Tiger Woods’s Caddie Is a Reluctant Star

MEDINAH, Ill. — Friday was perhaps the closest that Joe LaCava’s dream job will ever come to a nightmare. His boss, Tiger Woods, couldn’t get much going on or around the greens in his second consecutive round of one-under-par 71 at the BMW Championship, and LaCava had nowhere to hide from fans who feted him all the way around Medinah Country Club.

“Congratulations, Joe!” they cried out to LaCava, who was inducted into the Caddie Hall of Fame this week in a ceremony held by the Western Golf Association, which runs the BMW Championship, the second of three FedEx Cup playoff events.

“I’m just not comfortable with the attention,” said LaCava, who dropped his gaze and gave a thumbs-up in response to a shout of “Mr. Hall of Fame” on the second green after Woods tapped in for par.

As LaCava walked off the 18th green, he was greeted by Jim Mackay, the caddie-turned-broadcaster who gave him a consoling pat on the back.

“He knew I was frustrated,” LaCava said. His voice trailed off.

LaCava never enjoys being the focus of attention, especially not on a day when his boss has struggled. With two rounds to play this weekend, Woods is 10 strokes behind the leader, Hideki Matsuyama, and needs a weekend charge to earn a berth in next week’s 30-man Tour Championship, which he won last year.

Woods and LaCava have collaborated on a comeback that became one of the most thrilling stories in sports over the past year. So it was perhaps fitting that LaCava was approached Wednesday after his induction speech by a writer who said without preamble: “You’re good at this. You should write a book.”

It was like receiving encouragement from Britney Spears to record an album. The man was the best-selling author James Patterson, but after he trundled off, LaCava conceded that he had never heard of him.

“I’m not the biggest reader,” he said apologetically.

What LaCava does quite well is read people. The caddies’ creed is show up, keep up, shut up. But when he started working with Woods in the fall of 2011, he quickly ascertained that one of the ways he could be of service was by talking more, since the public’s hunger for insight into Woods is far greater than Woods’s appetite for sharing.

“I talk to everybody because I don’t think Tiger talks to everybody all the time,” LaCava said. “I want Tiger to be the show. I want him doing the interviews and everything else. So that’s just not a comfortable role for me.”

Being the guest of honor at a meal where most of the other diners are strangers is the attention shunner’s equivalent of playing the T.P.C. Sawgrass’s 17th island par-3 in a gale. Even as he walked off yardages and studied the greens during Wednesday’s pro-am round, LaCava was fretting over the speech he would have to deliver hours later.

“He doesn’t like to be part of the spotlight,” Woods said, adding: “For him to be recognized for what he does, he’s very uncomfortable with that.”

So great was LaCava’s discomfort that he failed to mention the induction to his wife, Megan, who learned of it from the couple’s daughter, Lauren, who had found out from an article online.

“I probably should have told my wife,” LaCava said.

If LaCava was afraid of embarrassing himself, he need not have worried. Patterson was right: LaCava is an engaging storyteller, favoring brevity over bombast.

He recalled the phone call from Woods asking if he’d be interested in working for him. LaCava, who was employed by Dustin Johnson at the time, said he replied in the affirmative, set off by an expletive.

The crowd, including Woods, who slipped in before the ceremony and stayed till the end, exploded in laughter.

LaCava also told a story about his first week working with Woods. After the third round of the 2011 Frys.com Open outside San Jose, Calif., LaCava joined Woods on the sideline of a football game at nearby Stanford, where Woods spent two years as a student-athlete before turning professional. Standing a few yards from Woods, LaCava attracted the attention of a police officer, who asked to see his credential.

LaCava pointed at Woods and said he was with him. The officer sought confirmation from Woods, who wickedly shook his head no and said he had never seen LaCava before.

At that moment, LaCava said, he knew he was going to get along famously with Woods “because that’s exactly the kind of thing I would have done.”

ImageLaCava and Woods after the Masters victory in April.
LaCava and Woods after the Masters victory in April.CreditBrian Snyder/Reuters

LaCava, who has helped Woods to 10 PGA Tour titles during their time together, shares more than a sense of humor with his boss. They have the same competitive drive. “He’s very fiery,” Woods said. “He wants to win.”

In a taped interview played during the induction ceremony, Woods spoke of LaCava’s loyalty. It was the highest praise he could offer. As the sun around which everyone else in golf revolves, Woods is always on guard against the superficial, transactional relationship.

“The curse of being Tiger is he doesn’t know who’s a friend and who’s a hanger-on,” said Robert Damron, a former tour player who provided commentary for the Golf Channel on Woods’s Friday round.

LaCava’s loyalty was tested during a four-year stretch, starting in 2014, when Woods’s balky back limited him so much that at one point LaCava went 466 days without working.

In 2016, Woods made just one start, at the tournament he hosts in the Bahamas. He told LaCava he was free to seek other employment. LaCava essentially said thanks but no thanks. He believed Woods had good golf left to play and he was willing to wait.

His patience was rewarded handsomely at the Masters this spring. After Woods secured his 15th major victory, his first major title in 11 years and his fifth green jacket, he hugged LaCava on the 18th green.

“We did it,” Woods told him.

Later that night, LaCava said, he received a text from Woods, which ended, “I love you like a brother.”

LaCava can’t remember the rest of it, and he can’t look it up. “I deleted it,” he said.

He explained that he gets rid of all his texts and emails.

But of course. Every caddie worth his bib will tell you that what’s past is past. All that matters is what’s in front of you.

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