Tiger Woods learned there's nothing so dangerous as a caddie scorned
IRON MAN. Rabbit. Thirsty. Squeaky. Chico. Jelly. Tip. Golf Ball. Last Call. First Call. Due North. Eight Count. Gypsy. Wad. The Judge. The Growler. The Punk. Killer. Irish. Wheelbarrow. Ant Man. Bullet. Biggie. Chick. Squirt Gun. Munster. Asbestos. Skillet. Pepsi. Fluff. Bones ... Stevie.
"Stee-vee! Stee-vee! Stee-vee!"
Nearly all pro caddies of a certain vintage have nicknames. But this one didn't, not a proper one anyway. So the fans lining the 18th fairway of the Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, were chanting Steve Williams' real name as he marched to the greatest win of his life.
Historians agree: It had never happened before. No chance. After who knows how many centuries of swatting balls around bleak seaside terrain for sport, this was the first time spectators at a tournament -- in this case, the Bridgestone Invitational on Aug. 7 -- were openly cheering a caddie. Everyone knew this was the story. The veteran beat writers. The photographers. Nick Faldo and Jim Nantz, the men announcing the event for CBS. And especially the fan in the gallery who shouted as Williams and his new boss, Adam Scott, approached.
"You da man, Stevie!"
Williams, of course, was on the job for the first time since the world learned that Tiger Woods had fired him, a firing that was all at once shocking and inevitable, not to mention exceedingly uncomfortable, considering Tiger was also playing in this tournament. Their close relationship had been well documented: 12 years of service; 13 major championships; innumerable iconic moments (fist bumps, uncomfortable high-fives after sunk putts, teary hugs on the final-green fringes of venerable courses); reported presences standing up at each other's weddings; BFF wives; loyalty all through an epic sex scandal; and the widespread assumption that Williams had done what caddies have always done -- that is, fetch the phone numbers of willing groupies.
According to Woods, the split was amicable, a natural parting of ways, a necessary if unpleasant change for any player attempting to bust a slump. According to Williams, the opposite was true: This was a jilt. If the fans and the media had taken sides, it was clear now whom they'd chosen.
Williams, striding behind his player as they walked down the 18th, must have heard the calls from the gallery lining the fairway because he smiled broadly and waved.
"Way to go, Steve!"
"Good job, Steve!"
And, a bit puzzlingly for a man from New Zealand, "Welcome home, Steve!"
Before Scott stepped into his pre-shot routine for the approach to the 18th green, Williams gave him some instructions: Hit a good, hard 7-iron all the way to the flagstick, rather than playing conservatively to the fat of the putting surface, as Scott had at first expressed interest in doing. Scott reared back and launched the ball high. When gravity at last took hold, completing the shot's 201-yard parabola, the ball fell softly 10 feet below the stick, hopped twice, then rolled with the speed of a firmly struck putt directly toward the cup.
"Whoa!" Nantz fairly yelled.
The ball missed the hole by a hair. The crowd roared. And as Williams walked to replace the divot, he shared a big high-five with Scott, clasping hands for half a beat, lost in the moment.
TEN MINUTES LATER after Scott had sunk his putt for a four-stroke victory, David Feherty, standing on the green's fringe, spoke over his headset to CBS producer Lance Barrow. They were trying to arrange the post-round interviews that they'd run before crashing the broadcast off the air to make way for 60 Minutes.
Feherty can't remember who thought of it first, but the idea seemed obvious: If the opportunity arose, get Williams on camera.
Still, CBS needed to get Scott too, and what was forgotten amid the uproar in the days and weeks that followed was that Feherty did actually question the golfer before Williams -- though it was precisely what you would expect of an interview in the contemporary sports-media milieu. It was bland, perfunctory, giving away nothing, risking nothing. "... I stayed patient and picked my moments."
Cut to Feherty. Cameras rolling and with Williams towering over him, he pitched a softball, less question than compliment: "I tell you, Stevie, for somebody who's won seven times here ... I think you've got eight flags now, is that right?" (It is caddie tradition to remove the 18th flag from the stick as a kind of trophy-souvenir.)
