Persona Non Grata How could a guy with little more than a year on Tour be voted a least favorite playing partner by his peers? That's what Garrett Willis would like to know

March 04, 2002

Earlier this year SI polled 70 Tour players on a variety of
topics, and one of the most surprising results came from the
question, Who is your least favorite playing partner? Along with
contentious Scott Hoch, a 23-year veteran, Garrett Willis led a
small group of players who were singled out by their peers,
quite an accomplishment for a player beginning his sophomore
season. More startling, in follow-up interviews Willis's
colleagues practically lined up to rip him, on the record.

Robert Allenby recalled becoming so fed up with Willis's lapses
in etiquette while paired with him at last year's Bay Hill
Invitational that he took Willis aside and, in Allenby's words,
"gave it to him lock, stock and barrel." Then there's Nick
Price, regarded as the nicest man on Tour, whom Willis hit into
at the 2001 Byron Nelson Classic. Price punctuates a profane
recounting of the incident by bellowing, "He could have ended my
career!" Then there was Greg Norman's confrontation with Willis,
at the BellSouth Classic last May, when the Shark bared his
teeth in a rules dispute.

Willis is aware of his bad-boy reputation, which has earned him
at least two reprimands from Tour commissioner Tim Finchem. "It's
hard when you have a really negative workplace environment," says
Willis, 28. "I've worshiped these guys all my life, and now I'm
on the same stage with them and getting pelted with rocks. I've
lost a lot of confidence due to the shots people have taken at
me."

It has been a dizzying downward spiral from the 2001 Tucson
Open, which Willis won in his first start as a Tour member. As
his reputation has soured, so has his game. After Tucson he
missed the cut in 21 of 32 tournaments, including 14 of his last
16. This year has been even worse. While trying to perfect
off-season swing changes, Willis finished dead last at the
cutless Mercedes Championships and had missed the cut in all
four of his ensuing starts heading into last week's Tucson Open.
Willis was hoping that a return to the scene of his victory
would be an elixir, but he found no magic in the desert,
shooting 71-71 and missing yet another cut.

Willis may yet get his game together, but it will be harder to
erase a bad image that has been long in the making. From 1992 to
'96, Willis played for East Tennessee State and displayed almost
limitless promise. During his senior season he won six
tournaments, including the Southern Conference championship, and
was a first-team All-America. From the start East Tennessee
State coach Fred Warren was dazzled by Willis's talent but
perplexed by his on-course behavior. "He'd become easily
frustrated during rounds, and he'd get to playing way too fast,"
says Warren. "Sometimes he'd run off a green, get to the next
tee before anyone else and hit first even though he didn't have
the honor."

Rather than reprimanding Willis, Warren sought an explanation
for what he calls his player's "complex personality." Willis was
subsequently tested for attention deficit disorder (ADD). Warren
declines to discuss the results, as does Willis, but the
latter's sports psychologist has little doubt about the
diagnosis. Willis hired Richard Coop last year after reading
about him in Tracy Stewart's book, Payne Stewart: The Authorized
Biography, on her husband. Of Willis's ADD, Coop says, "That's
one of Garrett's commonalities with Payne. They also share an
impulsivity. Payne had the tendency to speak before thinking.
Garrett has the tendency to act before thinking."

This has often translated to recklessness on the course. After
turning pro in the summer of 1996, Willis won his first event,
the Hooters Decatur (Ala.) Championship, but that triumph was
overshadowed three months later when he was at the center of a
murky incident at the Hooters tour's season-ending event, the
Naturally Fresh Cup at Whitewater Country Club in Peachtree
City, Ga. With three holes to play Willis held a four-shot lead,
but he finished bogey-bogey-double bogey to fall into a playoff,
which he lost. The double on the par-5 18th began with a drive
that came to rest inches from a tree root. As Willis attempted a
risky recovery, his ball ricocheted off the root and went
backward, rattling between his legs and feet. Apparently the
ball did not graze Willis, because he did not call a penalty on
himself. Willis's third shot left him about 50 yards short of
the green, in the wiry rough. After speedwalking up the fairway,
Willis exercised his right to remove the damaged ball from play,
but he marked his position and picked up the ball before his
nearest playing partner, Brian Bateman, had a chance to inspect
the original lie. "I remember thinking that after he took his
ball out of play, it didn't look as if he was putting it back in
the same place," says Barry Conser, the other member of the
threesome. "When I went in the clubhouse, all the players were
talking about it." Upon seeing a replay of the event, Conser was
convinced that Willis had improved his lie. "To me, it's plain
as day on the tape," he says. "You can see clearly that all of a
sudden the ball was teed up."

Willis dismisses the incident, which foreshadowed his dispute
with Norman. "It's a situation where you have 500 witnesses, but
no witnesses," he says. Nonetheless, Willis was saddled with a
nickname that would follow him around golf's B circuits: Nudge.

From 1997 to 2000 Willis bounced between mini-tours and the
Buy.com tour, but even after earning a spot on the PGA Tour via
Q school, he continued to ruffle feathers. Last March at Bay
Hill, in his ninth tournament of the season, he was paired with
Allenby and Jeff Sluman for the first two rounds, and both found
Willis's conduct reprehensible. When asked on which holes
problems occurred, Allenby says, "All 36. I've never seen
anything like it. You'd look up and he'd be standing on your
through line [the line on which a putt, if missed, will go past
the hole], and normally if someone's not on the green, you let
him come on before everyone starts putting. In stroke play it's
common courtesy. One time I was in a bunker 20 feet away, and he
was 35 feet away on the green. I'm getting ready to hit my shot,
and there's his caddie taking the flag out of the hole. I looked
at him and said, 'You've been around for a while. You should
know better.'"

