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A caddie's worth

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JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – Two out of three isn’t bad, at least if one takes into account the emotional turmoil Steve Williams has been saddled with for the better part of the last year and a half. Not to mention more than a decade’s old gag order.

Williams is a Jedi Master when it comes to the trifecta of the caddie code, show up, keep up and shut up, although why he blew through the stop sign on the latter on Sunday at Firestone is still perplexing.

“I have been caddying for more than 30 years now. I have won 145 times and that is the best win of my life,” said Williams following his new man Adam Scott’s victory at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, forgetting, we can only surmise, the baker’s dozen of majors he won with that other guy.

The New Zealander was clearly hurt by his very public, and very messy, split with former boss Tiger Woods and maybe the emotion of the moment got the best of him. But in this Williams is no different than 95 percent of all professional bagmen. A caddie-yard axiom comes to mind; there are two kinds of loopers – those who have been fired and those who are about to be.

Tony Navarro didn’t go all soapbox when Scott showed him the door not long after the two had finished runner-up at this year’s Masters, the Australian’s best Grand Slam finish ever. Bobby Brown didn’t start muckraking when Dustin Johnson bagged him for a more veteran looper despite caddying his man into the hunt at two of four majors in 2010.

Williams is one of the best in the business, but there’s a reason why caddies prefer the shadows to the spotlight. In many ways the golden rule is built in to shield the looper from unwanted – and unfair – analysis, as well as the player.

“I tell (caddie Michael Christensen), it’s a team effort until I step in with the club in my hand to hit the shot, at that point it’s all on me,” Kevin Streelman said.

Williams’ public epiphany, however, has opened the floor to a debate over a caddie’s worth to his player. Some in the mainstream media have speculated that a professional looper is little more than a mule who must adhere to the age-old adage that the help should be seen and not heard.

At best this analysis is an oversimplification. At worst it is blatantly wrong.

“I’ve heard on the radio guys saying (Williams) is not a coach, and that he’s not important in the big picture of things,” Stewart Cink said. “But that’s not true at all. These guys are just not pull carts out there.”

Cink should know, after Phil Mickelson and Jim “Bones” Mackay, Cink and his man Frank Williams may have the longest running caddie-player tenure at 13 years. It’s a relationship that spans a half dozen PGA Tour titles and the 2009 British Open, where, Cink said, Williams earned every penny of his winner’s share.

“We worked together on No. 18 to come up with a plan in case that hole played down wind (like it did on Sunday at Turnberry),” Cink said. “There was an area, about 8 yards short of the green, that we decided to play to and it worked out perfectly.”

In regulation Cink birdied the 18th hole to force extra holes and made par at the finishing hole in the playoff to beat Tom Watson.

World No. 1 Luke Donald, who split with his caddie, his brother, last year, concurred with Cink: “If I thought my guy was carrying luggage I wouldn’t pay him nearly as much as I am.”

In Cink’s and Streelman’s estimation, a good caddie can be worth a stroke a round under the right circumstances. But both players quickly point out a caddie can cost a player as well.

“I’ve cost my guy a stroke, for sure,” said one caddie who asked not to be identified. “You make mistakes, but the real test is when your guy isn’t playing well. That’s when a caddie earns his money.”

The last time Glory’s Last Shot was played at Atlanta Athletic Club may be one of the best examples of a caddie’s worth. Clinging to a one-stroke lead through 71 holes with a hanging lie and 209 yards of water and rough between himself and major glory David Toms looked to his caddie Scott Gneiser for advice.

“You want to lay up?” Gneiser offered. The rest is major championship history.

The best player-caddie relationships transcend the basics of “how far” and “which way?” The most successful tandems are more than employee-employer – they are friends who spend more time together than most families.

“It all depends on the player, some players want their caddies to stay quiet and be ready and that’s the extent of their relationship,” said Streelman, who has known Christensen for 15 years. “Others, like me and Chad (Campbell) and Stewart (Cink), we have our best friends caddying for us. It just helps keep everything loose and relaxed.”

It’s the kind of relationship that Woods and Williams used to have, before feelings were hurt and the wrong things were said. It’s what makes the relationship work, and why the breakups are often messy. It’s what prompted Williams to say more than he should have, and why the sudden collection of caddie critics are so wayward with their slings and arrows. On this point the pundits are correct, a caddie is not a coach they are much more.