I've caddied for 33 years, 145 wins now, and that's the best win I've ever had.” -- Adam Scott's caddie Steve Williams
Inasmuch as it was a question, Williams basically ignored it. Months later, when reached at his home in New Zealand, Williams would say, "I had a lot going through my head." And what was going through his head was a typhoon. During his 101-second answer, the 47-year-old Williams would manage to shovel a graveful of dirt on the most successful pairing of caddie and golfer in the history of the sport. He would expose an acute disdain for the most polarizing athlete in the world, providing a rare note of discord from Woods' inner circle. And in a sports world comprising 60-minute news cycles, camera-ready bluster and rivalries manufactured to sell merchandise -- with so many athletes shouting that few are ever heard -- Williams would cut through the clutter and deliver the year's most talked-about sports interview by simply telling the truth. His truth.
"I've gotta tell you, David. I've been caddying for 33 years, and that's the best week of my life, and I'm not joking. I'm never, ever going to forget that week. The people here this week have been absolutely unbelievable. And all the support from the people back in New Zealand, including my family -- that's the greatest week of my life.
"David, it's like, I caddie and I go racing. And when I go to the racetrack, the only place I'm interested in finishing is first. When I go to the golf course, it's the only place I'm trying to finish. Obviously, it's a very tough game. You can't always win. But I'm a very confident front-runner. And there was a lot of expectations today. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little nervous. Obviously, Adam was leading the tournament. And there's been a lot said this week. And it's an incredible feeling to back it up. I always back myself. Just like I do when I go racing. I'm a great front-runner when I go racing, and I feel like I'm a good front-runner when I'm caddying. So I have great belief in myself. But honestly, that's the best week of my life. I've caddied for 33 years, 145 wins now, and that's the best win I've ever had."
As Williams spoke, the cameraman executed a slow, subtle zoom on his mug. By the time he concluded his speech, which he seemed to give in a single breath, his face filled almost the entire frame so that the viewer had no choice but to look directly into it, with the crow's-feet showing his age, the gray sideburns showing his age -- this middle-aged man who had dedicated his life to helping golfers play a game.
"Wow," said Nantz, "that's all you can say."
Left unsaid: What the hell was Steve Williams thinking?
IT MADE HEADLINES around the world: "Steve Williams takes swing at Tiger Woods"; "Chatty caddie draws golfers' ire"; "Take a bow, Steve Williams ... now go away"; "La revanche de Williams"; "Woods trifft die Rache des Caddies."
The TV and talk-radio pundits put the story in heavy rotation. The subculture of amateur sports commentators on YouTube uploaded enraged opinions. A Google Video search for "Steve Williams" during the week after the Bridgestone resulted in more than 400 clips, while "Adam Scott" was No. 1 on Sunday's Google Hot Trends. The story reached the gossip blog TMZ. A consensus was reached. Williams had sinned. He had sinned against Woods. He had sinned against Scott. He had sinned against his profession.
It was said with great frequency that Williams had violated one of the three great rules of caddying: "Show up, keep up and shut up." But if Williams had broken any code, it arguably had less to do with caddies, most of whom bristle at the "keep up, shut up" mantra, than with the mores of sport. If a caddie could be considered part of a team, then Williams hadn't "kept it in the clubhouse." He had become a distraction. Instead of saying the right thing, Williams had said the true thing.
Months later, Williams would continue to distract. During a boozy banquet for international caddies on Nov. 4 in Shanghai, Williams was given an impromptu honor for "celebration of the year," a clear reference to his media performance at Firestone. The master of ceremonies had a microphone; he asked Williams for his thoughts on why he had said what he'd said. Everyone in the ballroom was reportedly in high spirits. Then Williams answered. It was variously reported as "I wanted to shove it up that black arsehole" and "It was my aim to shove it up that black arsehole." Williams insisted to The Mag that he used no profanity and that the quote was not accurately reported -- but whatever specific sentence he uttered did not in any way add nuance to his reputation.
Ironically enough, if one wanted to sum up Williams' personality as Tiger's caddie in a single word, one could do worse than a--hole. This had been by design. Butch Harmon, Woods' first swing coach, says he recruited Williams in 1999 expressly to serve as a foil to the golfer, a brutalist yin to Woods' highly polished yang. "I thought he'd be great for Tiger because Williams would have to be the bad guy on that team," Harmon says.
