HARTFORD, Conn. – Joe LaCava is one of the most famous and successful caddies in PGA Tour history.
The native of Newtown, Conn., worked for Fred Couples for two decades and then toted for Dustin Johnson for four years. Then along came an offer that LaCava wouldn’t refuse. After an acrimonious breakup with Steve Williams, his caddie for more than 13 years and 13 of his 14 major championships, Tiger Woods sought out LaCava to carry his bag – and presumably earn lots of money.
Naturally, LaCava was more than delighted to join forces with Woods, making his debut on the bag on the world’s No. 1 ranked player at the 2011 Frys.com Open. When asked why he decided to do so, LaCava said, “Because he’s Tiger Woods. It’s a no-brainer. That’s my thought. It’s Tiger Woods, right?”
But after a strong start to their partnership that included nine wins, Woods’ back and knee ailments grounded the winner of 79 PGA Tour titles, second to Sam Snead’s 82, including 14 major championships, second to Jack Nicklaus’ 18. LaCava had job offers from some top players but always had the same response: Thanks, but no thanks. I’m going to stick by my man Tiger.
“My plan is to wait for Tiger to get back,” LaCava told Bob Harig of ESPN.com. “I’ve told them I just want to work for Tiger and nobody else at this point. I’m with my guy all the way, so it’s that more than anything else. I’m all in with him. He has been great to me.”
When Woods was injured in 2017 and not playing much, he told LaCava to go and get another gig, but LaCava refused, showing that he was completely loyal to Woods.
“We had a nice long talk beginning of this 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.’ ” Woods said to University of Connecticut women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma during a podcast. “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 keeps saying no.”
But the 54-year-old LaCava admits patience was a sentiment easier said than exercised, though earning more than $1 million a year helped ease the “pain.”
“I miss it, for sure,” LaCava said. “I miss my buddies, some of the caddies, going out to dinner. But most of all I miss being in the hunt and winning. Definitely miss it, how could you
The upside for LaCava was being able to spend more time with his wife, Megan, and two children, Lauren and Joe Jr., playing more golf and getting even closer to the New York Rangers. But it was still hard for LaCava to have to sit on the sidelines, especially while the player he left, Johnson, was entering his prime and moved to No. 1 in the World Golf Rankings. Still, LaCava insists he had no regrets and said Woods had plenty left in the tank.
Woods returned for the unofficial Hero World Challenge that he hosted in the Bahamas in December and tied for ninth in an 18-man field. His first PGA Tour start was the Farmers Insurance Open, where he tied for 23rd. After missing the cut in the Genesis Open, Woods began his climb back in earnest with tie for second in the Valspar Championship and a tie for the fifth in Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Woods missed the cut in the U.S. Open thanks to a first-round 78 but then tied for fourth in the Quicken Loans Open that he hosts and tied for sixth in the British Open, where he led by a stroke with nine holes to go but struggling down the stretch and behind playing partner Francesco Molinari. He finished second to Brooks Koepka in the PGA Championship and tied for sixth in the BMW Championship, the third FedEx playoff event, before completing one of the most improbable comebacks in sports history with a two-stroke victory over Billy Horschel in the TOUR Championship on Sunday.
Woods’ closing 1-over-par 71 for a 72-hole total of 11-under 269 gave him his first title in 1,876 days since the 2013 World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational and vaulted him from 20th to second in the final FedEx Cup standings, only 41 points behind Justin Rose, who birdied the 18th hole tie for fourth and win the $10 million first prize.
“I had a hard time not crying coming up the last hole,” said Woods, who moved to 23rd in the World Rankings after being as low as 1,177. “There was a point in time I didn’t know if I’d ever (play) again.”
Woods and playing partner Rory McIlroy were engulfed on the 18th hole when the huge crowd broke through the ropes and chanted “Let’s Go Tiger,” though Woods said he heard but didn’t see it because he didn’t turn around.
“That was awesome,” LaCava said of the exuberant stampede usually reserved for the British Open. “I thought that was terrific. And I kept telling the cops, ‘As long as they don’t trample us, let ’em keep comin’.’ Why not?”
After his final putt dropped and he lifted both arms to the boisterous crowd, Woods hugged LaCava and walked off the green into the embrace of his girlfriend Erica Herman, agent Mark Steinberg and was congratulated by a group of players, including Horschel, Bryson DeChambeau, Rickie Fowler and Justin Thomas.
“He put in so much work. People have no idea,” LaCava said.
“The people who are close to me saw the struggles and what I was going through, and some of the players that I’m pretty close to, they’ve really helped throughout this process,” Woods said. “Their support and some of those things that they said coming off that last green meant a lot.”
Woods won for the 43rd time in 45 chances after holding the solo 54-hole lead and has now won all 24 tournaments he has led by three or more going into the last round. He had already posted six top-10s this season when it all came together at East Lake.
“The last two months he’s played phenomenal,” LaCava said. “Where he’s finished in tournaments is not a reflection of how he’s played. I can go back three or four tournaments that he could have won, possible should have won. We talked about it last week. I said two things: You’ve got to work on your bunker game, and you’ve got one more shot. Let’s give it a go.”
