Commentary

No excuse for Steve Williams' comment

Originally Published: November 9, 2011
By Jemele Hill | ESPN.com

If Steve Williams is bold enough to tell a room full of people that he wanted to shove Adam Scott's WGC Bridgestone Invitational win up Tiger Woods' "black a------," then what does Williams say about Woods in private?

I think it's a fair question. Williams was among his peers at the caddie awards in Shanghai when he added that biting racial qualifier to express his utter disdain for Woods, who fired him in July. So I immediately wondered if what Williams says about Woods in private is even more candid, even more venomous and, yes, even more racial when he isn't in a crowd.

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Andrew Redington/Getty ImagesDoes Steve Williams' remark about Tiger Woods last weekend reveal more than just bitterness over being fired?

And that's the scary part.

When Golf Channel anchor Kelly Tilghman used a lynching metaphor in early 2008 to describe how Woods' younger competitors should treat him -- this was back when Woods was still the top player in the world -- the remark felt clumsy and misguided, but not necessarily racist. Williams' statement, on the other hand, seems so vindictive that it stinks with entitlement and racism.

So unlike Adam Scott, Williams' current boss, I'm not willing to give Williams a free pass and excuse what he did as simply a poor choice of words.

It's more than that.

Williams' words seem calculating. The premise at the caddie awards was that all comments were off the record, but the media was invited; and someone who has been around as long as Williams should know that saying anything negative about Tiger Woods is going to become a major story.

Especially if what you say involves shoving something into an unfortunate space.

Williams' bitterness toward Woods is understandable. Woods fired him after he'd caddied 13 of Woods' 14 major victories. Williams had carried his bag on more than 60 wins worldwide and likely felt as if he deserved more than just an impassionate firing, which came after Woods had spent nearly two years recovering from injuries.

But here is where things get murky. After Williams caddied Scott's Bridgestone victory, he said it was the most gratifying win of his career.

"I've been caddying for 33 years and this is the best week of my life," he said after Scott's win.

Really? Winning Bridgestone is more gratifying than 60 wins and 13 majors? That's like someone saying an NFL wild card playoff berth is more fulfilling than making it to a Super Bowl.

No doubt it came, at the time, from a combination of bravado and hurt feelings, which is fine. But this time, it just seems as if Williams' bitterness has morphed into something far more personal and toxic.

The fact that he injected Woods' race into a description of how badly he wanted to show Tiger up is a troubling indicator that this wasn't just about usurping his former employer.

It seems like Williams was especially displeased that he'd been fired by a black man. Williams might as well have told the audience, "How dare this black so-and-so fire me?"

And that is racist.

Greg Norman, who also once employed Williams, condemned the remarks, calling them "stupid" but not racist. Woods, who spoke of the incident for the first time on Tuesday, also characterized his former caddie's comments in the same manner.

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Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesTiger Woods can't ignore it: His race will always be an issue for some people.

"Stevie's certainly not a racist," Woods said in advance of the Australian Open. "There's no doubt about that. It was a comment that certainly shouldn't have been made and certainly one that he wished he didn't make."

I don't know what's in Williams' heart, so I can't address his overall attitudes toward people of color. And considering how much Woods has spent his career trying to be racially neutral -- despite arguably being the most noteworthy person of color to play professional golf -- it isn't surprising that he would once again sidestep anything involving race in his response to Williams' comment.

The irony, of course, is that despite how Tiger tries to avoid race, it seems to find him anyway.

It was Tiger who reportedly told racially insensitive jokes to GQ writer Charles Pierce in a 1997 profile that followed his historic Masters win. That same year, Fuzzy Zoeller joked that Tiger should serve fried chicken and collard greens at the annual dinner coordinated by the Masters champion. Then there is the term "caublanasian," which Tiger coined to describe his racial-ethnic background.

At some point, Woods has to understand that no matter how many cute nicknames he devises to explain his complicated ethnicity, and no matter how much he'd like to pretend his race is not an issue, it still matters to some people.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.

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