Debating current affairs
Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: One wrong word and it's judgment day

Australian golfer Adam Scott (right) is sticking with his New Zealand caddie Steve Williams. Photo / AP
Australian golfer Adam Scott (right) is sticking with his New Zealand caddie Steve Williams. Photo / AP

So much then for the principle that actions speak louder than words. These days, it seems, one word can drown out a host of activities.

Steve Williams caddied for Tiger Woods for 12 years, during which time their hugs and high-fives were as much a feature of the golf scene as the cries of "You the man".

Until their friendship crumbled, like so much else after Woods' disgrace, they were golf's leading double act, having taken the golfer-caddie relationship to a new level of trust and comradeship.

But one wrong word at a beery knees-up apparently overshadows the mountain of evidence that Williams doesn't have a problem with the colour of Woods' skin. He's been tried in the court of media opinion and found guilty of being a racist.

The Independent was one of the more vigorous prosecutors. In its opening statement, headlined 'Williams commits career suicide with Woods race slur', reporter James Corrigan described the caddie's comment as "an appalling racial attack" and predicted, "With racism such a hot topic throughout sport, there will be no way back for him."

A day later Williams still had a job and the needle on Corrigan's outrage-meter was in the red zone.

He chided Australian golfer Adam Scott for not sacking Williams and warned that "recrimination is brewing; the demand to punish will become too great to ignore. The authorities should be ashamed. They must banish a man who is at very best dim-witted with racial tones reverberating around that vast ego."

Having acted as judge and jury, the media couldn't contain its frustration at having to leave the execution to others who lacked their punitive zeal.

After Woods' emphatic declaration that Williams wasn't a racist, another Independent reporter wrote that "it will puzzle a lot of people why Woods decided to give his former caddie such an easy ride." Throughout this affair those directly involved and affected have been more measured and less judgmental than the professional observers.

Woods preferred to assess Williams on the basis of first-hand experience rather than a one-off remark.

Scott and others who were present when the incident took place felt the context was a mitigating factor: "There were a lot of things said last night," said Irish golfer Graeme McDowell. "Jokes were made, fun was taken and things got a little bit out of hand. I don't think Stevie was trying to be racial. I think he was trying to be funny." And failing miserably. But as Greg Norman pointed out, "We've all made stupid comments at stupid times."

And the golfing authorities got their response about right: "We consider the remarks entirely unacceptable in whatever context. We are aware [Williams] has apologised fully, and we trust we will not hear such remarks again."

They concluded that Williams' remark wasn't a true reflection of the man, but he's been put on notice - he shouldn't expect to get the benefit of the doubt a second time.

It must amuse and bemuse Woods that the golf writers who not so long ago were looking for new terms of disparagement to hurl at him are now so indignant on his behalf.

And one wonders whether Woods found his ex-caddie's trash-talk more hurtful and demeaning than being called every variation on a sleazebag day in, day out for months on end.

Williams has discovered that by dipping his toe in these muddy waters, he's given carte blanche to those who don't care for him - not, it would appear, an endangered species - to say things they'd normally hesitate to put on the record.

It seems that once a person has exposed themselves to the charge of racism, you can say whatever you like about them. Thus Williams' background, IQ and perceived lack of class are fair game.

"He's ill-equipped to speak publicly but, like all fools, he doesn't know his limitations," sniffed a Fairfax writer, ignoring the fact that Williams dropped his clanger at a private function.

"His choice of words always reflects - and I don't mean this in a condescending way - that he left school at 15 to become a golf caddie."

And Williams didn't mean what he said in a racist way. He got his execution horribly wrong, but his critic's wasn't that flash either.

One can almost hear an echo of Henry Higgins, the professor of phonetics in My Fair Lady, deploring the verbal atrocities of Cockney flower seller Eliza Doolittle: "Look at her, a prisoner of the gutter. Condemned by every syllable she ever uttered."

- NZ Herald

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