Steve Williams has caddied for some of golf’s greatest: Tiger Woods, Greg Norman and Adam Scott, to name a few.
The legendary Kiwi bagman sat down with Australian Golf Digest for a detailed chat about Woods, then and now, helping Scott break the Masters hoodoo and why it didn’t work out with Jason Day.
Twenty years have passed since Tiger Woods played the greatest stretch of golf the game has ever seen. And if those two decades have taught us anything, it’s how unlikely we are to witness such dominance again.
Woods’ 2000 season featured nine wins, including Major titles at the US Open, Open and PGA Championships. He won the first two of those Majors by margins of 15 and eight shots, respectively. Woods finished in the top five in 17 of 20 events.
Earlier this year marked 20 years since Woods became the fifth golfer to complete the career Grand Slam when he triumphed at The Open at St Andrews. “I don’t know if we’ll ever see that level of golf again,” Steve Williams tells Australian Golf Digest.
Williams – the New Zealander widely considered to be the greatest caddie in professional golf’s history – says former boss Woods’ 2000 season is less believable now than it was back then.
It is why Williams has no desire to return to golf as a caddie full-time. There is nothing else to achieve as a bagman, unless you think winning all four Majors in a calendar year is possible. Even then, Williams – to this day – considers Woods winning the last three Majors of 2000 and the 2001 Masters as a Grand Slam. You call it the ‘Tiger Slam’, Williams calls it “holding all four Majors trophies at one time”.
Williams, now 56, was coaxed out of retirement last year to work full-time for Australia’s Jason Day. But for whatever reason, the pair fizzled. In the six events Williams was on Day’s bag, he recorded two missed cuts and just one top-10 result.
Since then, Williams has happily retreated to Auckland, where he spends his time watching teenaged son, Jett, become an accomplished rower at Westlake Boys High School. “Rowing is a sport I knew nothing about until my son took it up,” Williams laughs. “So, it’s exciting to learn about what makes a rower.”
Australian Golf Digest: It’s been 20 years since Woods’ historic 2000 season, when he won the US Open at Pebble Beach, the Open Championship at St Andrews and the PGA Championship at Valhalla. What is it like to reflect on that year, his achievements, and those venues two decades later?
Williams: When I think of 2000, I think of a year blessed with iconic Major venues. For the most part, when they play Major championships at iconic venues, you seem to get great champions. If you look at the players who have won The Open at St Andrews (including Peter Thomson, Kel Nagle, Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo and Woods), it’s a pretty impressive list. I think those venues create a lot of excitement and the players who hold them closely to their hearts seem to excel. You’d love to win any US Open or British Open, but when you’ve won at Pebble Beach and when you’ve won at St Andrews, it’s an accomplishment that stands the test of time. The Open is probably the best championship in the world and to win it at St Andrews is something you’ll always be remembered for as a player. It’s such a special place to play golf.
Tiger winning The Open in 2000 and becoming the fifth player to complete the career Grand Slam is one of the most remarkable things anyone has ever achieved.
Tiger winning The Open in 2000 and becoming the fifth player to complete the career Grand Slam is one of the most remarkable things anyone has ever achieved in sport. The one thing that stands out is just the level of golf Tiger played that week. There are a couple tournaments that stand out from the monumental amount of wins he had (82 PGA Tour wins to date). He just put everything together at St Andrews: the ball-striking, the putting, the chipping… everything. It was one of those weeks when you truly couldn’t fathom anyone beating him. The US Open at Pebble Beach was very similar. It was a very memorable win because when he played at his best, it was very exciting to watch. Particularly if the conditions were tough and everyone else was struggling. It was mesmerising to watch someone as good as Tiger was play like that for four days under the most pressure our game can throw at you.
Is caddieing for Woods during that unfathomable 2000-2001 stretch your finest accomplishment?
If you’re asking what my finest accomplishment to come out of golf is, I’d definitely say it would be my wife and I playing a big part in the rebuilding of the oncology unit at the Starship hospital in Auckland. We were the founding donors that got it off the ground. That’s what I’m most proud of. But as far as an on-course achievement, it’d be hard to go past Tiger capturing the Masters in 2001 to become the only player in history to hold all four Major championship trophies at one time. That was a pretty special week. I don’t think it’s something any player will ever accomplish again. Whether you call it the “Tiger Slam” or the “Grand Slam” doesn’t matter to me; to hold all four Major championships at once is an astonishing achievement.
How impressive was it to watch Woods win the 2019 Masters against a field of younger players he once inspired to take up the game?
It was very compelling to watch. It just speaks volumes for Tiger’s experience. The Masters is obviously the only Major played at the same venue every year. Augusta rewards experience better than any other Major and any other golf course, for that matter. Every year, at some point during the Masters, (1992 Masters winner) Fred Couples gets his name on that leaderboard. Apart from Tiger, Couples would have the most experience of any active player who contests the Masters each year. The more times you play Augusta, the more you learn about the course and the more times you come across tricky putts. Last year, it was no surprise to see Tiger win given there is no better player when in the hunt for a Major. He showed exactly what you need to do and how to avoid what you can’t afford to do in those final holes of a Major.
