My Shot | Steve Williams | 51 | Huapai | New ZealandMay 31, 2015

Not The Retiring Type

The ex-caddie for Tiger, Adam Scott and Greg Norman is back home in New Zealand splitting logs and telling tales of the greats (and Silly Billy)
magazine-2015-07-maar01-my-shot-steve-williams.jpg

GOLF WATCHED since my retirement in September 2014: zero. Not one shot. I just don't follow it as a fan might. Never did. Now and again I'll catch some highlight from Tiger's career on the news and think, I remember that. His hole-out from behind the 16th at the 2005 Masters is like that.

I've seen that one a few times. Maybe when I'm an old man, I'll get caught up and watch them. There's a big catalog of cool moments, that's for sure.

THERE'S MORE to that Tiger hole-out than you probably know. After Tiger inspected the green and was walking back to his ball, he pointed out an old ball mark on the green. It was the size of a dime, almost fully healed, practically invisible. He said, "You think if I hit that spot, it'll take the slope without going into the bunker?" His concern was the left greenside bunker; if the ball came off the slope with too much speed, it definitely could roll in there. I told him I liked that play. He then hit that old ball mark exactly, from 20 feet away from a tough lie. That the ball went in the hole was sort of a miracle, but hitting the old ball mark on the fly was one of the most amazing things I've ever seen.

ON THE DRIVE BACK to the rental house after Adam Scott won the Masters in 2013, I had an epiphany, clear as day, that it was time to hang it up. Who knows what prompts that inner voice? Maybe it was missing my son Jett's rugby practices back in New Zealand. He's 9. The 20 or more 13-hour flights back and forth to the States each year. Having my wife, Kristy, and Jett with me a couple of weeks a year in America wasn't enough. The inner voice always wins these arguments. Even as I worked my last tournaments with Adam in 2014, I knew I was gone.

WHEN THE USGA announced the 2008 U.S. Open would be at Torrey Pines, Tiger became obsessed. Every time we played there in the years leading up to it, he would talk about where the pins would be, what they might do to the fairways, everything. His desire to win the Masters and the Open Championship was nothing compared to how he felt about the U.S. Open. Then he broke his leg. When Tiger played nine-hole practice rounds for that U.S. Open, I thought there was no way he could go. The leg was killing him. But he played, collapsing when he got back to the hotel each day. On the course, the sickening click of bones rubbing together as he walked made me queasy. The groans and squeaks he made were unreal. It's the most heroic thing I've ever seen in golf.

I NEVER SAW golf played like Phil Mickelson did on the front nine Sunday of the 2009 Masters. Tiger was in good form, too, and they were paired together, the game's two best players at their peaks, matching each other shot for shot, the fans going crazy. Phil made six birdies and tied the front-nine record of 30. Tiger made a birdie at the second and eagled the eighth. They both were near the lead, and I never felt more anticipation than I did walking to the 10th tee. And then it died. Phil hit it in the water at 12, Tiger bogeyed the last two holes, and the air totally came out of the balloon. Angel Cabrera ended up winning. That's golf. It's always a case of what is versus what might have been.

A FIRM "Stand back, please" from the caddie, said with the right tone of authority, can work wonders on crowds. Fanny Sunesson had that tone, a commanding ring to her voice that let people know she was there to make sure things went right. It's body language, too. My natural stride communicated authority to people. When I went into a crowded gallery with Tiger, Adam or Greg Norman, I was there in part to protect them.

TIGER RECEIVED a lot of threats you never heard about—on an almost weekly basis—for years. The PGA Tour people provided security, and it wasn't unusual for one of them to apprise me of some phone call or letter that had come in. It's not easy being him. When he would walk and sign autographs, the amount of pushing and shoving, the number of little kids getting knocked down, was unbelievable—collectors sending kids out to have stuff signed. It was the dark side of that life.

DO I REGRET tossing a fan's camera into the water at the 2002 Skins Game? No. The fan was taking pictures on the players' backswings all day. I told him repeatedly not to do it, and he couldn't have given a damn. He just kept snapping. The last hole was worth $200,000, and Tiger needed to get up and down from a bunker to stop Phil from winning the cash. The guy clicked on Tiger's backswing, Tiger flinched and hit a lousy shot, and Phil takes the $200,000. I was pissed. There's a basic etiquette to following golf, especially photographing golf, and the guy ignored it at everyone's expense except his own. As we walked across a bridge toward the clubhouse, I saw the fan and asked, "May I have your camera, please?" For some reason he let me take it, and I stuck my arm out and dropped it into the water. I think Tiger wound up paying for the camera.

