As tournament host of this week's Chevron World Challenge in California, Tiger Woods would normally be thrilled to see a packed press room – but today might prove the exception. The world No 1 will be aware that the mass of media will not be at his traditional eve-of-event conference simply to inquire about the progress of his restructured knee. They will be there to ask about his caddie's extraordinary outburst against Phil Mickelson.
Woods will, no doubt, try to flat-bat the inquisitions, just as he always does so expertly. Except this time that will not be straightforward. For when Steve Williams called the second most famous golfer in the world "a prick" at a charity evening in New Zealand last week he opened a can of worms that have proceeded to slither all over the game's genteel fairways. The sport will demand an answer, although quite what it anticipates that answer to be is anyone's guess.
It would be a huge surprise if Woods decides to sack Williams, the gruff Kiwi who is widely disliked on tour but who is held in such affection by his employer. Eighteen months ago, Woods flew all the way to Auckland to be the best man at his bag-carrier's wedding and after the nuptials the pair (Woods and Williams, that is, not Williams and Mrs Williams) consummated their bond by doing a bungee jump together. Williams is commonly referred to as Woods's best friend and the 14-time major winner is legendarily guarded about letting anyone new into his coterie. It is fair to surmise that to earn his dismissal, Williams, who has earned many millions through the association, would have to do something really serious. Like, lose Tiger's putter or even his red shirt.
Yet the gaffer is angry and Williams was way off mark when saying in the aftermath of his ill-considered rant at a golf club in Taranaki – "I wouldn't call him [Mickelson] a great player ... 'cause I think he's a prick" – that he doubted whether Woods would be greatly bothered. "He knows the media," said Williams. "You make a comment and they blow it all out of proportion. It's no big deal." But it is, most definitely, a big deal and that is largely because in defending himself against the outrage which greeted his slander, Williams embroiled Woods into the tawdry affair. "I was simply being honest and said they don't get along," Williams told a New Zealand newspaper, before adding: "I don't particularly like the guy myself. He pays me no respect at all and hence I don't pay him any respect. It's no secret we don't get along, either."
It is the "either" in that quote which will inevitably attract much of the focus. While it is the worst-kept secret in the game that Woods and Mickelson are not exactly bosom buddies, it had been believed that, of late, there had been something of a thawing in their frosty relationship. They are known to exchange friendly banter in the locker room, play ping-pong in the American team-room and if there is any animosity still lingering from their chalk-and-cheese pairing in the 2004 Ryder Cup then it has been kept well-hidden. Until now. This controversy could just re-open the wounds that will do the game's gentlemanly reputation no good whatsoever. There may be promoters, journalists and television executives rubbing their hands together, but the traditionalists will only be clasping their mitts over their eyes and calling for Williams' P45.
Mickelson, himself, may even be counted among this firing squad, certainly if his statement released on Sunday night is anything to go by. That the world No 3 chose to respond at all has been taken as meaning that he and his advisers were keen to keep the controversy alive in the American press; indeed, to get it into the American press, which is notoriously coy when it comes to printing profanities. And his parting shot was carefully aimed. "After seeing Steve Williams' comments all I could think of was how lucky I am to have a class act like Bones [his caddie, Jim Mackay] on my bag and representing me," he said.
Mickelson would be right to want blood, if only for the fact that if Mackay had made similarly crude remarks against Woods it would have been demanded that the blasphemous caddie be stripped of his bib immediately. His fury was intensified by Williams, in the same fundraising Q&A, recounting a story of a heckler shouting "Nice tits!" at Mickelson. Everyone connected with big-time golf knows that this, in fact, happened to the Scot Colin Montgomerie and Mickelson alluded to this in his statement.
This part of the attack plainly touched a nerve and that may just be because it reminded of another cruel joke supposedly circulated by members in or around Tiger's entourage. I certainly first heard it off a person with close connections to the Woods camp. “What's the difference between Phil Mickelson and his wife Amy?” went the wisecrack. “One has fake tits and a real smile…”
Of course, all of this playground silliness was blessedly rooted in the past, but now it promises to blight the present and in particular Woods's comeback from his knee reconstruction (which will reportedly occur some time around March). If Woods stands by his man as his own statement signifies he will – while calling Williams's remarks "inappropriate" and saying he "respected" Mickelson, he also said that the matter had been "discussed and dealt with" – then the atmosphere is bound to be tense and go way, way beyond that if and when the pair are required to play with each other.
What does already seem a given is that Woods will have to employ another caddie for this year's Presidents Cup in Los Angeles and possible even for 2010's Ryder Cup in Newport. No captain worthy of his team's camaraderie would want Mickelson and Williams in the same room and only a very weak captain would countenance it. The bristling enmity between Woods and Mickelson was long credited as being one of the factors for the American's desultory performances in the Ryder Cup, but since the Kentucky glory in September much has been made of the new-found Starred and Striped bonhomie. Has this been threatened already?
Woods has long been depicted as the ultimate individual sportsman who does not care for the feelings of his rivals. But now golf is demanding that he must. Williams's biggest crime could well be in forcing Tiger to be reverential to Leftie. If Woods doesn't – starting today – then the feud, mythical or not, truly will be blown out of all proportion.