That fifth green jacket brought Woods’ Majors tally up to 15. Now that he is three shy of equalling Jack Nicklaus’ record 18, would it surprise you to see Tiger win another four and eclipse him?
[Laughs] Tiger is the greatest player who has ever played golf. There is no player who plays better under pressure than he does. When he gets in a situation to win a golf tournament, he has an incredible ratio. Age is not on his side, but you’d never, ever put anything past him. There’s no reason not to believe he couldn’t slip that green jacket on again when the Masters returns in November. That is if he is fit, and that is very important. Over 72 holes, with Tiger’s knowledge and experience of Augusta, if he is in good form he will be near the lead on Sunday. To break Jack’s record is going to take a very special run of golf, but it’s certainly something he could absolutely achieve.
Due to COVID-19, the Masters will take place in November for the first time in its history. How do you think the Masters will play in the ‘fall’, as Americans call it?
Augusta National will be a stern test of golf in November. Cooler weather, with the chance of a day or two in the 60s (15-20°C) will make the course play longer. There will also be less chance of rain and cooler air, which should see firmer greens and that is when Augusta plays its hardest. Augusta will favour the big hitters with the course playing longer and the greens firmer. You’ll need to be coming into greens with shorter clubs than ever.
Your most heralded period as a caddie are the years you spent with Tiger, but you had great success with others. You started with Peter Thomson and went on to loop for Ian Baker-Finch, Raymond Floyd, Greg Norman and Adam Scott and most recently Jason Day. What was the greatest caddie call you made in your career?
Well I’d have to think, given the circumstances and given the nature of caddieing, it would be giving Adam the read on the final putt when he won the Masters in 2013. No Australian had ever won at Augusta, so giving him the read on the second playoff hole, on No.10, knowing this was going to be the last hole of the day with darkness, stands out as the call I’m most proud of making. When he sized up that putt, he asked me to read it, which I thought he might because it was getting dark. He read the putt a cup outside right and I said, “That’s not even close. It’s at least two-and-a-half cups.” And he asked was I sure and I said I was positive. He hit the putt with some authority, given it was a downhill putt with a large break and if that putt hadn’t gone in, it might still be rolling now [laughs]. Given the occasion, I was obviously aware no Australian had won the Masters and that I had been on Greg Norman’s bag when he was agonisingly close to winning on a number of occasions at Augusta. To be on the bag for Australia’s first win at the Masters and for it to be Adam’s first Major was surreal. He was feeling the pressure for himself and his country. He was the first Australian to put that green jacket on and hopefully that is going to pave the way for many more young Australians to put that green jacket on in future. That was pretty damn special.
What are those 10 or 15 seconds like from making a caddie call like that until the shot or putt is struck by your player?
Well, you don’t really think of it like that. When someone asks you for a read or advice, whether it’s the first hole of a regular PGA Tour event or in a playoff for a Major championship, your thinking doesn’t change. You can’t let the occasion influence what you’re doing. A caddie is not going to make every correct call or yardage. But I think what separates the best caddies are the guys who are able to put everything out of their mind and trust what they see, and have the player trust them, on the big occasions.
You most recently caddied for Australia’s former world No.1, Jason Day. What was the whole experience like and why didn’t it work?
Jason Day is obviously a fantastic player. But I would openly describe him as a modern player: he uses a lot of technology, relies on technology. Whereas I am, no question, an old-school caddie. I caddied by eyesight and by feel. Given all the technology that is available today, it was very difficult to come back and caddie in this era. Today’s yardage books indicate the degree of uphill or downhill on every yardage in the book. Players add that into the equation. Well, I’ve never done that. I just tell the player if the shot is uphill or downhill. Players now have comprehensive data on how far the ball goes in different temperatures. That’s not something I ever did. I just took general notice of the temperature.
Which young or modern player impresses you most?
There’s no doubt it’s Rory McIlroy. If there was ever someone I think could join that club of players who have won all four Major championships, it’s Rory. He is a very, very impressive player and when he puts everything together, he is unbeatable in a similar way that Tiger was at his peak.
Would you ever come back as a caddie full-time?
[Laughs] I can 100 percent say that I will not return as a caddie, certainly not on a full-time basis. It would be fun to caddie the odd event, but I’m turning my attention to things like my son’s rowing and my (saloon car) racing. I travel a lot and I am in the promotional side of racing now, too. That’s something I’m passionate about and learning about – running racing events on my own.
Do you enjoy helping up-and-coming New Zealand professional golfers and caddies?
Yeah, I get requests like that all the time. Lots of players ask me what it takes to play on the tour. I do that quite regularly, actually. A lot of guys also approach me about how they can get into caddieing. That’s something I really enjoy.
What is the most valuable lesson you learned in your career as a caddie?
The most valuable lesson would be to always say what you think. A good caddie is someone who can summarise the situation well but also deliver it with confidence. You don’t want a situation where you could have helped a golfer but didn’t speak up and it cost them the tournament. That’s something I treat very seriously as a caddie.