Williams was just about born for the role. The word "caddie" comes distantly from the French cadet, an adjective that describes a family's youngest child but that also means boyish. Williams started caddying while still cadet. He is strange in many ways, but in one way particularly strange: He gave up competitive golf at 13, when he already played to a two handicap, because he preferred caddying. That same year, he quit school and eventually went to Japan, in the company of Australian pros, then on to Europe, where at age 16 he achieved the bag of a young and not-yet-world-famous Greg Norman. Veteran journalist Robert Lusetich is perhaps closer to the caddie than any other writer. He says Williams lied about his age to Norman to get the job. The relationship lasted seven years and allegedly didn't end well. A long-standing rumor on tour, which Williams denies, says that the caddie got into a fight one day with his boss, grappled with him, then tossed the Shark into a swimming pool.
Big as a rugger (as an adolescent, he'd captained the under-15 version of New Zealand's famed All Blacks national rugby team), Williams boasts a lantern jaw, sideburns that run in strips down his temples, narrow eyes and two pronounced front teeth. His visage has a certain simian quality, and his savage deeds as Woods' caddie have been exhaustively chronicled. At every tee box, it seemed, he shouted down the gallery, like a despot attempting to quash an uprising. Williams once ripped a camera out of the hands of a photographer and hurled it into a water hazard. Scottish golf writer John Huggan says he witnessed the caddie tell a preadolescent autograph- seeker to f-- off. Williams described Phil Mickelson to a New Zealand newspaper as a prick. He rarely rode the team bus during Ryder Cups or Presidents Cups (Woods did), which was taken as a show of effrontery. He was, in other words, a man who'd spent the most visible and financially successful years of his career pissing people off.
But one thing he almost never did? Speak to the media about his boss.
TALK TO ANYONE on the PGA Tour about caddie-player relationships and you'll likely hear a variant on the same connubial analogy: "You know what it's like? It's like a marriage." Or: "It's beyond a marriage. I'll bet there's not a single thing that a player hasn't discussed with a caddie before his wife." But the analogy works only so far. This is no alliance of equals. Off the record, a caddie will offer that underneath this relationship lurks tension, if not fear, because the caddie knows that the player can fire him anytime, anywhere, at the slightest provocation.
Despite these power dynamics, most players depend on their caddies in almost childlike ways. Caddies not only clean up after their bosses (divots, balls, clubfaces), they are tasked with fostering, maintaining, coddling and defending their bosses' changeable self-confidence. Behind the scenes but also on the scene, the caddie is both a nurturer and a lodestone for all of a player's psychic deformities, the beta to the player's alpha.
So what happens when a caddie, by his very nature, is also an alpha? Williams' professional reputation rested, to some degree, on his alphaness -- a cast of mind that many say sees black and white but no other shades. In club selection, in course management, Williams has a view and expresses it without qualification. By all accounts, this is what Woods liked and wanted: Williams frequently stepping in at the last possible moment, far later than any other caddie would dare, to pointedly explain to the greatest golfer who'd ever lived that no, in fact, you're wrong and I'm right; it's a 9-iron, damn it.
There are those who say that a good caddie can save a pro player a stroke each round, enough to mean the difference between 10th place and winning, between missing the cut and bringing home a paycheck, between making a career or washing out and selling insurance. That's the opinion, for example, of Harmon. Others say that great players could win championships with a pull cart. As one caddie vet puts it, "The one skill a caddie needs is to pick a good player. Other than that, it's huff and puff."
When I finish my career. I'll document everything, why I have so much anger.” -- Caddie Steve Williams
Williams, as the world has now discovered, does not subscribe to that theory. A flashback, courtesy of Feherty: early 1980s, outside London at a boardinghouse filled with young players and caddies near the Sunningdale Golf Club, site of that year's European Open. There was, as usual, much drinking and roistering during tournament week, the pubs full of players and caddies, especially caddies. At the time they formed, in Feherty's words, a "sub-subculture of hedge-dwellers" who seemed to spend all their money inside the bars and their nights sleeping it off in whatever shrubbery they happened to tumble into. But not Williams. Feherty remembers a predawn apparition, a solitary figure jogging along the highway. While everyone else in the boardinghouse nursed hangovers, the near-teetotaler Williams headed off to Sunningdale after his run to scout the course, walk the yardages and fill his notebooks with data. "He was always a loner in that sense," Feherty says. "And he had tremendous ambition. He took the job seriously when most caddies didn't."
