrest the lead from Hitt. What is clear, though, is that William Register will end his collegiate career the same way he started it — fiercely competing.