AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - With the Masters’ Champions Dinner just one day away, Fuzzy Zoeller’s former caddie has disclosed a remark made by Tiger Woods that broke the ice after his employer’s controversial comment had put their relationship in the deep freezer.
While Woods was on the course in the final round on his way to a 12-stroke victory at the 1997 Masters, his first major title, Zoeller made remarks with racist connotations about what Woods might serve at the following year’s Champions Dinner.
Zoeller told reporters: “You know what you guys do when he gets in here? You pat him on the back and say congratulations and enjoy it and tell him not to serve fried chicken next year. Got it.”
The Champions Dinner, where the defending Masters champion chooses the menu, is traditionally held on Tuesday at Augusta National, two days before the opening round.
Zoeller, his comments apparently finished, was walking away from the assembled media scrum when he suddenly turned back and added: “Or collard greens, or whatever the hell they serve.”
Fried chicken has become a racial stereotype in the United States when referring to African-Americans - a reference to the days before the abolition of slavery when chicken was believed to be a staple part of the diet.
The backlash at what many considered to be a racist remark cost Zoeller financially in the form of several canceled sponsorship deals, and personally in the form of damage to his reputation.
It took Woods more than a week to release a conciliatory statement, in which he said he had “concluded that no personal animosity toward me was intended”, but that hardly meant the comment was forgotten.
The damage had been done and Zoeller would be haunted by it for years.
The relationship between the pair remained a big talking point when, by coincidence, Woods and 1979 champion Zoeller ended up in the same threesome (with Colin Montgomerie) for the weather-delayed second round at the 1998 Masters.
Cayce Kerr, who was caddying for Zoeller at the time, recalled that there was a “tiny bit of tension” early in the round and everyone seemed to be trying too hard. There was little, if any, casual chit-chat.
”On the (par-three) sixth tee, everybody stuffed it in there (close to the hole),“ Kerr told Reuters. ”As the three pros were walking off the tee, Tiger said: ‘Let’s all walk off the greens with twos.’
”Here was the young statesman taking the lead to make everyone feel at ease.
“It broke the ice, eased the tension 100 percent. It wasn’t just class, it was world class. And guess what, everyone walked off with a birdie and had a little chuckle.”
Kerr saw at first-hand over the years following the “fried chicken” comment how badly Zoeller’s reputation had been damaged.
Kerr did not condone the comment but wonders whether the punishment ever did fit the crime for a player who had a widespread reputation as a jokester.
”I was with Fuzzy in the aftermath and I witnessed what the fans did to him,“ Kerr said. ”It could almost bring tears to your eyes, how hard they came down on him. It was sad.
”Fuzzy was a good man, a great golfer, a great ambassador, a friend and when you work next to somebody like that, it’s difficult to take.
“If I‘m feeling the punches, imagine what he felt like. It was like a wound that would never heal. It bothered him that bad. I was sad for him.”
Kerr has long since parted ways with Zoeller, and after stints for the likes of Fred Couples and Vijay Singh he will caddie at Augusta National this year for South African Ernie Els.
The Californian has worked the Masters for three decades, and says his annual trip to Augusta is the highlight of his year, not least because the tournament treats the caddies as well, if not better, than any other stop on the PGA Tour.
One regret for Kerr is that this year will be the first since the death of his old friend and colleague Dave Renwick, who succumbed to cancer in February.
Scotsman Renwick was a two-time Masters “champion” -- having been bagman for Spaniard Jose Maria Olazabal in 1994 and Fijian Singh in 2000.
“One thing near and dear to Dave’s heart was that when Vijay won, he made a point during his victory speech to thank Dave for his services,” said Kerr.
”Dave wasn’t a bragger and sometimes didn’t get recognized, but there’s something about your player giving you a little bit of love.
”Dave and I used to share a house. I remember when we walked down Magnolia Lane after Vijay’s win in 2000, Dave turned around, looked back towards the course, and said: ‘See you next year.’
“I haven’t had the privilege of being on a green jacket winner during the tournament but I was definitely jealous.”
Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes