JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - After a year that couldn't end soon enough, one rocked by a sex scandal and divorce, a major swing change on the golf course and the loss of four major corporate sponsors off it, Tiger Woods was asked about the one constant in his career - his caddie, Steve Williams.
"He's been a heck of a caddie, there's no doubt about that," Woods said last December as he signed autographs. Then he stopped for a moment, looked up to make eye contact and added with emphasis, "And he's a great friend."
Somewhere along the bumpy path, the relationship soured.
Despite being one of Woods' best friends, Williams felt like an outsider the way he was kept in the dark about Woods' schedule and recovery from leg injuries. Woods was annoyed when his caddie of 12 years chose to work for Adam Scott at the U.S. Open, then signed up to work for the Australian again at the AT&T National and the British Open.
One of golf's most successful player-caddie partnerships ended in a board room at Aronimink Golf Club outside Philadelphia two weeks ago when Woods fired his caddie. They both kept the news private until Wednesday, when Woods announced on his website that he and Williams will no longer be working together.
Williams posted a statement on his website that showed this was anything but an amicable split.
"Needless to say, this came as a shock," said Williams, who changed the photo on his website to show him carrying Scott's bag. "Given the circumstances of the past 18 months working through Tiger's scandal, a new coach and with it a major swing and Tiger battling through injuries, I am very disappointed to end our very successful partnership at this time."
They started at the 1999 Bay Hill Invitational and won their first major at Medinah that summer when Woods called in Williams on a crucial par putt on the 18th hole that he made to hold off Sergio Garcia. They won 72 times around the world, and 13 majors. No other caddie has experienced so many Grand Slam moments.
It ended with a stock line used on so many other caddie firings.
"I want to express my deepest gratitude to Stevie for all his help, but I think it's time for a change," Woods said said on his website. "Stevie is an outstanding caddie and a friend and has been instrumental in many of my accomplishments. I wish him great success in the future."
Woods didn't say who would replace Williams - one of only two caddies he has employed on a regular basis - or when he might return to golf.
Williams was not surprised he was let go - he wondered aloud in the spring whether it was getting stale. But he was curious about the timing of it. He stuck with Woods during the worst of it last year - "That's what friends do," he once said - and felt as though Woods were coming around in golf and in life until injuries intervened.
"A player has the right to fire a caddie at any given time," Williams said from his summer home in Oregon. "And for a player when he's not playing at his best for extended period of time, it's not uncommon to change caddies, coaches, psychologists or bring on a psychologist. We all know the business. I have no problem being fired. But I'm disappointed in the timing of it."
When asked over the weekend at the British Open if he was still working for Woods, Williams grinned and said, "Why would you ask a question like that?" He never answered the question, but gave no indication that he would not caddie for Woods when he did return.
Turns out he had known for two weeks, and kept quiet out of respect for Scott.
More than a caddie, Woods and Williams had been close friends. Both got engaged while on safari after The Presidents Cup in South Africa, and they were in each other's weddings. Woods played the New Zealand Open in 2002 as a favor to Williams (he also received a $2 million appearance fee), and he took an interest in Williams' race car driving by taking part in a celebrity race on the dirt tracks of New Zealand.
The relationship began showing signs of strain after Woods crashed his car on Thanksgiving night, followed by stunning revelations of serial adultery.
Despite their friendship, Williams went months without hearing anything from Woods. And it became awkward at times because Woods' former wife and Williams' wife were close friends. On the golf course, their body language looked different. There were some tournaments where Williams was walking 30 yards ahead of him.
In recent months, Williams was feeling out of touch during Woods' rehabilitation. He was not aware that Woods did not plan to compete in the U.S. Open until after flying to Oregon from New Zealand, where Williams lives most of the year.
He declined to say whether Woods gave him a specific reason.
Williams has been labeled a bully over the years while working for Woods amid a constant circus. At the 2002 Skins Game, he put a camera into the pond when a photographer snapped a picture in the middle of Woods' swing on the final hole. At the 2004 U.S. Open, he kicked the lens of a New York Daily News photographer, and took the camera away from a fan who turned out to be an off-duty policeman.
He also brought Woods undue attention toward the end of 2008 by making disparaging remarks about Phil Mickelson during a charity dinner in New Zealand, then repeating them when a reporter called for comment the following day. Woods intervened and told Williams to apologize.
Williams is only the second caddie that Woods has hired on a regular basis during his 14-year career on the PGA Tour. He started with Mike "Fluff" Cowan, whom he fired after the Nissan Open at Riviera in 1999. His childhood friend, Bryon Bell, caddied for Woods when he won the Buick Invitational in 1999, and Woods gave Bell a chance to "defend" at Torrey Pines in 2000 when Woods was going for a seventh straight PGA Tour win.
The other professional caddie he has used was Billy Foster at the 2005 Presidents Cup when Williams stayed home for the birth of his son. Joe LaCava, the longtime looper for Fred Couples, was supposed to work for Woods at that Presidents Cup until Couples was a captain's pick.
LaCava left Couples two months ago and now works for Dustin Johnson.
There was a time that most caddies would drop everything for a chance to work for Woods, who has had 11 seasons making at least $5 million on the PGA Tour, and has twice topped $10 million in one season. The demands are far greater these days, and there is more secrecy than ever in Woods' camp. On the course, Woods occasionally has shown signs of turning his game around - he shot 30 on the front nine at the Masters - but still has gone nearly two years without a PGA Tour win.