CROMWELL, Conn. – Joe LaCava began caddying on the PGA Tour almost by happenstance, and now 33 years later has several bags full of memorable moments that he never could have envisioned.
“I thought I might try it for a year, but Fred (Couples) afforded me a chance to get acclimated because he was young and talented,” LaCava said at a fundraiser at The First Tee of Connecticut on Thursday night. “If not for him, I never would have been able to stick with it and get where I am today.”
LaCava, a Newtown native, actually started caddying for his cousin, Danbury native Ken Green, a five-time PGA Tour winner and member of the 1989 U.S. Ryder Cup Team who also played on the PGA Tour Champions until he had to have his right leg amputated just above the knee after a horrific RV accident that killed his brother Bill, girlfriend Jeannie Hodgin and dog Nip. LaCava’s time with Green began after he earned a finance degree from Western Connecticut State University in the fall of 1986 and planned to head to the West Coast for five or six weeks “to hang out” with Green and several friends at the start of the PGA Tour season. But on Thanksgiving, Green asked LaCava if he wanted to caddy for him since he was going to be on the West Coast.
LaCava gladly accepted and spent three years with his cousin before Green’s brother took over carrying his bag.
“I’d never been on a plane before I started caddying,” LaCava said with a smile.
After finishing his tour of duty with Green, LaCava was fortunate to be hired by Couples and spent 20 years with him, the duo combining to win 12 times, including the 1982 Masters. When Couples took time off to rest an ailing back, LaCava occasionally worked for Mark Calcavecchia, John Cook, Mike Hulbert, Jay Haas and Justin Leonard and then hooked up with Dustin Johnson in May 2011. The duo contended in the British Open and won the Barclays, the opener of the FedExCup playoffs, but lasted only four months when LaCava was approached by Tiger Woods’ group about working for the No. 1 player in the world, who had parted ways with Steve Williams, his caddie for 13 years.
When asked if he wanted to tote for Tiger, it was an easy affirmative answer for LaCava.
“Why? Because he’s Tiger Woods,” LaCava said. “Enough said. It’s a no-brainer, isn’t it? That’s my thought. It’s Tiger Woods.”
While the 55-year-old LaCava knew working for Woods would likely produce numerous memorable moments and a steady income, he never could have believed how many, how much and to what depth. They started together with the Frys.com Open and immediately hit it off, winning eight times in 2012 and 2013, when Woods finished second and first on the PGA Tour money list.
“I always have high expectations in everything that I do, but I never could have imagined what has happened,” LaCava said. “I feel very fortunate and very blessed.”
And his relationship with Woods?
“We’re buddies more than anything,” LaCava said. “He’s the boss, and I work for him, but he doesn’t treat me like that.”
LaCava’s most favorite moments as a caddie started with he and Green each getting his first PGA Tour victory in the 1988 Canadian Open. A week later, Green also won the Greater Milwaukee Open.
LaCava’s next notable rememberance came when Couples won the 1992 Masters. “It was the tournament that he wanted the most and was his first major championship win,” LaCava said.
Then in The Players Championship in 1996, Couples shot an 8-under-par 64 in the final round to rally from four strokes behind to win by four. “That was an unbelievable score on such a tough course,” LaCava said.
LaCava also fondly recalls his first win with Woods in the 2012 Bay Hill Invitational and then their first major triumph together in the 2019 Masters. It was Woods’ 15th major title, three fewer than all-time leader Jack Nicklaus, but his first in 11 years and first after trailing entering the final round. It also was named the Associated Press Sports Story of the Year.
“Some people were surprised that he won,” LaCava said, “but I knew how special the place was to him and how much he had worked to come back from his injuries and surgeries. People have no idea all that he had done. I spent some time visiting him (in Florida). We’d pal around, go fishing, and he appreciated me being there. And I was happy because I felt cooped up in Connecticut.”
The Masters victory came after Woods nearly won the 2018 British Open and PGA Championship and then captured the season-ending Tour Championship, halting a five-year victory drought. Then after being sidelined nine weeks following a third knee surgery in August 2019, Woods won the ZOZO Championship, the first PGA Tour event in Japan, for victory No. 82, tying Sam Snead for the career record.
After hosting his Hero World Challenge in Bermuda, won by Henrik Stenson, Woods and 10 other members of the U.S. Presidents Cup Team took a 20-hour flight and drive to Royal Melbourne Golf Club in Victoria, Australia. Woods, the first U.S. playing captain since Hale Irwin in the inaugural event in 1994, won two team matches with Justin Thomas and beat Abraham Ancer 3 and 2 in the opening singles as the U.S. rallied for a 16-14 victory over the International team captained by close friend Ernie Els.