A CERTAIN CADDIE approached Tiger several times to present a case for why he should be on his bag. It's an unwritten rule among caddies that you don't solicit another guy's player. Tiger told me about it, said he thought I should know. Needless to say, I talked to the caddie and told him, among other things, how unprofessional he was. The guy was surprised by two things: that Tiger told me about it, and by the confrontation.

AGAIN AND AGAIN over the years, Tiger would say, "I want to own my swing, not rent it." Nobody I saw in my 35 years on tour tried harder to own his swing than Tiger. He was obsessed with always getting better. The irony is, by changing coaches so much, it led to him renting several swings instead of owning just one, which upset his original goal. But he was very good at renting.

WAS TIGER BETTER under Butch Harmon or Hank Haney? I'd say it was a wash. Under Butch, Tiger's wedge and short game were better. When he went to Hank, his woods and long irons seemed to improve, but the wedge and pitching games weren't as sharp. His putting, chipping and recovery shots were great under both guys.

TIGER BELIEVES in clean breaks. When he ends a relationship, be it with Butch, Hank or me, it could not be more over. The upside to clean breaks is, you don't dwell on the past, carrying around a bunch of regrets and what-ifs. There's no downside, provided you've thought it through. I'm a clean-break guy, too. Since I retired from caddieing, it's been like starting a completely new and interesting life.

HAVING SAID THAT, the way Tiger fired me in 2011 was disappointing. He told me about it over the phone. Not hearing it from him face-to-face really bothered me. The suddenness of it, the way it was done, him coming out of the hardest time in his life and me having been loyal to him for so many years, was worth some consideration. Caddies get fired all the time—hey, Greg fired me in 1989—but when you have what you believe is a friendship, it's going to leave a mark.

TIGER HAD THAT ELEMENT of intimidation, and it was huge. His ball-striking alone was maybe the best ever. There was his knack for making the big putts on Sunday, which he did consistently over 15 years, so there was that. Then there were the little things. At Pebble Beach, it's customary for players who have hit to the seventh green to mark their balls and wait for the players on the eighth tee to hit their tee shots before they putt. At the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, Tiger didn't wait. As the players ahead watched from the eighth tee, Tiger deliberately replaced his ball quickly and buried his putt, as if to say, I'm going to bury you guys, and there's nothing you can do about it. I could see the players on No. 8 sort of sag when the putt went in. Tiger went on to win by 15.

THE LITTLE THINGS. At the 1999 Ryder Cup at Brookline, where the U.S. made that incredible comeback, Tiger's singles draw was Andrew Coltart, a Ryder Cup rookie who hadn't played either of the first two days. Coltart was visibly nervous. Tiger walked over to him and said, "I know you haven't played. If it helps, this first hole doglegs to the left." In that one devastating sentence, he reminded Coltart he was a rookie coming in cold, that his captain had ignored him, and that he was playing a strange course against the best player in the world. Tiger didn't lose a hole and won easily.

Steve Williams

SOME PLAYERS can't be intimidated. Zach Johnson is at the top of that list. He knows his game, its strengths and limitations, and he trusts it. There isn't a person or situation that is going to make him play beyond his capabilities or take risks he shouldn't take. In fact, he'll embrace who he is even more and relish the challenge of beating someone with a bigger game. It doesn't mean Zach will win every time, it just means he won't lose because of the guy standing across from him.

TIGER BULKED UP over the years. I spent the majority of my time with him on the course, so I'd only notice when I went months without seeing him. He always liked working out, and to a point it helped him, maybe more mentally than physically because of what exercise does to help your confidence and your thinking. As for his game, I'm not sure it helped him much, especially working with weights. Certainly he hit the ball farther when I first saw him than he did later.

DID TIGER do PEDs [performance-enhancing drugs]? There's no chance. Love him or hate him, Tiger always respected the game. He knows its history and people, its standing in sports and the world. He always knew what golf did for him personally. Whether PEDs have been used by other people is a good question, because it's occurred in every other sport. So why would golf be any different? The PGA Tour tries so hard to promote a squeaky-clean image, and we all know that's not the case, certainly with recreational drugs and probably the other stuff. I saw no specific cases and was never particularly interested in the subject. But, yeah, I'm sure it's gone on.

