Tiger Woods has yet to announce where and when he’ll tee it up on Tour for the first time this calendar year. When he does get going, the legend will be chasing a record-setting win No. 83, which would give him more career wins than Hall of Famer Sam Snead. That’s a record that would likely stand forever and ever and ever — Phil Mickelson is next among active golfers on the career wins list with 44.
Nobody was alongside Woods for more victorious fist pumps than his long-time caddie, Steve Williams. Sportsnet caught up with Williams for an extensive interview a few months after Tiger’s last Masters win. What follows is an excerpt from that conversation, focused on Williams’s 12 years with Tiger, which began in 1999. Woods won 63 PGA Tour titles and 13 majors with Williams on his bag.
Sportsnet: The first time Tiger Woods called, you actually hung up on him?
Steve Williams: Yes [laughs]. It’s a funny story because I have a mate who can imitate Tiger to a tee. I’d just flown from New Zealand to Miami, and it was reasonably late at night. The first time when the phone rang I thought it was my mate, so I just put the phone down. Then it rang again, I did the same thing — I used a bit of coarse language and said, “I’ve just come back from New Zealand. Give me a break. Call tomorrow.” And then the third time when it rang, I was a little more awake and I thought, “Maybe it’s not Bob.” [Laughs.] It was Tiger. We got off to a great start.
No kidding. What did he say when finally you spoke to him?
SW: He said, “Steve, I’m looking for a caddie. Are you interested?” He wasn’t playing in that particular tournament I was caddying in, but he lived in Orlando, a few hours north of Miami, and I said to him after the tournament completed I’d go up and see him. That’s how it started.
Why did he pick you?
SW: At the L.A. Open, Tiger and his caddie [Mike “Fluff” Cowan] split. Tiger asked a few people, who they thought he should hire. Each person had two or three people, but my name [came up] with each person that he asked.
SW: Yeah, it was quite interesting because it was 1999 and I’d actually told Raymond [Floyd] that I was going to caddie [for him] until the end of 2000, and that was going to be it … But then of course when Tiger came along, that just sort of changed everything.
Do you remember the first time you saw him play?
SW: When he played at Augusta as an amateur. I believe it was ’95. It was not uncommon for guys like Tiger to seek out a practice round with Ray Floyd. Raymond had great success at Augusta and he was very good at talking to players. Some guys are not going to share as much information about how you play the course, the secrets of the course. Tiger sought out Raymond because it was a known thing that he was very good and very open to helping young guys that had never played the course before. He would take the time to show them in a lot of detail, where all these different pin locations are, this is where you play. And so Tiger got familiar with me, having played with Raymond numerous times at Augusta before I’d gone to work for him. Every year we’d have a practice round there.
The first competitive round you were on Tiger’s bag in 1999, you called him overrated, right?
SW: The very first tournament, you go and caddie for this guy Tiger Woods and there’s all this hype. I don’t recall a lot of different golf shots but I do recall he hit quite possibly the worst wedge shot I’ve ever seen in my life. I still remember the shot, the hole, the pin placement. We joked about that for years. I said to him, “Geez, you’re seriously overrated.” Tiger, he loved that. He probably used those sorts of comments as motivation.
You’d been caddying for pros like Greg Norman and Floyd for more than 20 years by the time you started working with Tiger. But did you ever think you would work with a golfer where winning was the expectation every single week? And often the result?
SW: All those records and all the different things he accomplished in that time, I didn’t realize it until probably a year or so after caddying for him, when we split [in 2011]. At the time, the guy was so intense, so focused on winning, that once a tournament had been won it was on to the next one. I’m not a big follower of golf. I don’t read a lot about it and I don’t watch a lot of golf, so I wasn’t sort of wrapped up in the hype of, “Hey, he’s won this many tournaments in a row.” … When you look back and say you’re lucky enough to be part of a team that accomplished what we were able to accomplish as a player and caddie, it’s pretty special.
You were on his bag for 13 of his major wins. That’s unreal.
SW: There was no other player like him for a number of years. His work ethic, his desire to win, his mental strength, his complete domination of the game and his unequaled ability to perform at his best in those major championships. And the way that he scheduled himself and he managed to peak so often at those tournaments.
The two greatest tournaments that I ever caddied for him — not results-wise, but the two best 72-hole performances — just happened to be in major championships. I don’t think many players can say, if you ask them, “What is the best tournament you hit the ball for 72 holes in?” it’s unlikely it would be a major. He had an unbelievable ability to peak for those major championships. Not only that, when he was not winning, he was generally contending in them … To caddie for someone that had the opportunity to break [Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 career majors wins] and to be part of that was incredibly exciting. I almost got to the point where, when he had that red shirt on, on a Sunday, I thought sometimes that golf ball might’ve had a magnet in it. Somehow he just made it go in the hole from anywhere.
You said you don’t watch much golf these days, but did you see him win his 15th major at Augusta? What did you think?
SW: I only watched the last four holes, and he played those as good as he did in his peak. Didn’t make a mistake. It was just fascinating because multiple players had a chance to win that tournament. It was like when Tiger was really on that run, there were a lot of guys capable of winning tournaments, but somehow he always found a way … It was an unbelievable accomplishment, what he’s been through and that. His previous major championship win was 2008 and between then and 2019 he experienced a lot of different things in his life. That’s the second chapter, if you like — the first win of the second chapter.
Is it safe to say the low point in your own career came around the time that first chapter ended, when his personal life was aired out?
