When Tiger Woods and his caddie Steve Williams recently put asunder their remarkably successful partnership, the news media clamored about the "divorce." The publicity didn't quite reach that of celebrity breakups in Hollywood, but the scandal-loving public reveled in the gossipy froth.
On the other hand, more seasoned golf observers viewed the Williams dumping as business as usual in the professional golf industry. Jerry Potter, a former golf writer for Gannett and USA Today, shrugged and said, "Caddies come and go. Changes on the bag should be expected."
The Golf Channel's Jason Sobel reinforces Potter's assessment by drawing upon an old chestnut in pro golf: "There are two types of caddies -- those who have just been fired and those who are about to be fired."
Caddies have been part of golf for at least 300 years and their relationships with players have been as varied as any human interaction. The nature of the profession has evolved in that time until now the process of hiring caddies is a cross between the Dating Game and an American Idol audition. All modern pros have replaced caddies at some point, often citing only the need for "a different direction," a phrase made popular by pro football team owners and college athletic directors.
The notoriously secretive Woods followed that line and offered no meaningful explanation for his dismissal of Williams. However, the media has speculated that Tiger had deemed Steve to be off the reservation by carrying for Australian Adam Scott in two tournaments as Woods recuperates from injuries.
Regardless of the reason for partnership's dissolution, one can admire the success the pair enjoyed since 1999 -- 13 of Tiger's 14 major championships, 62 of 71 PGA Tour victories and a clutch of other wins. Furthermore, even a casual fan might grant Williams a measure of respect for his loyalty to Woods since the player's "troubles" began in November 2009. After sticking with Woods through scandal, injury and swing changes, Williams joined many when he viewed his dismissal as "disappointing."
Yet despite all the hoo-hah, Williams called the separation "inevitable," a word that golfers and caddies have used for years in describing caddie firings by big time players.
The player-caddie relationship is unique among sports, wedged between team sports and purely individual games such as tennis singles, running and NASCAR racing without a drafting partner. The Rules of Golf grant special status to a caddie, allowing him to advise and assist his player during a match. Successful golfers will always credit their caddies in some fashion.
The amount of help a caddie provides varies among the partnerships. Phil Mickelson and Jim "Bones" MacKay have worked together since 1992 and can finish each other's sentences. But there's a limit to MacKay's role, as Mickelson told Newsweek in 2001. "What I don't want Jim to do is tell me how to play." Bones has said that he provides "options" to Phil.
A successful caddie knows when to choose among his roles as mule, psychologist and nag. One sagely observer described the process of shifting functions: "You have to know when to stroke 'em and when to kick 'em."
The use of an assistant while playing golf began in Scotland, as did almost all of the important facets of the game. References to boys carrying golf clubs for players appeared in the 1620s, and the word caddie (or less often, caddy) gained widespread use in the mid-1700s.
Some have suggested that caddie evolved from "cadet," a French term for a family's youngest son, one required to learn a trade. However, British golf historian David Hamilton argues caddie arose from a Scottish term for multipurpose messengers and porters who hung about Scottish towns looking for work. Records refer to these men as "caddies." Hamilton concludes that golfers hired caddies to carry their clubs, just as gentlemen hired them to carry luggage in town. The caddie did not use a bag at first, but rather carried the clubs in the crook of his arm.
After golf migrated permanently to America in 1888, the caddie yard soon became the spawning ground for the first and second generations of American pros. Johnny McDermott, Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen led the way, followed later by Sam Snead, Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan.
Most early American pros and amateurs used caddies who worked at the clubs that hosted tournaments, with the loopers ranging from the stereotypical whiskey-breathed veteran to a youngster in short pants. The iconic image that arose from Francis Ouimet's historic win at the 1913 U.S. Open was a photograph of Ouimet walking with his 10-year-old caddie, Eddie Lowery.
Until 1974, all four professional major tournaments insisted that players use local caddies. The PGA Championship and British Open began accepting outside men in 1975, with the U.S. Open following suit a year later. The Masters finally relented in 1983.
Outside of the majors, pros of the 1950s who played in regular PGA tournaments drew caddies from a pool of locals and itinerants who trailed the tour like army camp followers. PGA historian Herb Graffis called these men "wandering" caddies, who also served as "chauffeurs, valets, club cleaners, alarm clocks, laundromat errand boys, club counters and travel agents."
