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."
His one complaint about racing? "We call it Tall Poppy Syndrome," Williams says. "People take shots at you if have money or if you're a celebrity. I get accused of cheating, of having an illegal car. It really pisses me off. The celebrity in the harsh spotlight is the last guy who's gonna cheat."
Williams so loves racing that in 2003 he proposed to his then girlfriend Kirsty mid-practice lap, unfurling a banner reading, "Will You Marry Me?" Upon hearing the story, Woods told him, "I always thought you were a redneck. Now I know for sure."
For a champion fast approaching 50, it was a great week. Five-time British Open winner Peter Thomson finished third at the 1976 New Zealand Open, with help from a 13-year-old Kiwi caddie who read greens like they had subtitles. Thomson gave the kid $150, his bag, and some advice: "You have a future in caddying, but you're too young. Get an education."
"That determined my life," says Williams, whose allowance at the time was 50 cents per week. "From that moment on, I was gonna be a caddie, and nothing was gonna stop me."
Without telling his parents, Williams quit school and lied about his age in order to work at a butcher's shop. "When my father found out, the s--- hit the fan," he says. "But the travel money helped me make my way caddying. I liked golf, but I loved caddying. I'm not proud of quitting school, but I knew what I wanted."
He wasn't done fibbing about his age. After three years looping in New Zealand and Australia, Williams got a phone call from Greg Norman, who needed a caddie but not an underage caddie. Williams, 16, said he was 20 and got the gig. He was busted two years later when Norman's wife, Laura, saw the teenager's passport. "Greg thought it was hilarious," Williams says. They worked together for eight years before Norman sacked Williams for talking back. Still, the split was amicable, and Williams caddied for Ray Floyd, among others, for most of the 1990s.
Then, in March 1999, Williams' phone rang again. It was someone claiming to be Tiger Woods. Woods had recently fired Mike "Fluff" Cowan, and Tiger wanted a veteran caddie who, in Williams' words, "could stimulate and extend him." Thinking the call was a prank, Williams hung up. Woods called back, and two weeks later they were a team.
From Thomson to Tiger, players love Williams' work ethic, says Peter Fitzgerald, an Irish caddie who took Williams under his wing in those early years. Most caddies were either lazy, alcoholics, or lazy alcoholics, Fitzgerald says. "And here's this hard-working Kiwi who never drank and is up at dawn. Once at St. Andrews, they called security to throw him off the course. They thought he was trespassing. He was on the greens at 5 a.m. studying the bumps and hollows!"
It was Williams' toughness that impressed Ian Baker-Finch, who worked with Williams in the late 1980s before going on to win the 1991 British Open. "I wasn't a Norman or a Floyd, but he made me feel invincible some days, and it came from his tough, Kiwi attitude," Baker-Finch says. "It was contagious."
Williams was shagging balls for the Aussie one day during the 1987 Spanish Open. Other caddies would let the balls roll to a stop. Williams caught them on the fly. "I hit a 7-iron 160 yards that he lost in the sun," Baker-Finch recalls, suppressing a laugh. "It whacked Steve in the face, split his lip open, and knocked him silly. I half-carried him off the range to the clubhouse, where a drunk Spanish doctor stitched him up. The next morning, Steve's at the range with a swollen lip, a dead, gray front tooth, and he's catching shag balls on the fly."
Then there was the sweltering afternoon in Singapore. Baker-Finch and Williams were walking up a steep fairway at Singapore Island Country Club when Williams challenged his boss to a foot race. "Steve had to race while carrying my bag. We take off full speed in 100-degree heat, and Steve's losing, so he starts throwing my clubs out of the bag. There's a 150-yard-long trail of clubs behind us." Who won? "Me he cheated!"
In 1990, Williams took Mike Clayton's bag at the Scottish Open. The Aussie was swinging well but was putting with the touch of a jackhammer operator. With five holes left in the final round, Williams had seen enough. "I'm fed up watching you putt," he told Clayton. "You're awful." Williams grabbed his putter, gave him a lesson, and Clayton birdied three of the last five holes.
"As a caddie, you need to know when to be assertive," Williams says. "You need to know when to be blunt, when to make a joke, when to make your opinion known. It's a style that may not work for everyone, but it works for me and Tiger. The one thing you never want is to go quiet, because quiet usually means [you're] nervous."
On Sunday at the 2008 U.S. Open, Tiger Woods doublebogeyed the par-4 first hole for the third time in four days.
"Hey, mate," Williams needled. "That wasn't a great start, was it?"
"F--- you," Woods scowled. "I'm winning this tournament."
