Treading a golden path
Steve Williams is a straight-up nice guy. But he's also the kinda guy who stands no nonsense from fans. He's been called a bully and likened to a pitbull defending Tiger Woods by forcibly removing cameras from finger-happy spectators.
He's also straight up off the course. He's articulate and speaks his mind.
There's a whole lot more to Williams than just being a caddie.
Williams' relaxed manner mesmerised the crowd at a fund-raising event 10 days ago to launch a junior golf tournament the Steve Williams mixed-age group classic. The tournament, supported by the Steve Williams Foundation, will be held at the Inglewood and Stratford golf courses in December 2009.
On the night, Williams revealed some insights into the world of professional golf, from his first taste of carrying a golf bag to flying halfway round the world to carve out a career as a bag man, to striding fairways with Woods.
It was Williams' dad who got him a job caddying for five-times British Open champion Peter Thomson of Australia in the 1976 New Zealand Open in Auckland. Thomson won the title and handed Williams $150 for his four days' work.
"That was the end to my school career. I thought there was something to this caddying.
"For some reason, crazy as it seems, I enjoyed caddying more than playing."
He wasn't bad, either, playing off a two handicap at the age of 13.
"I've always had an interest in getting a player of any level to play better. That's always fascinated me."
Two years later, Williams left school, packed his bags and headed to London by himself. The 15-year-old arrived at Heathrow and got a train to Leeds. Within a year, Williams started carrying the clubs for Australian Greg Norman.
"I told him I was 19. I was really only 16. A couple of years later, he found out when we were checking in at an airport.
"Greg was as good a player as Tiger. But he had one weakness. When he hit a bad shot, he couldn't put failure behind him. Not for one hole, two holes, the round ... the year. Tiger is the exact opposite. He can forget it immediately."
Williams said the greatest lesson he learnt caddying for Norman was not to get too close to players.
"I got too close to Greg. You spend so much time with these guys. You have to work out when [to be] friends and when [to be] working."
They split after 10 years.
"Caddies get hired and fired all the time. That's how it goes ... the caddy, the coach, or the wife."
From there, Williams teamed up with American Ray Floyd. The combination was a success for 11 years on the United States PGA tour.
The approach to caddie for Woods came out of the blue.
"It was the call of a lifetime, but I thought it was a hoax. I thought it was a friend of mine imitating Tiger."
As bag man, Williams has been there to share the glory in 13 of Woods' majors since 1997, missing only the US Masters triumph in 1997.
He knows what makes Woods tick and what fires him up.
"Rest assured, you'll never see another player like Tiger. He's the greatest player ever, no question about that. There's nobody else like this guy."
Three winning efforts stand out: the 2000 US Open by 15 shots at Pebble Beach (Woods was 12 under par, the next guy was three over); the 2005 British Open at St Andrews, the home of golf; and the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines.
"Tiger had no right to win at Torrey Pines. He was told not to play. He had only two words to say about that f... y.., I'm winning that tournament.
"It was a phenomenal feat to get around in the condition he was in and win. Every day, he would get back to the motel and just collapse. He really wanted to win that tournament. I knew if he teed up on the first hole, he would get to 18."
Williams said Woods, who has spent the past six months recovering from knee surgery following the win, hit some incredibly bad shots during the tournament.
"But his recovery play was unbelievable."
On the 18th hole in the final round, he needed a birdie four to tie Rocco Mediate and force a playoff.
"He hit a crap tee shot, then a bad second into the rough with the pin located front right. He hit the shot I wanted him to hit ... he took some convincing ... hit it right and made the putt. What a feat that was."
Woods beat Mediate the next day on the 19th hole to claim major No 14.
It's also a well-known fact that Woods and American Phil "Mr Nice Guy" Mickelson are not the best of buddies. Williams told a story of Woods and Mickelson paired together during the US Open. The pair were duelling for the lead in the third round. Tiger waved to a packed grandstand seating 5000 people that bordered the 17th fairway. The crowd responded.
As a hush fell back over the crowd, a fan yelled out "Phil." No response from Mickelson. Again the fan yelled out "Phil." Again no response. The fan changed tack. "Hey, Mr Mickelson."
When Mickelson turned and waved, the fan yelled out "Nice tits." The crowd erupted in laughter; Mickelson went double bogey, bogey and his tournament was over.
And Williams on Mickelson?
"I wouldn't call Mickelson a great player ... 'cause I hate the prick."
Woods, with 14 majors (the big ones of world golf - the US Masters, the US PGA, The US Open and the British Open), the target now has to be the all-time record of 18 majors held by legendary US player Jack Nicklaus.
"We're both committed to the goal of getting to 19 majors," Williams said. "I say to Tiger: I'm out of there then. He says to me: Your lucky number is 21.
"When we get to 19, I'll re-evaluate my career."
The bond between Williams and Woods is obviously something special.
"I'm the only person outside his father, Earl, who can read his mind. I've spent my whole life studying the psychology of golf. I can get inside the heads of players.
"It's pretty special. I can understand Tiger. Each and every day, I can pretend I'm standing in his shoes. I see what he sees, feel what he feels. Whether he's happy, any bad habits ... trying to read his mind. You have to know when to say things, when not to. It's a real psychology game. If he's confident, he will start aggressively. If he's not, it's a conservative start."
Williams said there is a routine to life on the tour circuit.
"I usually get there a day or two before Tiger. He plays about 20 tournaments a year. Nineteen of the courses, if not all, I've been to before, so I have all my info. Tiger is always first off in the practice round or pro-am. Then, every morning of the tournament, I go out and locate the pins and check out the courses."
Woods' routine is pretty strict.
"He goes to the putting green first, then hits about 50 balls on the range, then goes back to the putting green. After the round, he usually hits 10 to 15 balls, maybe 20, to wind down."
Toss in the countless hours on the practice range between tournaments and it's easy to understand why Woods wears his clubs out.
"Tiger goes through four sets of wedges each year. He wears the grooves out every two or three months. He replaces his irons every six months. But unlike other players, he doesn't tinker with his equipment and sticks with the same type of clubs and woods. He just hits so many balls, he wears them out."
The last six months have been quiet for Woods as he recovers from major knee surgery.
"His recovery is going well. He'll hit a few balls on January 1, with the goal to play at Augusta [the US Masters in early April]. He'll play a couple of tournaments before then."
Williams has enjoyed Woods' enforced break.
"It's given me time to focus on raising some money for the foundation. There's nothing more satisfying than helping people less fortunate than yourself, particularly children."
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