Colin Byrne: Experience of Steve Williams can take Jason Day back to the top
New player and caddie duo makes for an intriguing combination
Jason Day and his caddie, Steve Williams, talk on the second hole during the first round of the 2019 US Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links. Photo: Harry How/Getty Images
As the heat index reached a record high in San Francisco international airport last Tuesday the world’s best golfers continued their preparation for the 119th US Open down the coast on the fresher Monterey peninsula. It was an idyllic scene with the cool and serene backdrop of the shimmering Pacific Ocean frequently distracting this caddie from his prime duties on many holes.
Being able to spot a golfer or a caddie on surrounding fairways by their inimitable gait is an endless fascination to me. So when I looked down the 14th fairway to try to figure out the lunging caddie action of the looper behind us I could only surmise that it was Steve Williams or another caddie doing a very good impression of him pounding up the fairway. Steve always looks like he is going somewhere with intent.
He hasn’t been spotted on tour for a number of years so whose bag was he lugging? His employer, Jason Day, did not have such a distinctive step. Despite the Australian having been so dominant back in 2015 and holding the world number one position for so long, it was Tiger Woods' famous ex-caddie who cut the more recognisable figure.
Jason is having a very average year by his standards, he is currently 38th in the FedEx Cup standings and has not won for over a year. He got to number one in the world in 2015 with his coach and life-long friend Colin Swatton caddying for him. As with most caddie/player relationships, if things are not quite working out, well the old adage of a change being as good as a rest tends to be applied. That means firing the caddie. Colin went back to being simply a coach and friend and Jason drafted in two of his best mates from back home, Luke Reardon and Rika Batibasaga, to caddie for him.
Obviously Jason wanted to be around familiar people, much like Rory McIlroy has chosen his best friend, Harry Diamond, to caddie for him. In fact it is the most worrying current trend in the business for us professional caddies that so many of us have been replaced by friends and family. It is of course the players prerogative and there is nowhere better than the tour for trends to establish themselves quickly. Perhaps Jason’s recent selection of the most successful caddie ever, in the New Zealander Williams, will mark the turning of the friends and family tide in the caddie shack.
The notion of change seems to have a very positive effect on a player. There have been four occasions this year on the European Tour already where a caddie and player have decided to part company and that decision has led to four victories. These were with the old caddie on their final loops.
There is no doubt that a new caddie often has a very positive impact on the player, frequently on the first outing. So all eyes will be focused on the burgeoning Day/Williams combination to see what synergy it may have on the only thing that ultimately matters, performance.
Pebble Beach is an interesting venue for a major from a strategic perspective because it does not necessarily favour a long hitter. It is very much a positioning and accuracy course rather than a power challenge. Given Jason’s length off the tee, it would be easier for Steve to have an impact on a bigger golf course. Jason will probably only hit a handful of drivers a round. That is not to say that long hitters cannot adopt a sensible strategic policy, it just means they cannot take advantage of their fire power.
Without the length edge, it is not a great venue for Brooks Koepka to be vying for a hat-trick of US Opens. The key around Pebble is to stay below the hole, because if you have downhill putts it is impossible to be aggressive and if you miss the greens long you will need a miracle to chip it close to the pin. The rough is typical, gnarly and uncompromising US Open offering.
So what can Steve do to turn Jason back on track ? Or what does Jason think he is lacking in his approach that can change his fortune?
I have known Steve for over 30 years and the one constant attribute of his is consistency. He has always been the same pre and post Tiger. Success or absence has not changed him. If you were feeling a little uncertain, as we all can do at times, he would be a very good advisor to remove any doubt. Obviously getting the right club and the right strategy is one of the primary tasks of a modern caddie. It can often be difficult to persuade a player to do the right thing, whether due to uncertainty or trust. Steve is a person who has the character to remove doubt, he reads the game very well and when he speaks its hard not to listen.
But this dominant advisory role may not always sit well with strong, idiosyncratic players who are ultimately the final decision makers and always the boss. It’s a delicate balance between advising and controlling.
When Steve caddied for Adam Scott at the Bridgestone Invitational in 2011 after he finished working for Tiger, David Feherty spotted a great broadcasting opportunity by speaking to caddie Williams after the victory for longer than he spoke to the player Scott. Steve was passionate and excited by the redeeming victory, showing that he was capable of winning with anyone not just Tiger.
Steve Williams is back. He is driven and demanding of his player. To call him out of retirement is a statement of intent by his new Australian boss. He admitted that he would only return to caddying for one of three players. Day was on that very short list. I know he would not come back for just any golfer, it would only be with one he thinks can offer his dynamic style of caddying to with his eye steadily fixed on the ultimate prize. Maybe that is where his powerful gait is taking him and his player – back to the top.