Steve Williams speaks up

Figuring it was a longshot, I began trying to track down Steve Williams in mid-November, armed only with an e-mail address and a couple of weeks to write a story on Tiger Woods for this magazine's Newsmakers of the Year issue. Williams, who has caddied for Woods since 1999, was with Tiger in Asia at the time. The two men then would fly to Hawaii so Woods could pick up his annual first-place check in the PGA of America's Grand Slam of Golf, and somewhere near the end of the month, Williams would return to his native New Zealand.

In other words, I couldn't count on input from either guy for the piece. As much as I wanted Tiger, the man on his bag felt like a better source in terms of comparing Woods' 2006 season to his epic 2000. Tiger wasn't going to give me much even if he did call back or answer my e-mail. Although I had interviewed Williams just once before, he was my primary target.

We missed each other at least three times on both sides of the story's deadline, but Williams kept leaving messages -- an extreme rarity even with guys you know well. Beyond that courtesy, the 20-minute conversation we had once we finally connected was some of the most insightful time I spent on the phone all year. Too late for the Newsmakers issue, Williams' thoughts and observations are no less interesting two weeks later.

On 2006 vs. 2000: "I think the years are pretty comparable. He definitely was more consistent in '06, and that's because he has a far better understanding of the mechanics of his golf swing. When things aren't going well now, he knows why. No doubt, he putted much better in 2000. It's pretty close [which year was better]."

On the difference in Woods' swing under current coach Hank Haney than when he worked with Butch Harmon: "They're very different, no question about it. You can really see it if you watch it in slow motion. He holds off the release much longer now. With Butch, he almost flicked at it. At the point of contact, the difference is like night and day."

On Woods' putting struggles in the first half of '06: "I keep very comprehensive details of Tiger's statistics. No question, the difference between his winning and not winning comes down to putting. My statistics tell you that if he plays 72 holes without a three-putt, his chances of a victory are about 80 percent. In 2000 he had several stretches of more than 100 straight holes without a three-putt -- I believe he got to 258 at one point. He had only one stretch longer than 100 holes this year."

It's almost obscene to think Woods won eight times (10 if you count Dubai and last week's Target World Challenge) despite a relatively sloppy year on the greens, which is one reason why I see unprecedented dominance from him in 2007. He won't throw away a chance to win the Masters with his putter, as he did in '06. He won't miss three starts due to the death of his father, a life event that motivated Tiger throughout the summer but still caused him to miss Wachovia, the EDS Byron Nelson and the Memorial in the spring.

There's also the altered-landscape factor. Phil Mickelson did nothing after the U.S. Open meltdown and must prove that ordeal is a blip in his past, not a burden on his future. Ernie Els hasn't won in the U.S. in 2½ years and has struggled to reclaim his status among the game's elite since knee surgery in 2005. Vijay Singh comes off a one-victory season and turns 44 in February. Adam Scott has yet to contend on Sunday at a major. Sergio Garcia has done that a bunch of times and walked away empty-handed, meaning two of golf's top young stars are standing at opposite ends of the same brick wall.

If 2006 featured the long-awaited emergence of several players younger than Tiger -- Geoff Ogilvy, Luke Donald and Trevor Immelman all made obvious strides -- Garcia's final-round flameout alongside Woods at the British Open and Donald's demise in the same situation at the PGA brought jarring reality to the perspective. Youth must walk before it can run, but even when you're running, it's tough to catch a speeding train.

Tiger won the year's final two majors without breaking a sweat down the stretch. He carries enormous momentum into the start of the FedEx Cup era, and it's worth mentioning he has ruled the World Golf Championships in merciless fashion since those events were conceived in 1999. The more high-profile tournaments you put on the schedule, the less beatable he becomes, a trait unlikely to change in the game's current competitive state.

So buckle up. Woods never has stood more poised to outperform even himself, which would make 2007 a year better than any we've already seen. Given the man's constant revisions to golf history, that might be saying a lot without saying much at all.

John Hawkins is a senior writer for Golf World magazine