In the climactic moments of the 2000 PGA Championship, Steve Williams did something unusual. He lied to Tiger Woods. As Woods stood in the fairway of the 71st hole at Valhalla Golf Club in Kentucky, he was one stroke behind Bob May, who had clamped down like a Rottweiler on Tiger's pant leg. Woods needed to birdie 17. His third straight major and the Tiger Slam hung in the balance.
"What do we got, Stevie?"
Williams had calculated 95 yards to the flag. But he didn't tell his boss that.
"Ninety yards," Williams said. "Lob wedge."
Woods hit it to inside two feet and went on to win the three-hole playoff.
Williams says he occasionally "adjusted" yardages for Tiger's own good. "Before he started working with Hank Haney [in 2004], Tiger's distance control was a problem," Williams says. "He had trouble hitting three balls the same distance three times in a row with the same club. So I would adjust yardages and not tell him. If he had 95 yards, I might tell him 85 yards, depending on how he was swinging. At Bay Hill one year, I didn't give him the right yardage once on Sunday, and he won." Williams says that giving Tiger incorrect yardages for the better part of five years was the biggest risk he's ever taken, because, well, "What if I'm wrong?"
Any caddie can give yardages. When Steve Williams launched his career 33 years ago, he wanted more. He wanted to reinvent what a caddie does. "My goal has always been to positively affect the outcome for my player, to make a real difference and raise his game," he says.
Tiger certainly hopes so. In April, Woods and his reconstructed left knee return to major competition at Augusta National following a nine-month layoff. This year marks Williams' 10th at Tiger's side. The two are forever linked, but Woods is one of at least nine major winners the New Zealander has clubbed for. Love him or hate him, he's the most successful caddie in history. He has a record 128 worldwide wins, and some estimate he's earned $20 million on Tiger's bag alone, which would place him 21st on the Tour's career money list. His aggressive style has brought him respect from hard-nosed players like Woods, Greg Norman and Ray Floyd. ("He's the only caddie I ever had who never choked," Floyd said.) And it has brought him controversy, Tour fines, and a reputation as a bully.
To which he says: You've got me all wrong.
Revheads of all stripes flock to race night at Waikaraka Family Speedway in Auckland, New Zealand. On a warm Friday evening in December, beneath the kiteshaped Southern Cross, the scene is straight out of Mad Max. Mohawked bikers meander across the pit area next to the quarter-mile dirt oval. A one-legged mechanic inspects the muddy track. A 12-year-old girl with a ponytail labors beneath her father's Chevy. Among 104 drivers in six car classes is Williams, 45: jet-setter, multimillionaire, New Zealand's most famous sports figure. He's the one stripping clumps of mud off the tires of his white GT Mustang with a shovel.
"I live for racing," Williams says. Wearing a white, flame-retardant driving suit, he unfurls his 6'3'' oak-like frame into a collapsible lawn chair a few paces from the 535-horsepower No. 21 Mustang he'll pilot tonight in the Auckland Saloon Car Championships. "The fun is trying to control an out-of-control vehicle," he says.
Scars score his hands. Two etch the base of his left thumb and little finger. "It's from a de-gloving," he casually says of his left pinkie. That means you crash and your glove comes off, along with a finger or two. What happened was, he flipped his Mustang, the roof came off, and the car struck the safety wall. Williams braced his roll cage, and a metal wire from the wall lopped off his little finger, which was reattached that day. He nearly lost his left thumb in a different accident. "That's part of racing. You will crash. It's like golf. You'll hit bad shots."
Williams travels all over New Zealand to race during golf's offseason, which he says helps make him a better caddie. "I don't follow golf when I'm not caddying," he says. "I don't know who's No. 3 on the money list, who won last week. Couldn't care less. Why should I? My job is to do the best I can for Tiger Woods. It's embarrassing sometimes. I might not know that the guy Tiger's playing with won last week. But the balance keeps me fresh and focused for when I caddie."