Williams was among the first of a new breed who would change the very nature of the caddying trade and, in a sense, professionalize it. "He's the guy we all model ourselves after," says one young caddie on tour. He would also be the one who would bring ridicule down on them all. "I can't tell you how often I defended myself after that interview," says one veteran. "People were saying, 'All you guys gotta do is carry a bag.'?"
So what the hell was Williams thinking? When people around the Tour talk about what happened at Firestone that day -- and they were talking about it and gossiping about it for weeks -- they invariably bring up the emotions the caddie likely felt as he walked up that final fairway. Consider the many and fraught narrative tributaries converging on the moment: His new boss was about to win in only their fourth week together. A new boss who wasn't even supposed to be his new boss, just a one-off temporary deal for the U.S. Open in June, the whole ugly sequence of events having begun when Williams flew all the way from New Zealand to caddie for Woods at this major, only to find out that Woods had decided to skip it and who knows how many tournaments thereafter, injuries lingering. Then Scott, who was without a caddie after breaking up with his longtime man a few months earlier, calls and asks him to carry his bag. Already stateside, why not? So Williams goes to Woods and asks for his permission and blessing to help out this friend at the U.S. Open. Said permission is granted ... until it isn't, when words to the effect of "take a break" are communicated from afar by Woods to Williams, perhaps by phone call, perhaps by text message; the public record is confused on this score. "In caddie lingo that means, You're fired. Simple as that," Williams would later say. Then a few weeks after the U.S. Open, at the AT&T National event outside Philadelphia, Woods, the host of the event, even though he's not playing, waits for Williams and Scott to finish the round. It's here in a private room in the clubhouse that Williams is told "face-to-face and man-to-man," as Woods has described it, that their affiliation is over.
But the firing itself was not the true indignity, people around the PGA Tour speculate. The true indignity was that a word might have been used in that private room. The word was "disloyal." And the context, these people hazard, was that Williams had exhibited disloyalty to Woods when he carried Scott's bag in the U.S. Open. From his home in New Zealand, Williams acknowledges the fury he felt -- that he still feels -- but he won't say much more. "When I finish my career," he says, "I'll document everything, why I have so much anger."
But does he really need to explain? Had Williams not stood by the golf hero all through the sex scandal as it unfolded excruciatingly over many months in every global media, as the golf hero's carefully crafted public image went to ruin? Had he not "wasted two years of my life" waiting patiently for an injured and humiliated Woods to step back onto the course, as he told a Kiwi TV station in July? Had he not dependably played the role of beta, even as his own public image morphed from astute course manager into consummate inner-circle enabler and yes-man? (People in and around the PGA Tour are split on this matter. Most caddies express total incredulity at the idea that Williams didn't know anything about Woods' escapades. Most players, on the other hand, take Williams at his word.) He, Steve Williams, was no yes-man lackey enabler. In his mind, the only thing he ever enabled was the maximum competitive play of his bosses. And now ... his new boss was about to win in just their fourth start together, destroying Woods by 18 strokes. And now ... the crowd on the final green was chanting his name--the name of a caddie. No one has heard this before. He is the first. And now ... he pumps his fist in celebration after his boss's putt drops and the crowd roars. "You've got so much adrenaline running through your body," Williams says. "It was overwhelming." And now ... someone is tapping him on the back and asking him if he'd like to do an interview.
Cut to Feherty. Cameras roll. Williams begins speaking. It was almost as if he'd rehearsed the lines.
This story appears in the Dec. 26, 2011, "The Year in Sports Issue" of ESPN The Magazine.Follow The Mag on Twitter, @ESPNmag, and like us on Facebook.
ESPN The Magazine: December 26, 2011