Woods was visibly emotional/touched and had a few tears in his eyes after notching his 27th match victory, breaking Phil Mickelson’s career record, as the U.S. won for the eighth consecutive time for an 11-1-1 series lead.
“We did it together,” Woods said. “We came as a team. My teammates and my boys all played well. The (vice) captains (Couples, Steve Stricker and Zach Johnson) did an amazing job of just being there for every little detail. I couldn’t have done it without all their help. All my boys. They did it. … I trusted all my 11 guys. I trusted them implicitly. I told them that from the very get-go. They went out there and got the points we needed. We fought. Even the points we lost we were making them earn every one of them. This Cup wasn’t going to be given to us. We had to earn it, and we did.”
LaCava said, “Tiger was thrilled with the win. He took his role as captain very seriously and put a lot of time and effort into it! All the guys were awesome!”
LaCava said he didn’t see 16-year-old Ben James of Milford, the youngest member of the U.S. Junior Presidents Cup team who had two wins in a 13-11 victory over the International side on the weekend before the Presidents Cup matches. James did meet Woods and have a picture taken with him.
“I met Ben at Great River (Golf Club in Milford, his home course) but missed him in Australia,” LaCava said. “Nice kid and he can obviously play!”
Woods turned 44 on Dec. 30, and he and LaCava will return to work Jan. 23 for the start of the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines Golf Club in San Diego, Calif., where he has won seven times, including the 2008 U.S. Open, his fourth consecutive victory there in a sudden-death playoff with Rocco Mediate while playing on a severely painful right knee that needed surgery a few days later. That will be Woods’ first bid for a record-setting 83rd PGA Tour title, and if unsuccessful, he’ll try again in The Genesis Invitational, which benefits his foundation, on Feb. 13-16 at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif., where he has never won.
Woods has put together his Phoenix-like rise from the seeming golfing ashes after plummeting to 1,199th in the Official World Golf Rankings after being sidelined for 2016 and 2017 following spinal fusion surgery, the fourth on his back. During his lengthy absence in which he suffered debilitating pain, he couldn’t walk or sit down or lay down or pull himself out of bed, wondering if he would ever be able to return to the PGA Tour. Woods told LaCava that he could work for someone else, but LaCava stood by his man and was paid his full salary.
“I’m committed to your return and you playing golf again,” LaCava told Woods at the time. “I missed being on tour for sure. I never complained about being home, but I missed working in general. I missed my buddies, some of the caddies, going out to dinner. But most of all, I missed being in the hunt and winning. Definitely missed it, how could you not?”
During a podcast with University of Connecticut women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma, Woods said, “We had a nice long talk beginning of the year when I couldn’t play, and I told him, ‘Hey, if you want, I can go out and get you a bag. Get one of these top young upcoming guys and you can go out and caddie for them.’ He says, ‘No, no. I’m committed to you. I’m committed to your return and you playing golf again.’ And I said, ‘Well, I understand that, but I don’t know when that is or if that’s even going to happen, so let me help you get another bag.’ But he just kept saying no.”
LaCava’s decision to stick with Tiger enabled him to spend more time with his family. He played more golf, including at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J., site of several major championships. He got to see all 10 of his son Joe’s football games at Pomperaug High School in Southbury. He was able to drop off his daughter, Lauren, at Endicott College near Boston. A big sports fan, he went to many UConn, New York Giants and New York Rangers games.
Woods returned for the Safeway Open in 2017 and missed the cut, then made 18 starts in 2018, finishing in a tie for sixth and second in the British Open the PGA Championship before winning the Tour Championship. After his ZOZO Championship victory, Woods vaulted to No. 6 in the world rankings but fell to seventh behind Patrick Cantlay after Cantlay finished fourth in the Sentry Tournament of Champions two weeks ago.
The latest notable activities of Woods and LaCava haven’t all been on the course. Donald Trump awarded Woods, a frequent golfing partner, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States, in a White House Rose Garden ceremony on May 6. LaCava and wife Megan sat in the front row with Woods’ mother, Kultida, and girlfriend, Erica Herman, and he had his picture taken with Trump during a 10-minute visit to the Oval Office.
Trump called Woods “a true legend” and “an extraordinary athlete who has transformed golf and achieved new levels of dominance. He’s also a great person. He’s a great guy. Tiger Woods is a global symbol of American excellence, devotion and drive.”
