by Jim Litke
(AP)—Used to be few things in sports made you feel more foolish than second-guessing Tiger Woods. So maybe throwing longtime caddie and close pal Steve Williams overboard after a dozen years and six times that many wins around the world together will pay dividends in the long run.
The guess here, though, is maybe not. You can’t be in a good place surrounded by yes men.
It’s worth remembering that until Woods’ SUV went pin-balling down the driveway 20 months ago, he rarely put a foot down wrong in his career.
He set tongues wagging by changing coaches and twice overhauling a swing just about everybody else considered the picture of perfection—then had the last laugh by tearing off two of the most sublime championship runs golf has ever seen.
At the same time, despite one marketing “pro” after another insisting Woods’ flare-ups on the course and his ice-cold demeanor off it would limit his appeal, he built the richest and deepest portfolio of top-shelf sponsors any star had ever assembled.
But that was then.
Now, Woods is in exile, holed up in another Florida mansion with a bad leg and one fewer friend whose counsel he can trust.
The public-relations advice he’s been getting since that stunning fall from grace is no better than the lessons overseen by swing coach Sean Foley, Woods’ flakiest hire yet.
Neither his image nor his golf game has improved much.
So while it’s hard to fault Woods for trying to change things up, dumping Steve Williams was probably the wrong place to start.
No one else in Tiger’s entourage had the guts to tell him the truth, something Williams did one last time on his way out the door.
“To have witnessed some of the greatest golf ever played has been a thrill, no two ways about it,” he told TV New Zealand in his first public appearance since the firing.
“It’s very difficult to know if he’ll ever come back. He’s had a lengthy time away from the game, he’s been not very competitive the last two years, with the exception of a couple tournaments, he’s battled injuries and obviously a major swing change and he hasn’t played any golf of any regularity for some time. So it’s a tall mountain to climb.
“But if anybody’s going to do it,” Williams added a moment later, “he’s somebody that can.”
To be fair, most of the rest of what Williams said was not nearly that gracious. ‘
He complained about his own reputation getting dragged along in the mud and then essentially wasting the past two years of his professional life waiting to see whether Woods would recapture any of his magic and at least a measure of his respect.
The answer turned out to be “no” on both counts.
Yet Williams deserved a more graceful exit than the clumsy, prolonged and secretive way his boss finally doled out the pink slip.
Then again, he also made millions keeping whatever secrets he did know to himself while toting Woods’ bag—nearly $9 million, based on an estimated 10 percent of the winnings during their partnership—and it’s hard to imagine either of them ever feeling that flush again.
When Woods fired Mike “Fluff” Cowan and later Butch Harmon, his first pro caddie and coach, he soaked up the criticism that followed and turned it into motivational fuel. In the narrative he and his father, Earl, had carefully crafted since his childhood, anything and everything had to be sacrificed in the service of getting better.
Personal and professional relationships and responsibilities were shrugged off, or pawned off, if they got in the way of winning. And as long as he kept doing that, Woods had precious little reason to change the story, even if the untold half involved a string of late-night romps with porn stars and waitresses that made all of it seem like a lie.
It’s probably a measure of how honest Williams was around Woods that he, too, knew so little about where the boss was spending most of his free evenings; that, or else he’s saving the really unsavory stuff for his own book. Either way, his protestations of innocence ring true for the time being.
“That was the most difficult period that I’ve ever been through in my life. I’m pretty hardheaded and took it probably a lot better than my wife and family did, but there’s no way that I should have been put through that,” Williams said in the same interview.
“My name should have been cleared immediately. It wasn’t and that’s what makes it even more disappointing what’s transpired. I never really got pardoned from that scandal, so the timing of it is extraordinary.”
Not surprising. Woods shrugged off any responsibility for his role in the split, releasing a statement on his website thanking Williams and adding, “but I think it’s time for a change.”
But maybe Woods should have looked in the mirror first. If Williams was second-guessing more than just his choice of whether to hit the 6- or 7-iron from the fairway, well, he was the only one in Woods’ inner circle willing to tell him how much the reflection had changed.
Money buys all kind of things, but Woods will have a tough time finding loyalty like that.
(Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)