Hawk’s Eye: ‘Excellence is the operating standard’ for the three caddies Tiger Woods has employed
Tiger Woods is among the very few top-tier tour pros who has employed more swing coaches than caddies over the span of his career. Many have wondered why a man with 14 major titles and more than 100 victories worldwide has remained so obsessed with mechanics, but when it comes to the guy on his bag, Woods has made just two changes in 22 years.
This says a lot about the three caddies who have worked for Tiger, their ability to get things right, deal with all the peripheral distractions and meet the exacting demands of a player for whom excellence is the operating standard. The interesting thing about Mike “Fluff” Cowan, Steve Williams and Joe LaCava is that you couldn’t find a more disparate range of personalities.
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Each was the perfect man for the job at the time they got it. And though both Cowan’s and Williams’ dismissals were punctuated by acrimonious overtones, neither was fired because of their job performance. Such is life as a big-league caddie. Always has been, always will be.
Besides, Woods has parted ways with many in his camp over the years, and almost all of those relationships ended in a ball of flames. We start with Cowan, the unassuming New Englander with an ear for the Grateful Dead and an eye for reading putts. Fluff was a fine player in his day, although he’d sooner tell you he was a 15 handicap, and was highly respected among his peers during an 18-year tenure with Peter Jacobsen.
In his 2 ½ years with Woods, there is little question that Cowan’s experience and instincts accelerated Tiger’s growth into an almost instant superstar. You don’t shoot 40 on your first nine of your first Masters as a pro, then win by 12 shots, without a poised, focused man on the bag, and Fluff was just that. After his historic 1997 victory at Augusta National, Woods was effusive in his praise of Cowan.
“He’s the best caddie in the world,” Tiger said. “He knows my game, he knows my temperament. We definitely make a great combo.”
During a substantial overhaul in his swing the following year, however, Woods won just once, and insiders sensed he was becoming increasingly bothered by Cowan’s own growing fame. Tiger is without question the most territorial person I’ve ever met, and he seemed to resent Fluff’s popularity — and the willingness to capitalize on whatever opportunities that may have arisen.
The relationship fell apart in early 1999. Cowan participated in a Golf Digest roundtable discussion with several other notable caddies and outlined the terms of his financial arrangement with Woods. Others interviewed for the article knew Fluff was making a big mistake by disclosing such specifics, but Cowan waved them off and gave up the info, anyway.
Tiger dumped him and immediately hired Williams, who had been with Raymond Floyd. Fluff quickly found a job working for Jim Furyk, a stroke of luck in that the gifted but unreliable Steve Duplantis had finally worn out Furyk’s patience with his hedonistic lifestyle. Cowan and Furyk remain together today, although I’ve always sensed Fluff never really got over Woods firing him.
He became more guarded, a bit less jocular, as if losing the best bag in the business made him less trustworthy of those he didn’t know extremely well. Cowan is, without question, one of the hardest working caddies I’ve ever seen, and his landing with Furyk proves that justice indeed has a conscience.
Williams’ arrival in the Woods camp occurred in March 1999, a few months before his new boss unleashed one of the greatest prolonged stretches of golf ever played. Tiger and Stevie got along famously from the start, and there is no disputing the notion that Williams helped shape Woods into the bloodthirsty, remorseless competitor that led to his dynasty. Williams was also a fitness fanatic. Although Tiger had started taking better care of himself before the two became a team, having a workout partner who didn’t care for slackers only increased Woods’ drive to become physically superior to any potential rivals.
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Stevie was a big reason Tiger became the complete package, and it happened at precisely the right time. David Duval was about to surpass Woods atop the World Ranking. Phil Mickelson almost won the ’99 U.S. Open, and that August, Sergio Garcia asserted his presence on the big stage by almost taking Woods to extra holes at the PGA Championship.
Tiger held on at Medinah to claim his second major championship, setting up a 2000 season that remains the hallmark of his brilliant career.
“His work ethic was incredible,” Williams told me a few years ago. “I remember the night before [the 2000 U.S. Open], we stayed on the practice green until it was pitch dark. He was making everything, but he didn’t like the way the putts were going in, so he kept working on it until he was satisfied. His commitment to perfection was unbelievable.”
Williams shared a funny story from that week at Pebble Beach, where Tiger trampled the field and won by 15 strokes. The second round was suspended because of heavy fog, and that evening, Woods continued working on his putting at the hotel. With play about to resume Saturday morning, Williams stopped by Woods’ room to grab Tiger’s bag, not realizing the four or five balls he’d been practicing with were still on the floor.
They had five or six holes to finish. The horn sounded, and when Stevie unzipped a pocket to give Woods a ball, he realized there were just two balls in the bag. Williams freaked out but said nothing. He even thought about running off to the pro shop to buy a sleeve, but that wasn’t a practical option. Woods made it to the 18th tee with one ball, then duck-hooked his drive onto the beach.
Williams handed him the last remaining Nike and a 2-iron. Here they were, on the verge of the greatest performance in golf history, and if Tiger can’t finish the round with the same type of ball he’d started it with, he faces a two-stroke penalty. Or worse.
“I’m really glad he put that last one into play,” Williams said without a chuckle.
They would remain together for 12 years, the last two of which were besieged by Woods’ personal problems and injuries. When Williams went off to work for Adam Scott in the summer of 2011, Woods considered it an egregious breach of loyalty and fired his right-hand man. Williams did and said some dumb things during his time with Woods, and he said some dumb things after the breakup, but also he brought a skill set and a mentality to the partnership that cannot be overestimated or measured.
So LaCava has been with Woods for seven years now, which amounts to about three full seasons of action due to off-field issues and back problems. Again, right guy, right time. Some people thought LaCava was nuts for leaving Dustin Johnson to work for Woods, who played in just nine events and failed to win in 2011, but Fred Couples’ longtime caddie didn’t think twice about it, and he was Tiger’s first and only choice.
Williams could be hotheaded and was always intense. LaCava’s sensible manner and even-tempered ways were a refreshing change, and Woods won eight times (and almost $15 million) in 2012 and 2013. Injuries felled him again, limiting him to 19 tournaments over the next four years, but LaCava remained patient and unwavering in his commitment.
If there’s anything more important to Tiger than loyalty, you’ll have to look long and hard to find it. His successful comeback in 2018 validated LaCava’s decision not to work for someone else, even after Woods offered to get him the bag of a rising or proven star. Of the three men fortunate enough to caddie for the Dude in the Red Shirt over the last 22 years, LaCava is the best fit in terms of personality.
All three were invaluable in helping Woods become perhaps the best golfer who ever lived.
Different styles, not always a lot of smiles, but there’s a list of achievements that extends for miles.
All views expressed in this column are those of John Hawkins and do not necessarily reflect those of the Caddie Network.