Woods was 7-for-9 at getting up and down from the sand at East Lake, third best in the field. He also tied for third in driving accuracy, crucial given the thick rough and was first in scrambling (17-for-24) and second in Strokes Gained: Putting.
Paul Casey spoke for many when he was asked if he thought Woods would ever make it back.
“I hoped we would,” Casey said, “but there were times when I thought probably not.”
Woods proved Casey wrong despite bogeys on the 15th and 16th holes that cut his lead to two shots. But a saving par at No. 17 and a routine par at the 18th sent the crowd into a final frenzy.
“That scene on 18, I’ve never seen anything like that,” said Sean Foley, Woods’ former coach, who still works with Rose. “The thing now that is so different is (Woods) is embracing all that love in the atmosphere. That’s a lot of energy around that green. Why would you not use it?
“I’m so glad for Tiger. I’m so glad to see the story go that way. The gallery — the world is full of people who like to see a comeback story because we are all coming back from something.”
Players who broke victory droughts earlier his year included Casey, Phil Mickelson, Gary Woodland, Kevin Na and Vermont native Keegan Bradley, but Woods shattered the barrier after saying in December 2015 that he really had nothing to look forward to while in the throes of back pain that ran down his legs and forced him to go under the knife four times.
And Woods’ comeback has been about so much more than physical issues. Many would say it was far more psychological than it was physical, though hardly downplaying his debilitating back issues. But Woods has overcome years of embarrassment that has followed him like a virus as a result of his public marital infidelities.
To come all the way back, Woods said more than once this year that it was amazing even before he won. For years, his public appearances had been mostly on behalf of his foundation, tournaments and golf courses. He spoke at Presidents Cups and Ryder Cups, as an assistant to U.S. captains.
Woods planned a comeback in 2017 but missed the cut at the Farmers Insurance Open, flew to the Omega Dubai Desert Classic and opened with a 5-over 77. It would mark yet one more false start in a series of them, and Woods withdrew prior to his second round in Dubai. He scuttled plans to play in the Genesis Open and The Honda Classic and underwent spinal fusion in April.
“Even lying down hurt,” he said in May, 2017, when the closest he could get to playing golf was watching it on TV. “I had nerve pain with anything I did and was at the end of my rope.”
All that Woods was really interested in was being able to play with his two kids.
“Probably the low point was not knowing if I’d ever be able to live pain-free again,” Woods said Sunday. “Am I going to be able to sit, stand, walk, lay down without feeling the pain that I was in? I just didn’t want to live that way. This is how the rest of my life is going to be?”
Thomas and Fowler went to Woods’ house during the off-season, engaging their host in chipping contests. Those gave way to practice rounds, Woods mindful of taking it slow. He had to get his speed back, but he also had to learn to trust his body again and figure out a swing.
It all finally came together as the Woods readied to play in the Ryder Cup in Paris after elevating himself from a vice captain under Jim Furyk to a player who again will receive the most notoriety afte the Americans and Europeans, even on foreign soil.
“Yeah, to kind of get to the 80 mark is a big number,” Woods said. “Sam is still ahead of me. I’ve still got, I feel like, a chance to play some more golf and maybe I’ll keep chipping away at that number and maybe surpass it. But I just think that what I’ve gone through and what I’ve dealt with, I’ve gotten lucky, to be honest with you. I’ve gotten very lucky.”
LaCava also feels plenty lucky. He began caddying in 1987 for close friend and Danbury native Ken Green, who won five PGA Tour events and played in the 1989 Ryder Cup, then signed a contract with Couples and later worked for Davis Love III, Justin Leonard, Mark Calcavecchi, Mike Hurlbert, John Cook and Johnson before joining Woods.
And when LaCava isn’t globetrotting around the golfing world, he spends downtime in Connecticut.
“I enjoy watching my kids’ games and doing some stuff around the house and playing a little golf,” LaCava told the New Haven Register in 2014. “It’s fun to be home. I don’t watch a lot of golf. I’m not one to sit around and watch TV. All my TV watching starts with the (New York) Rangers this time of year.”
At the time, his daughter, Lauren, was in high school. She graduated and went on to study at Endicott College. Meanwhile, his son, Joe, played varsity football at Pomperaug High School. After he graduated from high school, he attended James Madison University.
Woods and LaCava love talking sports, and LaCava especially enjoyed beating his boss in nine consecutive games of H.O.R.S.E. In a 2017 interview with Inside the Ropes on Sirius XM, LaCava exercised his bragging rights.
“The thing with him was if I missed a shot, which I missed plenty of shots, but if I missed the shot he’d go back down to the 3 (point line) because he liked to make the 3,” LaCava said. “But it’s harder obviously to make a 3, and I’d go right back to the baseline 12-footer, and he couldn’t make it.”
And Woods wasn’t too happy about losing to LaCava.
“He did not talk to me the rest of the day,” LaCava said. “I didn’t even get the old text, ‘Dinner is ready,’ because I stay across at the beach house. I didn’t even get that text that night. I had to get take-out. He didn’t announce he wasn’t (talking), he just did it. I’m telling you, nine games in a row. Like I said, he’s so competitive, even at something like that.”
But a hearty bearhug with Woods on the 18th green at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta on Sunday September 23 showed just how much waiting for “his man” to complete his comeback from golfing oblivion meant to LaCava.