THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – Steve Williams never imagined that losing his wallet could fuel so much speculation that he was on his way out as Tiger Woods’ caddie.
Hours after the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where Woods closed with a 75 and offered some veiled criticism of his caddie’s advice in the final round, Williams was sitting alone in the Monterey airport while staring intently at his cell phone.
A golf blogger recognized him, took his picture and posted it with the headline, “Steve Williams at the airport, without Tiger Woods.” Never mind that Williams lives in New Zealand and Woods lives in Florida. Along with Woods’ post-round comments, it was enough to wonder if Williams would be employed much longer.
Told about the photo months later, Williams started laughing.
“I left my wallet in the rental car,” he said, explaining the text he was reading on his phone. “The speculation is incredible, how many people thought I would be fired or that I would retire. People just make up these stories. Look, I work as a golf caddie. It’s all I’ve ever done. I’m working for arguably one of the greatest players who ever played, who is fully committed to breaking Jack Nicklaus’ record.
“Why would I quit in midstream?”
Williams has been on the bag for more than a dozen years with Woods, and they have shared some happy times – 72 victories around the world, including 13 major championships.
He also was guilty by association through some unpleasant times.
Williams never heard from his boss a year ago in December when Woods’ personal life was collapsing with each report of infidelity. Most people assumed Williams was part of the deceit, and even his repeated denials didn’t change some opinions. Getting through the gossip on and off the course wasn’t easy on Williams or his family.
Getting back to the golf hasn’t been as fun, either. Woods not only failed to win for the first time in his career, there were a couple of times when they finished a weekend round before lunch.
The caddie sure wasn’t expecting a year like this.
“When you compete at this level, a large percentage of your success is due to your mental preparation,” he said. “And evidently, Tiger’s mind wasn’t as sharp due to his own personal problems. He’s come back from an injury before. I’ve caddied for him for 12 years, and the two times he had long layoffs, he came back like nothing had happened. I didn’t think a lot would change.”
It didn’t take long to realize he was wrong.
Sure, Woods returned at the Masters and got right back in the mix. He opened with a 68, closed with a 69 and tied for fourth. Williams knows his game better than anyone, and none of the indicators were appealing.
“It was evident after Augusta that it was going to be a bit of a struggle,” Williams said. “Then, of course, he was questioning his own swing and whether it might be time to change his swing. As soon as he made that decision, I knew right there and then it was going to be more of a rebuilding year. Which is fine.”
No one felt sorry for Williams.
His worst year working for Woods was in 2004 – two victories, fourth on the PGA Tour money list with over $5 million, top 10s in all but five of his 21 tournaments. Which caddie wouldn’t take that?
The feeling among some of his peers was, “Welcome to our world.”
For most of the year, Woods looked no different – certainly no better – than some of the players in his group, whether it was Jason Bohn at the Memorial, D.A. Points at Aronomink or even 22-year-old Kieran Pratt, who made his pro debut at the Australian Masters and beat Woods by one shot when they were paired together.
“I race cars to win, and I caddie to win,” Williams said. “I certainly couldn’t be out here working for a player that can’t win tournaments. That would have no appeal to me at all. Winning is what you want to do.”
So what was the appeal this year?
“I quite enjoyed the challenge sometimes,” Williams said. “The battle this year was making it to the FedEx Cup, then trying to make it through. It’s not a position we’re used to being in. But it was not frustrating at all.”
What he found frustrating was wondering which guy was going to show up for work.
Three days after his divorce, Woods missed only one fairway and two greens and opened with a 65 at The Barclays. Two days later, he opened his round by hitting a 5-wood off the property.
He was in last place at one point late in his first round in Boston. The next day he shot a 65.
“When he got it right, it was great to see. But he couldn’t keep doing it,” Williams said. “You go to the golf course and wonder if he’s got what he had yesterday, or can he improve from what he had yesterday. But that’s what happens when you change your swing.”
Early in the second round of the Chevron World Challenge, Williams had seen enough.
“The tide is turning,” he said as he walked off the third green.
He was impressed with the progress Woods had made on his new swing in just four months. The last swing change took close to a year.
Williams left California believing the worst was behind them.
“I’m pretty confident when the new year starts that Tiger will be fully ingrained with this new swing,” he said.
The old year could not end soon enough.
Woods was signing autographs at Sherwood when he was asked about his longtime caddie.
“He’s been a heck of a caddie, there’s no doubt about that,” Woods said. After a few seconds of silence as he continued to sign, Woods looked up and added for emphasis, “And he’s a great friend.”
Woods needed a little of both this year.