I ALWAYS WISHED the tour would disclose not just when a player has been suspended, but for what. Every other sport does it, and not revealing anything just invites speculation, a lot of it irresponsible. I'd like to know the reasoning behind that policy.

TIGER BECAME competitively old. Any player who has won a tournament will tell you how draining it is. There's the pressure of winning the tournament, the media, family, business aspects that follow. With Tiger, everything was tripled, and he backed it up week after week for many years. It's going to erode anyone, and Tiger wasn't immune. He's no different than one of my race cars. You can maintain one perfectly, replace parts and treat it like a baby, but sooner or later, it just wears out.

I HAD THE SAME approximate pay structure with every player I worked for. Some caddies who work for world-class players do it for a fixed salary, but I never wanted that. My arrangements were always performance-based, and it was the same when I worked for Raymond Floyd, Greg, Tiger and Adam. There was my basic fee, then three different percentages—somewhere between 5 and 10 percent—for an ordinary finish, a top 10 and a win. During the course of a year I never could tell you how much I was making. I always focused on the job and figured I could add it up when I did my tax return at the end of the year. Did I do well? Let's just say I could have retired a bit earlier than I did.

IN SOME WAYS, the stories about Tiger's frugality are true. I'd follow in his wake, tipping people he overlooked. It was a very strange game he played. But on the flip side was almost unbelievable generosity he never wanted publicized. In 2010, what came to be known as the Pike River Mine Disaster occurred here in New Zealand—a mine explosion that claimed the lives of 29 miners. It happened on a Wednesday during what we call Speedweek, in which we race on a different track every night for a week. The final event was to be on Sunday at Greymouth, near where the disaster happened. Naturally they considered canceling, but then they decided to stage the race and raise money for the families. Tiger had heard about it on the news, and when we spoke on the phone he immediately offered a donation. I'm not comfortable divulging the amount, but it was substantial, and it helped those families considerably. It wasn't uncommon for Tiger to do things like that.

THERE'S NO TRACE of golf memorabilia in our home. I don't watch old movies, or any movies at all, really, except during those plane rides to and from the States. The only things that have made me cry are visits to the Starship Children's Hospital and Ronald McDonald Houses, which I support through the Steve Williams Foundation. You can't leave those facilities with dry eyes.

MY FOUNDATION came about because of Earl Woods. Toward the end of 2000, after I'd been with Tiger a while, it was Earl who noticed I had become sort of a public person because of my association with Tiger. Not so much in America, but certainly in New Zealand. He pointed out how I could put that to work, and he gave me some ideas. The foundation has raised between $2 million and $3 million and will do more, and it all started on a suggestion from Earl.

AS A KID I hated school. I'd ditch, get caught, my dad would scold me, I'd go back and then I'd ditch again. I was bright enough, but school just bored me. By the time I was 13, I knew caddieing was what I wanted to do.

I had jobs along the way, delivering newspapers, making sausage at a butcher shop and, of course, caddieing on weekends. I eventually put away $20,000, a good sum of money, to stake myself caddieing abroad.

BEFORE I LEFT HOME for Europe to start caddieing—I was 15 years old—an old New Zealand pro named Walter Godfrey told me, "When you travel, never drink tap water and always eat well. Do those two things, and everything else will be fine." He was right. For the next 35 years I never missed a week caddieing due to illness, and I was never late for a tee time.

IN EUROPE I knew a caddie known only as Silly Billy. Nobody knew his actual name. He always showed up wearing a trench coat with a racing form hanging from a pocket, and carrying a briefcase that was empty. On the course, Silly Billy carried a notebook that had the pin positions for the day, but nothing else. He never had actual yardages but was good enough at guessing to work for some pretty good players. In Switzerland one year he was working for José Rivero. The course was at altitude, and after Jose airmailed about his fifth green of the day, he snatched the "yardage book" from Silly Billy's hands and saw it was completely empty. At first he looked at Silly Billy like he was going to kill him. Then he started laughing. He dropped the notebook and kept playing, asking Silly Billy for more yardages.

IN THE MID-1980S I caddied a few times in Asia for John Jacobs, one of the great characters in American golf. In Singapore, he barely made his tee time, running up in leather street shoes just under the wire. By the looks of John, he hadn't been to bed. He almost whiffed the first tee shot, then disappeared into the clubhouse to find some golf shoes. He rejoined me for his second shot, out of breath and looking worse by the minute. The end of a story like that should be that he recovered to shoot lights out and win the tournament. But I'll be honest: He shot a million.

