By Doug Ferguson, The Associated Press
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Tiger Woods and Steve Williams were together for 12 years and some 250 tournaments, a player-caddie relationship that produced 72 wins, 13 majors and a friendship so strong that each served in the other's wedding.
It ended Wednesday with a stock line from Woods that players use when firing a caddie -- "It's time for a change."
The announcement on his website only deepened the mystery around Woods, who has fallen to No. 20 in the world and hasn't played since May because of injuries to his left leg that first were described as "minor."
In the 20 months since Woods was caught having multiple extramarital affairs, he has lost four major sponsors, changed swing coaches, was divorced from his wife and now has cut loose his caddie.
"I want to express my deepest gratitude to Stevie for all his help, but I think it's time for a change," Woods said. "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 did not say who would replace Williams -- one of only two caddies he has employed on a regular basis -- or when he might return to golf.
"Needless to say, this came as a shock," Williams said in a statement posted on his own website.
Williams, who previously worked for Greg Norman and Raymond Floyd, worked the last three tournaments for Adam Scott. That included the U.S. Open and British Open, which Woods skipped while trying to let his left leg heal.
"A player has the right to fire a caddie at any given time," Williams told The Associated Press 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.
Williams said he met with Woods in a board room at Aronimink after the final round of the AT&T National on July 3, and Woods told him they would no longer work together. Williams said they agreed not to say anything until after the British Open, to keep from being a distraction to 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' ex-wife and Williams' wife were close friends. On the golf course, their body language looked different, and Williams wondered aloud in the spring if the player-caddie relationship was getting stale.
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.
"Given the circumstances of the past 18 months working through Tiger's scandal, a new coach and with it a major swing change and Tiger battling through injuries, I am very disappointed to end our very successful partnership at this time," Williams said on his website.
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.