Growing up in the American South in a small rural community, one generation removed from segregated schools and water fountains, it was not uncommon for me to hear racially insensitive comments. I was hardly ever the direct focus of these insults. When my white friends freely used the N-word or talked about the size of a black person's nose or lips or told a joke about their black maid, they were never directing the insults at me. They thought that they could get away with racist comments as long as they didn't make these insults personal. I was OK. I was their friend, not the stereotypes and caricatures that they held of many of the black people that they saw on TV and in their kitchens.
I don't know how Steve Williams and Tiger Woods talked when they were alone. But the subject of race must have come up a time or two in the 12 years that they worked together. Tiger must have told Steve how he really felt after Fuzzy Zoeller joked that Tiger would serve a soul food dinner after he won the 1997 Masters. They must have talked about Kelly Tilghman's unfortunate lynching metaphor about Tiger in 2008. Tiger must have let Steve in on the pressure that he sometimes felt to be an advocate for racial causes, when all he wanted to do was play golf.
Steve knew the deal and for 12 years he was Tiger's Man Friday, his caddie and his servant. But then Tiger fired him earlier this year and all the resentment that Steve had stored over the years toward his former boss poured from his heart in an angry and self-destructive way.
Does Steve reportedly saying, "It was my aim to shove it up that black arse---" about Williams' celebration after Adam Scott's win at the WGC-Bridgestone -- make him a racist? I'm not sure, but couldn't he have made the point he wanted to show his boss up without resorting to the use of a racial modifier? I'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt, even after he gave the kind of apology that quietly scolded many of us for being so politically correct.
"I now realize how my comments could be construed as racist," Williams said. "However I assure you that was not my intent. I sincerely apologize to Tiger and anyone else I have offended."
This apology reminds me of some of the mea culpas delivered by Southern whites and even some Northerners over the years. One hot Sunday afternoon in the Mississippi Delta comes to mind. A middle-aged black woman argues with a white convenience store owner after he called her teenage son a boy.
"I didn't mean nothing by it," the man said.
"If you didn't mean nothing by it, then why did you say it?" said the woman.
The woman's question is one that Steve Williams should ponder for a while. Sure, he has the right to say nothing more on this issue, but he shouldn't expect a free ride for using language that is perceived to be racially insensitive.
His apology makes you wonder how we are to be assured that his remarks were not purposefully racist. Has he done something to demonstrate a fondness for racial equality? Working all these years for a black man certainly doesn't make him a card-carrying member of the NAACP.
Tiger is never going to say much on the matter. His agent said only that the comments were "regrettable." Being reminded that he is partly African-American has never been one of Tiger's favorite subjects. But that's his prerogative. And there shouldn't be this great faceoff between Steve and Tiger in Australia. This minor saga shouldn't overshadow the Presidents Cup or the Australian Open.
In the end all of this just proves an old truism served up by William Faulkner before many of us were born: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."
Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.