What took Tiger so long?
With hindsight, maybe Williams was always the tip-off to Woods. Only a man with issues, and plenty of them, hires a sidekick whose explicit job is to show everything his boss wishes he could show but can’t — especially anger.
Tiger cussed the bad shots for himself. But for the rest, including hostility toward his oversaturated-celebrity life, as well as a hidden private life, part of Williams’s task was maintaining a barbed-wire wall if Woods preferred it. Smack down the cameras, tell off the fans, bulldoze a path, go get ’em Stevie.
There’s nothing wrong with Steve Williams. He just did his job. He’s caddied the pro tour for years, many of them with Greg Norman. With the Shark, Williams was no barracuda. But when Woods needed a burly guy beside him, he could count on Stevie to be the blunt front man who’d take the flak and deflect bad ink from Tiger Inc.
For the last dozen years, Williams was the honest one in the duo because Woods couldn’t tell the truth or show his feelings. Stevie was just one of a cast of phoniness enablers for Woods. But he was the one we saw the most.
Longtime caddies of superstar golfers often tell you something central about the man with the club in his hand. For more than 20 years, Greek-born Angelo Argea, a kind of life-loving Zorba with a gray Afro, was the clue that Jack Nicklaus wasn’t quite as humorless and Germanic as he seemed. Jack was hiding how much some small part of him would love to be the late Angelo, who fit quite well into the culture of the ’60s and ’70s.
From the time they met in 1963, and shared most of Nicklaus’s greatest triumphs, Argea never read a putt, selected a club or even provided a yardage. “Essentially, he has been retired since he was 21,” Nicklaus said.
So, what did Angie do? “When Jack’s not playing well, one, remind him that he’s the greatest player out here and, two, that there are plenty of holes left,” Argea said. That is the lesser half of the truth. Nicklaus loved Argea’s friendly, funny personality, wanted to be around it and become as much like that as he could. The caddie set a tone, and a bit of an example, for the boss.
The late Bruce Edwards, inseparable as caddie and friend from Tom Watson, was the new breed of looper — young, razor-cut hair, treating his job as a profession, not an alternative lifestyle and, actually, looking more like a champion than Tom.
Early in his career, Watson got in the dumps and had choking episodes. “Bruce was the most positive person you ever met,” said Ben Crenshaw and, as Tom soared, that attitude helped create many an “impossible Watson par.”
When Edwards contracted Lou Gehrig’s disease, which took his life in 2004 at age 49, Watson found new parts of himself in raising money to fight the disease. “Maybe he opened up my soul a little bit,” Watson said of his caddie.
Argea and Edwards had relationships with their stars that showed the solid mental health and self-knowledge of the players as well as the best personal qualities in the caddie. Tiger and Stevie were the opposite.
Woods had much to hide, including enormous anger — perhaps due in part to a life encased in an artificial child-prodigy bubble with driven parents sitting on each shoulder. Whatever the cause, Williams was assigned to act out how Tiger, with that yacht named “Privacy,” really felt about all the invasions of celebrity that he resented. Woods loved the rewards of being the Greatest Athlete in the World. But he hated the job so much, he’s now destroyed it.
Now, Williams, who had perfectly normal Aussie-buddy persona when he was with Norman, will be thought of as Woods’s handpicked human knuckle sandwich. With time, with 13 major titles shared, Williams was thought to be Woods’s closest friend, too. If so, does that cast him as Woods’s enabler or as a friend who was oblivious to his player’s serious issues?
On the PGA Tour, some have doubted the seriousness of Woods as a “new man.” New swing and new injuries, yes, but was he a man constantly trying to change himself, as he claims? Isn’t Stevie still on his bag? If you are going to confront an addiction, aren’t you supposed to change as many symbols and memories of that past as possible?
To Williams, who appears to carry little if any blame for anything, and plenty of credit for doing his part in 13 major championships, the firing has clearly been a bitter ending.
“Needless to say, this came as a shock,” Williams said. “Given the circumstances of the past 18 months working through Tiger’s scandal, a new coach and with it a major swing change and Tiger battling through injuries, I am very disappointed to end our very successful partnership at this time.”
Apparently, Williams feels he was loyal through the bad times and, now, Tiger hasn’t reciprocated. But in the last two major championships Williams was on the bag of Adam Scott, ranked No. 17 in the world. Plenty of top players will want Williams, who’s proved for many years that you can win a lot of money with him standing 10 feet away.
Perhaps Woods, as his left knee and Achilles’ tendon recover, as he rebuilds his swing and as he truly looks forward to a completely fresh start, simply saw this as an appropriate time to break a tie that was overdue to be severed.
In the best-case scenario, Woods fired Williams because he believes that he no longer needs a caddie who will help him keep a wall around his life and express some of the hostility he feels toward the outside world.
When Woods comes back to golf with a new caddie, that will also be a fascinating decision. And one that may tell us more about the state of Woods himself than it does about the status of his game.