The only other golfers to receive the Medal of Freedom are Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and 1967 Greater Hartford Open (now Travelers Championship) winner and World Golf Hall of Famer Charlie Sifford, whom Woods acknowledged paved the way for his career and was an inspiration growing up after being the first African-American to play on the PGA Tour and being called “the Jackie Robinson of golf.”
“It was really special to get invited to go because Tiger chose who would be there,” LaCava said. “And to sit in the front row and to go in the Oval Office was amazing.”
Then on Aug. 15, on the eve of the BMW Championship at Medinah Country Club in Medinah, Ill., LaCava was inducted into the Caddie Hall of Fame. Others to receive the highest honor for golf bag-toters include Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Glastonbury native Greg Rita, longtime Race Brook Country Club in Orange pro Frank Selva, Bloomfield resident Bradley Klein, Jim “Bones” Mackay, the longtime caddie for two-time Canon GHO winner Phil Mickelson who is now an on-course commentator for ESPN, and Wethersfield native Bruce Edwards, who caddied on the PGA Tour and PGA Tour Champions for more than 30 years, mostly for Hall of Famer Watson before he died of ALS on April 8, 2004, just hours before the start of the Masters.
“I was reluctant to go in because I’m not interested in attention. I just like to say I work for Hall of Fame golfers,” LaCava said. “But ‘Bones’ insisted that I accept, and I appreciate that the Western Golf Association selected me. It ended up being a very nice night.”
Woods attended LaCava’s induction and wrote on Instagram with a photo of the duo that said: “A Hall of Fame career, a great and trusted friend and one of the best in the business. Thanks Joey and congratulations?”
Yes, LaCava has been plenty fortunate to be part of some of the major moments in golf history and discussed them during his appearance at The First Tee of Connecticut fundraiser. He appeared with longtime ESPN SportsCenter anchor Jay Harris and Javier Colon, a recording artist, winner of NBC’s inaugural season of The Voice and a TFTCT honorary board of directors’ member and parent to program participants who performed several songs.
LaCava is also an honorary board member of the youth development organization whose mission is to impact the lives of young people by providing educational programs that build character, instill life-enhancing values and promote healthy choices through the game of golf. It has grown from 100 youngsters at Goodwin Park Golf Course in Hartford in 1999 to nearly 70,000 at 20 outdoor locations and in 162 schools throughout the state with emphasis on improving golf skills and adhering to nine core values: integrity, respect, perseverance, honesty, sportsmanship, confidence, responsibility, courtesy and judgment.
“Joe is a terrific guy who has shown up at some of our meetings and made some nice contributions,” said Mercedes Large, a TFTCT board member from Bloomfield.
LaCava is indeed “a terrific guy” who is a rabid fan of the Rangers and Giants, wearing a ski cap of the latter to the fundraiser and having an email address of a retired player. A personable, upbeat and positive individual, LaCava thoroughly appreciates how his life has turned out, capped by working for and becoming close friends with one of the two greatest players in the history of the game. Woods has 144 wins worldwide, including 41 on the European Tour, which is third on that circuit despite his part-time participation.
“I was fortunate that Freddie and Tiger are two guys who didn’t play a lot,” LaCava said, “but when they did play, they competed hard and won a lot.”
LaCava has used his notoriety to help those affected by the tragic shooting at Shady Hook Elementary School in Newtown on Dec. 14, 2012. Adam Lanza, 20, shot and killed 26 people, including 20 children six and seven years old, and six adult staff members. Lanza also shot and killed his mother and committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. The incident remains the deadliest mass shooting at either a primary or secondary school in U.S. history, the second-deadliest U.S. school shooting overall and the fourth-deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.
“I’ve played in four or five charity tournaments benefitting Sandy Hook and have gotten Tiger to autograph some items for auctions,” LaCava said.
On a more positive subject, LaCava has 31 wins on the PGA Tour and PGA Tour Champions, but his personal favorite came on July 30 when he and Joe Jr. won the Connecticut State Golf Association Father-Son Net Tournament for the first time at Redding Country Club. Father Joe is a 7-handicap, 21-year-old Joe Jr. a 9-handicap, and they combined to shoot a 2-over-par 73 gross for a 65 net and a three-stroke victory.
“It’s basically a fun day and chance to get together,” a smiling LaCava said. “But it was nice to win, too. Guess that was No. 32.”
Yes, the good times really seem to be rolling for Joe LaCava these days.