Questioned about these events, Willis is by turns contrite and
defiant. "I made a mistake by stepping in Sluman's through
line," he says, "but I didn't even know it until his caddie
shouted at me. Walking to the next tee, I apologized to Sluman,
and his comment was, 'You've been on the verge all day.' I try
to do the right thing and apologize, and that's what I get."

Addressing Allenby's complaints about order of play, Willis
makes the point that he's being vilified even as he follows the
rules. "If I'm away and ready to go, I'm going to go," he says.
"Just because a guy is off the green, I'm not going to wait for
him. It's my right to go. The thing is, I have a pace that I
like--the quicker the better." That may be true, but Willis's
warp-speed play is often regarded as tanking. At Bay Hill, for
instance, he sped to a second-round 77 on the heels of an
opening 79.

Two weeks later, at the BellSouth Classic, Willis had his run-in
with Norman. After an errant drive in the second round Willis
declared his ball to be in casual water, put a tee in the ground
to mark the original spot and took relief. After Willis hit and
walked on, Norman inspected the area where the tee remained. It
was a terrible lie, but in Norman's eyes there was no casual
water. "After the round I took Garrett aside," says Norman. "In
fact I asked him to speak with me behind the scorer's hut so
nobody would hear the conversation. I reminded him that whenever
he touches his ball, he must have his playing partner or a rules
official standing beside him before doing so. I wanted to remind
him of the Rules of Golf."

Norman recounted to Allenby, among others, a less restrained
tongue-lashing. Willis has heard various versions. "Clearly I had
casual water," says Willis, "but what bothers me the most is that
the round should have been one of the best experiences I've ever
had--playing with Greg Norman on a course he designed. Instead
he's running me down to the other guys."

Six weeks later Willis had his dustup with Price at the Byron
Nelson Classic. Playing the 16th hole of the TPC at Las Colinas,
a fairly straight, tree-lined par-5, Willis drove into the right
rough. From 220 yards out he played away. "It was the first time
in my entire career that I've had someone fly the ball onto a
green while I was playing," says Price. "If his ball had been
four yards to the left it would have hit me on the fly." Asked if
Willis simply might have made a mistake, Price is unforgiving: "I
would always give a person the benefit of the doubt, but with
him, no way. It was no mistake. There's no doubt in my mind he
did it intentionally."

Counters Willis, "I was trying to hit it in front of the bunker.
I couldn't see the green from where I was."

As word of these incidents spread in the cloistered world of the
Tour, Willis began to feel the resentment of his peers. "One of
my old caddies was out with another caddie one night," says
Willis, "and [the other caddie] said, 'The players are going to
make it so miserable for your guy that they're going to run him
right off the Tour.'"

Willis may have reason to feel persecuted. There's a story that
has made the rounds on Tour for nearly a year involving a
supposed confrontation between Willis and Jim Carter at last
year's Genuity Championship. In caddie circles, Willis was
reputed to have given Carter a forearm shiver during a dispute
over whose turn it was to putt. "I heard that story and went
right to the caddies to clear it up," says Carter. "Garrett was a
total gentleman that whole day. In fact, I played with him three
times last year and found it to be quite enjoyable."

Away from the crucible of tournament competition Willis is an
amiable man who has earned a reputation for charming his pro-am
partners. He has a loyal advocate in his wife of a year,
Jennifer, and his best friend in the game is Casey Martin, who
shepherded Willis to a religious awakening in the late 1990s.
Since joining the Tour, he has been a regular at the informal
Bible studies among the players. "I really enjoy seeing him
there," says Tom Lehman. "I think he's a wonderful person. I've
heard some stories about him, but I'm not real big on the gossip
scene. I do know for a fact that Garrett feels badly that he has
this reputation. He wants to be a better person and grow as an
individual. He wants to mature."

With most of his clients Coop works on mundane goals like making
more putts, but his focus with Willis has been about getting
along with his peers. So far in 2002 this discerning audience has
noticed an improvement in Willis's comportment. There are even
signs that other pros are ready to reach out to their least
favorite playing partner. Says Sluman, "At the Mercedes
Championships a bunch of us, caddies and players, were in a bar
watching the bowl games. When we were getting ready to leave, we
looked across the room, and there was Garrett sitting all alone.
That's not the way it's supposed to be out here. He was supposed
to be watching with us. We're supposed to be friends."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY TODD BIGELOW/AURORA Loner Willis is working with a psychologist to get along better with other pros. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY TODD BIGELOW/AURORA Mood swing Frustrated by his play and the accusations of other pros, Willis missed the cut last week for the fifth time this year. COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL Price (right) is unforgiving: "I'd always give a person the benefit of the doubt, but with him, no way. It was no mistake."

Favs and Knaves

Of the 70 Tour players polled by SI, 21 declined to name a least
favorite playing partner, but no one shied away from naming a
favorite. Here are the complete results.

Favorite

6% Jay Haas, Nick Price, Fuzzy Zoeller
4% Paul Azinger, Joey Sindelar, Tiger Woods
3% Ben Crenshaw, Scott Verplank

Note: 29 players received one vote.

Least Favorite

8% Scott Hoch, Garrett Willis
6% David Frost, Frank Lickliter
4% Jonathan Kaye, Greg Norman

Note: 16 players received one vote.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)