Williams had heard the refrain hundreds of times, dating back to 2003, when Torrey Pines was awarded the Open. Dubai, Firestone, Augusta wherever they played, Tiger was thinking Torrey: "Stevie, what do you think they're gonna do with the pin on six at Torrey?" or "Stevie, I'm winning that tournament. I don't give a sh-- what you say."
Williams says, "I've never seen anybody including Tiger want to win a tournament as badly as he wanted to win the 2008 U.S. Open."
Yet a win seemed unlikely late Sunday afternoon as Woods' ball sat in the right rough on the 18th hole. Needing a birdie to force a playoff with Rocco Mediate, Tiger had 101 yards to a hole cut four paces over the front-right bunker. Woods wanted to hit sand wedge. Williams wanted him to nuke a 60-degree wedge. Tiger wasn't sold.
"I can't hit that club that far," he said.
"You're pumped up. You're in Kikuyu grass, so it's gonna jump. I know you can hit it this distance. Trust me."
Woods hit the lob wedge to 12 feet and rolled in the putt, forcing the playoff, which he won in 19 holes. "I knew how badly he wanted to win that tournament," Williams says. Woods was playing with a torn ligament in his left knee and a double stress fracture in his left tibia. "He was in so much pain. He would play, then collapse on his hotel room floor for three hours. That call is the proudest moment of my career, and the words he said to me afterwards which I will never repeat echo in my head often."
The 2009 Masters will be Tiger's first major appearance since Torrey Pines. "I'll be honest," Williams says. "I'm a little nervous. It's a major operation. Tiger's had nine-week breaks for surgery, but not nine months. I think he and Hank will find the swing, but it might take time. But I like what someone else said: You haven't operated on his heart or his head, Tiger's two best components."
Williams expects pandemonium when Woods returns, and he's ready to resume his role as the Tour's resident tyrant. "People have this image of me as a bully, but my job is to give Tiger a level playing field against 150 other players. We have more photographers and press following us than anyone. To those who criticize me, I say come walk with us through practice rounds, pro-ams, the whole week, and then tell me I'm a bully." Williams regrets kicking a photographer's lens at the 2004 U.S. Open and tossing a camera into a pond at the Skins Game. But be warned: If your shutter click-clicks in Tiger's backswing, your camera may join Luca Brasi. "Heaven help anyone who bothers my boss," Williams says.
His prime directive is to make Tiger's life easier, an edict Williams violated in late 2008 when he was quoted as saying that he didn't consider Phil Mickelson a great player "because I think he's a prick." Soon after he told a Kiwi newspaper: "I don't particularly like the guy myself. He pays me no respect at all, and hence I don't pay him any respect."
Golf's collective jaw fell like an anvil. Suddenly, the Garbo of golf was talking more than Keith Olbermann. Woods diffused the controversy by saying his caddie's comments were wrong but not a fireable offense. Williams called the media storm "bulls---."
"I made a mistake in a fun atmosphere," Williams says. "It was a joke taken the wrong way. I was having banter with a writer. I should not have said it. Tiger was not happy. I called Phil and spoke to him to clear the air. He was very sympathetic. He said, 'Steve, I totally understand.' He's had his own problems with the media. So the matter is settled."
Williams' willingness to talk about the controversy supports a claim he has long made: There's no code of silence on Team Tiger, no mafia-like omertÃ decreed by Don Woods, at least not for Williams. "Am I too honest? No, you can't be too honest. If you're honest in everything you say, then you've got nothing to worry about. Honesty is the best policy, and I tell it like it is."
Williams' friend Peter Fitzgerald puts it another way. "Steve has no filter. If he thinks you're an a--hole, then you're an a--hole."
It's Friday night at the Speedway, and the races are over. About 100 fans gather to watch the top three saloon-car drivers collect their trophies and thank their crews. Williams raced hard and finished second out of 14. A minor drama: Officials questioned a highspeed, arguably reckless maneuver he made during the race. But after talking with him, there will be no penalty. The runner-up trophy is his.
He's now smiling and clicking bottles of beer with his crew. "It's not about winning or losing, it's about the competition," he says. "I love it."
It's his turn to take the microphone. But the smile is gone, his tone clipped. He's still irked about the allegation. Williams congratulates the winner, then his own crew. Then he says: "I don't like the way you run things here. It's unprofessional, and I promise you that we will never ever race here again. Good night."
To the stark silence of 100 onlookers, his shiny second-place cup in hand, Williams walks out the door with his familiar, determined, chin-forward walk. He never looks back.