RAYMOND FLOYD BELIEVED the ball could be willed into the hole. He didn't just want me on the green with him, he'd tell me, "Stevie, you need to will that ball into the hole along with me. If we're both willing it, it gives it a 50 percent greater chance of going in." Now, science tells us you can't actually do that. But it certainly takes any negative thoughts out of your head, and who knows? An uncommon number of Raymond's putts did seem to catch an edge and drop at the last second.

A REMARKABLE THING about Greg Norman was, he never tired. He was the hardest practicer I ever saw, period. When he went to the range to change something, he didn't leave until he had it. It could be five minutes, or it could be 12 hours—no exaggeration.

TOUR CADDIES are suing the PGA Tour wanting to be treated better, and it didn't take much to get me to sign on. Of all the people associated with the players—agents, teachers, sport psychiatrists, trainers, media and caddies—caddies are the one entity treated like second-class citizens. It was always frustrating that I couldn't get access to the locker room to retrieve an umbrella or extra sleeve of balls. No access to a place where you could come in and wash your face after a long day on the course. Fans know that using portable toilets at 4 p.m. on a hot day is tolerable as a one-off, but using them every day when there's a nice bathroom nearby would wear on you, no? Riding a crowded shuttle bus to the course is OK for a few days, but after several months of it, you really wish you could have a parking area to bring your rental car. If the game were invented today, there's no way the present model would be in place. If and when my mates need me to testify in court, I'll be on the first plane back to America.

TOUGHEST WALK, hands down, is Augusta National when it's in the 80s, humid and those thick white boiler suits they make us wear are holding the sweat and pollen. That's torture. The Masters is tough in other ways. Caddies are required to wear hats at all times. One year Tiger and I came to the 17th tee on Sunday. It was hot, the pressure was on and I felt I needed to gather myself for those last two holes. So I put the bag down, removed my hat, wiped my head, took some breaths and stood with the hat down to my side. A marshal in a green coat walks over, and amid the silence says in a stern voice, "Hats on, please." I disliked the pleasure he seemed to take in watching me comply. It would have been nicer if he'd whispered.

SUNDAY OF THE 2007 PGA CHAMPIONSHIP at Southern Hills was the hottest day of any American tournament I was at. It was 102 degrees that day and close to a thousand people were treated for heat-related symptoms. But that day was a distant second, heat-wise, to the first day of a South Australian Open in the early 1980s. It was 49 degrees Centigrade—that's 120 degrees Fahrenheit—and a full 40 percent of the field withdrew from dehydration or exhaustion after that first day. I caddied for Terry Gale, and I remember Terry gasping, "If we keep standing, we make money." We made it.

Steve Williams

Photo: J.D. Cuban

ONCE IN A GREAT WHILE, a player comes along who hits a golf ball the way it was meant to be hit. Powerful, piercing, the perfect trajectory. Of the young players out there, one I've seen has that special ball flight: Brooks Koepka. Adam and I were paired with him at the Open Championship last year, and from his first tee shot on, I thought, This kid is special. Obviously he's searching to find the other parts of the puzzle, but I haven't seen a ball flight like that since Tiger, and before that, Johnny Miller.

GREAT PLAYERS don't want to accept they're wrong even when they're wrong. The better the player, the stronger that tendency. When bad things happen, the player needs to let off steam. A caddie needs the ability to let the player vent without hearing anything but information that matters.

THE FIRST REALLY GOOD PLAYER I worked for was Peter Thomson. I was 12, he was a five-time Open Championship winner, and of course I watched his every move. What I remember: He never got upset, never cursed. Everyone around him came up to his level—no cursing, no vulgarity, respectful of others. Of players today, the person who resembles Peter the most is Matt Kuchar. Golf needs more people like them.

SPEEDWAY RACING is the second-biggest sport in New Zealand, behind rugby, and I'm proud to have won national championships in two different classes. There are four "majors" for Saloon cars, just as in golf, and I've won five of those. It's a passion.

I WAS LISTENING to an old clip of Michael Jordan saying something along the lines of, "Retirement gives me the choice to do anything I want." He said if he came back, the commitment would take away those choices. So if I came back and worked for a player, it would be part time, because the freedom I have right now is just too good.

WHATEVER YOUR JOB IS, you've periodically got to get away from it completely. When I'd step away due to a player taking time off, I totally forgot about it. Never read the scores or anything, which more than once led to embarrassing situations where a guy had won the previous week and I didn't know to congratulate him. But it kept me sane.