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A step backward

Steve Williams and Tiger Woods
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You don’t need me to tell you what Steve Williams said about Tiger Woods was uncool. Why it is uncool is a more important subject.

At the private Annual Caddy Awards dinner this week in Shanghai, Williams was given an “award” for best celebration, in honor of him carrying Adam Scott to victory (as it seemed by Williams’ post-round comments) at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. The whole event was to be a tongue-in-cheek laugh fest to end the year. But, when Williams said in his acceptance speech that his goal, referring to Woods, was to “shove it right up that black [expletive deleted],” the comment shocked observers in the room. It also has reverberated inside the golf world, and beyond.

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The reason this situation will not soon be forgotten is that Williams referenced Tiger’s color reflexively when he got angry. The kneejerk reaction from some was to refer to Williams as a racist. Believe me, that only confuses the issue. You and I have no clue whether or not Steve Williams believes he is racially superior to Tiger Woods, me, or any other race. What we do know is that when the anger of being fired by Woods boiled over again this week, Williams decided to reference Woods’ color in using an objectionable phrase. “I now realize how my comments could be construed as racist,” Williams said in a statement on his website. The fact that he didn’t realize it immediately is baffling. However, it illustrates that when Williams wanted to inflict the greatest injury with his comments, he reflexively reached for a colorful adjective to do it.

But Williams’ comments are only part of the issue. The fact that he felt comfortable enough to say such nonsense at that gathering will remind minorities of golf’s exclusive past, of proverbial smoke-filled rooms where decisions were made, and where many of us were absent. There is nothing wrong with having a private gathering where folks can have a good time at the end of a long year. There is something wrong when one of the attendees considered it the perfect time and setting to say what Williams did. Thankfully, enough people in that room decided what transpired there should not remain hidden. But it was a reminder that of the anxiety that comes with the question, “What do they say about us when we are not around?”

Will there be repercussions for Williams’ comments? Adam Scott said after the third round of the WGC-HSBC Champions that he wants Williams as his caddie. That is understandable, given the recent success Team Scott has had, as well as the success Team Tiger had with Williams on the bag. But golf as a sport, and an industry, needs to tread very carefully with this situation. If Tiger Woods, golf’s greatest champion since the Golden Bear, is still not immune to racially tinged rhetoric, who is?

What do they say about us when we are not around? It can be tough to grow the game when Steve Williams has provided an answer to that question.