SW: Yeah, there’s no question. At the time it was very difficult, and to be put in the situation where most people believed that I had some knowledge of what was going on. To be totally honest with you, I don’t totally disrespect that, because the amount of time that a player and a caddie spend together, it would be very difficult to not know that something was not right. But I didn’t know. And to get brought into some of the things that you read and some of the things that were said was not in good favour with me.
Must’ve been hard on your whole family.
SW: Oh, absolutely. How would it not be? My son was young, he didn’t understand and he’s getting people asking him silly questions at school. It was a very difficult time.
You were very loyal to him and stuck with him through a lot of that period. [Tiger fired Williams in July 2011, and Williams began working with Adam Scott, who eventually climbed to No. 1 in the world and won his first major.]
SW: What someone does in their personal life is 100 per cent up to them. My job was to caddie for Tiger Woods, not base an opinion on what he did off the course. That’s how I viewed it. I know it changed my opinion of him, but it certainly didn’t affect anything that we did on the golf course.
When you see him today, is it just a simple ‘Hi, how are you?’ and nothing beyond that, or…
SW: I mean, yeah, it’s a very fascinating role, the player-caddy relationship. I’ve spent my whole life being a caddy. I’m one of only a few people that’ve done nothing else but caddy. From 12 years of age to 56 years of age, I’ve done nothing else. And the strangest situation, or the thing I find most odd, not just from my experience with Tiger but in caddy-player relationships in general, is that in most cases, when a player and a caddy part ways, they part their friendship. I find that extraordinary when you’ve given the amount of time it takes and the amount of time a caddy invests in a player’s livelihood that the majority of the times, there’s no words spoken. You end it, and that’s it.
That’s kind of sad.
SW: Well it’s not sad, it’s just bizarre.
It sounds a bit like a romantic relationship.
SW: Well, it is. When you’ve taken the time that you spend together, it’s exactly the same. It’s a very emotional relationship. But people get divorced, say, but that doesn’t stop them chatting or having any kind of conversation with each other. I find it’s one of the most intriguing things about caddying is that when a player and caddy split, that emotional tie just goes out the window.
One of the most incredible moments of Tiger’s career came when he won the 2008 U.S. Open on a broken leg. Did that tell you more about his mental strength on the golf course than any other moment?
SW: I can’t even begin to describe that week. If you just rewind to the previous few days before that tournament started, I mean, he couldn’t break 90. He played a couple of rounds at a golf course he was a member of near Torrey Pines in Southern California. I wasn’t at those rounds, but his coach, Hank Haney, told me how many golf balls he had lost each round. When we met at the tournament, he played his practice rounds ,which were limited to nine holes each time because he couldn’t walk — it was just amazing [laughs]. I probably said to him between the practice rounds and the start of the tournament, and only once in the tournament itself, “Tiger do you not think it’s probably better to withdraw from this tournament?” And you can imagine the response I got. It was: “Eff you, Steve. I’m winning this tournament.”
SW: Major championships are won, in my opinion, not by the greatest amount of good shots but the least amount of bad shots. That week was completely contrary to that statement. He made more double bogeys in that tournament than any tournament he’d ever played [laughs]. It was just bizarre. How he won that tournament, I’ll never know.
Being Canadian, one shot in particular really stands out to me — you probably know the one I’m talking about. The fairway bunker on 18 at the 2000 Canadian Open, when he striped a 6-iron just over 200 yards. And afterwards his comment to the media was something like, “I didn’t even hit the green.”
SW: Look, no other player would even attempt that shot. That’s the way the guy thought. He didn’t hit it on the green, okay, it was two feet off the green, but it was an unbelievable shot. Just incredible.
You were working with him at his peak when he was winning nine and 10 tournaments a season. Did you see any fatigue from fans when it came to his dominance? Did people tire of Tiger?
SW: I never did see that, to be honest with you. That’s a very valid question and one that I’ve never been asked. As far as the fans go, I think they just had an unbelievable respect at this guy’s ability. Golf is a very, very difficult game, as everybody understands. I think the fans knew that they were seeing something special, and they were probably never going to see anyone like him again.
And nobody had more fans than Tiger. How did you keep them under control? That must’ve changed your job.
SW: There’s no two ways about it: Part of my role caddying for Tiger was to be somewhat of a bodyguard as well. And look, there’s so many distractions and this guy didn’t like distractions, and when he came to the golf course, that was his office, he came to work. He didn’t come to talk to people. He didn’t come to chew the fat. He came to play golf and practice and give it 100 per cent. And I truly respected that of him.
Any person in his position in any sport, there’s a lot of people trying to get close to them. People love to be seen with champions. I was somewhat of an enforcer, but I don’t have any regrets in that … My way of always expressing when people were distasteful of some of my actions was, “Well, you come and spend one week with me, right beside me, and face what I’ve got to face every day caddying for Tiger Woods as far as the people, the gallery, the TV, the crowds, the noise, some of the things that people yell out. You come and walk with me for seven days and then you tell me what your feeling is.”
Do you get tired of talking about Tiger? I imagine he comes up every single day.
SW: [Laughs.] If it doesn’t come up in conversation, it comes up as you walk along [the golf course], “Hey, that guy used to caddie for Tiger. That’s Tiger’s old caddie.” … A lot of people were fascinated about how someone dominated a sport that’s so hard to dominate and excelled for such a lengthy period. Sometimes you do get a little bit tired about talking about it. I mean look, from my perspective, you’ve got to look back and say how privileged you were to be part of something in sport that was very special. A lot of people ask me, could you see him or would you hope he breaks Jack’s record, and absolutely, if he got to 19 major championships and I can say, “Well I caddied for 13 of those 19,” it’s a pretty special thing to be able to say. It’s part of history.
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