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A closer read of Steve Williams' new book: Some dirty laundry, but also plenty of fascinating detail



November 05, 2015

For the most part, Steve Williams’ memoir, Out of the Rough (written with journalist Mike Donaldson) has been panned.

As Tiger Woods’ caddie for 13 of his 14 major championships, Williams by writing his book has become -- variously and inclusively to many -- a betrayer, a disgruntled former employee out for revenge, a sell-out for money, a self-aggrandizer with an overinflated view of his own importance, a breaker of the unwritten code of confidentiality.

That assessment is simplistic, unfair and wrongheaded. I read the book and was immediately surprised at the amount of interesting detail. I devoured large chunks, only occasionally losing focus.

Then again, I am a golf nerd who has close to 1,000 golf books in his home office. (I know, I know). I’ve read at least parts of all of them. Invariably, even in the bad ones, I find something that satisfies some curiosity and in some way adds to my knowledge and perspective.

By that personal criterion, Williams’ book is exceptional -- original, comprehensive, enlightening, honest.

For all his gruffness, he’s intelligent, insightful, frank, and on his subject, extremely knowing. On balance, he’s given us an important golf book.

Williams is a true expert, a 51-year-old lifer who continues to perform his job with pride and diligence. Throughout, he gives an advanced course in professional caddieing, provides an ultimate insider’s play-by-play of some important and fascinating moments, shares his regrets and mistakes from devastating losses, and offers astute insight and analysis of his players. Along the way, there are gems of genuinely new material.

The memoir is a contribution to the history of Tiger Woods, which for all the words that have been expended on him is still lacking in first-hand material. In his observations of the golfer, Williams both confirms and reveals.

For all the focus on how Williams presumably goes out of his way to skewer Woods, I found his chronicling of his entire experience with Tiger to present a reasonably balanced portrait.

In many ways, the book is a tribute to Tiger’s greatness: his relentless drive to improve, his focus and cool in the face of immense pressure, the intensity that disarmed his opponents. It’s a vivid and, considering Woods’ struggles over the last several years, welcome reminder of how truly great he was.

No question the book has flaws, chief among them Williams’ use of the word “slave” in the sentence "I felt uneasy about bending down to pick up his discarded club — it was like I was his slave." Poorly chosen considering the historical weight of the term and a gross overstatement in terms of Williams’ duties, the word has understandably become a negative flashpoint in reviews, and hurts any Williams claim to higher ground.

But even if the word has basically blotted out attention to the strengths of the whole, publishers like the buzz. It will sell more books. The excerpted chapter containing the sentence wasn’t released accidentally.

When Hank Haney wrote his memoir of his time coaching Woods, “The Big Miss” (on which I collaborated), the manuscript was leaked to the New York Times a week before the book’s official release in March 2012. With the general public’s interest in Woods high in the aftermath of his scandal, the review led off with an anecdote about Haney feeling hesitant to ask Tiger for a popsicle, then focused on Haney’s recounting his observations on the interaction of Woods and his then wife Elin.

A not uncommon quick conclusion at the time was that the memoir would be a petty, invasive and mean-spirited expose fueled by an ex-employee’s resentment over perceived slights. Instead, it was very much a golf book – not a tell-all in general sense, but a tell-all about the golf. Haney was sincerely interested in trying to explain Tiger the golfer, give his thoughts on the sources of his greatness, exploring the contradictions and nuance and complications in all that entailed. Everything about Tiger’s personality that applied to his golf was in the book. The things that didn’t, weren’t. It was golf nerd stuff. As Haney said, “It’s golf history.”

The book got to No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list for the same reasons Tiger in the aftermath of his scandal appeared on the front of the New York Post for a record 20 consecutive days. But it only stayed at the top for a week. When word of mouth of how golf-wonky the book is spread, the sales spike ended.

Williams’ book is similar. There is a lot of golf in it. It’s told chronologically, starting with Williams’ upbringing in Pukerua Bay, New Zealand, where his father was his first loop. Then as a 12-year-old caddie to five-time British Open winner Peter Thomson at the 1976 New Zealand Open, on to his time with Greg Norman in the 1980s, Raymond Floyd and in early 1990s, Tiger for 13 years beginning in 1999, and concludes with work for current employer, Adam Scott.

Of Phil Mickelson, who Williams says he admires as a player: “My problem is that he thinks he knows everything. He lords over people – he once tried to tell me the rules of cricket for crying out loud!”

Along the way, there are some memorable passages:

Of Norman, with whom he has remained friends: “It’s fair to say I was afraid of the guy…Looking back, I would say he was definitely the hardest guy I have ever caddied for…If I made a mistake, he certainly had no hesitation in letting me know what an idiot I was. And if he made a mistake, somehow that would also be my fault.”

And, “Of all the players I worked for, including Tiger, Greg would be the best in terms of the pure physical side of the game.”

Of Phil Mickelson, who Williams says he admires as a player: “My problem is that he thinks he knows everything. He lords over people – he once tried to tell me the rules of cricket for crying out loud!”

About Woods, Williams revealed several things that are fresh, including:

After Woods made his seven-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole of the 2000 PGA Championship to get into a playoff with Bob May, he told Williams, “Stevie, my mum could’ve made that putt. I’m Tiger Woods – I’m supposed to make that putt. It ain’t no big deal, Stevie.”

Woods especially enjoyed playing with David Duval. “There was one player Tiger was fond of and had the utmost respect for: David Duval."

In the car ride after 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, Woods told Williams: “Stevie, I think I’ve had enough of golf. I’d really like to try to be a Navy SEAL.”

In context with acts like accepting Williams' request to be best man at his wedding, Williams wrote: “Tiger is seen as completely self-obsessed, but he could be incredibly caring.”

Before Woods’ third shot to the 72nd hole of the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, in which Williams lied about the yardage in order to help convince Woods to hit a hard lob wedge rather than a sand wedge: “Tiger, you have to absolutely trust me on this one. And if I’m wrong, fire me. I know how much this means to you, so if I’m wrong just fire me.”

This reflection on what might have eased the cumulative pressure that helped derail Woods’ career:

“Perversely, in hindsight, I think if he could have taken a sabbatical from golf and undergone the 30-month Navy SEAL training course it would been better for him in the long run. He might have returned to golf reinvigorated, mentally refreshed and hungry. And he might have got something out of his system and prevented his humiliating fall from grace five years later.”

For all his fair-minded attempts to explain Woods, there’s no question that toward the end of the book, Willliams exacts revenge for not being absolved by the Woods’ team from any connection to his extra-marital affairs, and for the impersonal way he was fired.

This coarse path might undermine Williams’ credibility for many readers, but I would argue it was a genuine response true to Williams’ uncompromising personality. His is not the high road, but rather the old school, eye-for-an-eye road. It’s a memoir, and knowing Williams a little, this is who he is.

But finally, Williams’ is not devoid of self-awareness. At one point he neatly articulates the dilemma of anyone who wants to stand out in their field.

“When I look back at my career, I can see that sometimes I took it all too seriously. When I was with Tiger I was with someone who had the same mindset as me, so that when a tournament was over the focus went straight onto the next tournament and, as a result, when the success came we failed to actually enjoy it. The flipside is that that’s my personality – if I wasn’t like that in the first place, the success might not have come at all.”

There was a reason Williams was a rich “My Shot” subject (with Guy Yocom) in Golf Digest earlier this year. For all his gruffness, he’s intelligent, insightful, frank, and on his subject, extremely knowing. On balance, he’s given us an important golf book.