Earlier this year SI polled 70 Tour players on a I variety of topics, and one of the most surprising results I 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 togeder, 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."