By the time the PGA Tour emerged out of the PGA's Tournament Players Division in 1968, many players had already adopted the modern practice of keeping the same caddie on the bag. Arnold Palmer engaged Ernest "Creamy" Caroline in the mid-1960s and later fired him in 1975, reportedly for talking too much. Jack Nicklaus used Angelo Argea from 1963 until 1982, but the great player never asked Angie for advice. Potter explained: "Jack told me that the most important thing for a caddie to know is the three ups: show up, keep up and shut up."
Argea worked only three of Jack's major wins -- two PGA Championships and an U.S. Open, since Nicklaus mostly used local caddies for the big events. Others did the same at the British Open even after the tournament welcomed outside caddies. Palmer used Englishman Tip Anderson, and Tom Watson won five Opens with the Brit Alfie Fyles, who viewed modern caddies with contempt. "All you got left is bag-carriers," Alfie complained. "All they can do is give a golfer a weather report, not the right club."
At home, Watson first teamed with Bruce Edwards in 1973, and except for a brief hiatus 1989-1992, the two men had long and productive partnership. Edwards died of ALS at age 49 in 2004, and many hold his relationship with Watson as a shining example of a winning collaboration on the golf course.
Other longer than average player-caddie relationships included Lee Trevino and Herman Mitchell, Fred Couples and Joe LaCava, Tom Lehman and Andy Martinez, Mark O'Meara and Greg Rita, and Peter Jacobsen and Mike "Fluff" Cowan. The other thousand or so PGA Tour players in the past 50 years have changed caddies more frequently, some as often as they try out new putters.
While players want winning chemistry, caddies usually want to stick with a man who is making big money. It appears that most PGA Tour caddies today earn a fixed weekly sum -- $1,000 to $1,500 -- plus a percentage of their player's winnings. The most frequently quoted rates are 5 percent for making the cut, 7 percent for top-10s and 10 percent for wins. Tiger won about $91 million in official prize money with Williams, so Steve was making some hay.
When Tiger joined the PGA Tour in 1996, he hired Fluff Cowan away from Jacobsen. The wily veteran caddie seemed a good choice to guide the immature yet incredibly talented 20-year-old player. That union lasted only 30 months before Woods fired Cowan. Insiders said that Fluff had irked Team Tiger by appearing in TV advertisements and speaking publicly about his pay -- $1,000 a week, with a sliding scale of 8, 9, and 10 percent of winnings.
Cowan's fate paralleled that of Pete Bender, Greg Norman's caddie in 1987. Norman called Bender and announced, "It's time for a change." Many thought that the outspoken Bender had drawn too much attention to himself. Raphael Tennenbaum wrote about the breakup in a 1994 Golf Magazine article. "To a golfer, a boastful caddie is like a musical toupee: no matter how well the thing suits him, it defeats its own purpose."
Tiger's public statement upon Cowan's departure is remarkably similar to the one he issued last week, perhaps reflective of either the consistency of his agent's spin, or Woods's continuing "none-of-your-business" attitude.
"I appreciate the support which Fluff has provided . . . time to move on . . . we will remain friends."
"I want to express my deepest gratitude to Stevie for all his help . . . it's time for a change . . . Stevie is an outstanding caddie and a friend."
Potter, now retired, tries to put the caddie kerfuffle in a larger Woods context. "Tiger is facing big changes in his life and cutting Steve is one of his easy decisions. But remember, caddies know a lot of things about their player that no one else needs to know. Eventually, that becomes such a big factor that the two have to separate."
ABOUT THE WRITER
Michael K. Bohn is the author of "Money Golf," a history of the gentlemanly wager on the golf course, and more recently, "Heroes & Ballyhoo: How the Golden Age of the 1920s Transformed American Sports."
Bohn also has written "The Achille Lauro Hijacking: Lessons in the Politics and Prejudice of Terrorism" (2004), and "Nerve Center: Inside the White House Situation Room" (2003). He served as director of the White House Situation Room, the president's alert center and crisis management facility, during Ronald Reagan's second term. Bohn was a U.S. naval intelligence officer from 1968 to 1988.