It was just the tiniest thing, a seemingly insignificant occurrence on one of the most famous holes in golf. Sixteenth tee, second round of the 2019 Masters. As Tiger Woods and caddie Joe LaCava discussed all matters involving club, wind and pin, a folded white piece of paper fell out of LaCava’s yardage book and landed on the ground.
The guy with all those back surgeries, the rich cat with his name on the bag, bent over, picked up the paper and handed it to his caddie. I’m pretty sure Woods wouldn’t have done that 20 years ago. Hell, he might not have done it that day if he’d bogeyed the 15th hole instead of birdieing it, but to someone who has spent the last 2½ decades watching and writing about one of the most iconic figures in sports history, the moment meant something.
Woods has indeed changed. My job as a journalist requires proof before assertion, so I wasn’t willing to hop on the new-and-improved Tiger bandwagon with all the others, but the evidence is beginning to pile up. For the longest time, Woods was more likely to drop a caddie than pick something up for him. Tunnel vision, focus, all that intensity, the everyone-is-an-enemy mentality….
The dude can grin and still win. LaCava has played an ample role in the makeover, although it was Woods’ previous caddie, Steve Williams, who recently provided some deft insight regarding the origin of the kinder, gentler Tiger: “There’s now a very obvious change in his attitude and I think that’s got a lot to do with the passing of Arnold Palmer in 2016,” Williams wrote for the Australian-based website Playersvoice.com.
“Arnold had so much charisma and time for the fans. And deep down, I think Tiger wanted to carry on Arnold’s legacy. I think he may have decided that with his second chance he wanted to be remembered the way Arnold is remembered.”
It’s an interesting theory wrapped in a thick coat of irony. My relationship with Williams was very good, which allowed me to see the introspective, mild-mannered guy the public never saw. During his 12 years working for Woods, however, Williams’ image was beset by occasional bouts of irascible behavior. He had a short fuse and could become overly protective of Tiger, especially in situations involving large galleries or herds of unruly media.
In a sense, Williams was an enabler to Woods’ ferocious competitive disposition. All that winning made their method an unparalleled success, but eventually, it came with a price. The men parted ways long ago, and not on good terms, it should be noted, although Williams had nothing but good things to say about his ex-boss in the piece he authored for the website.
At this point in Woods’ life and career, LaCava is a much better fit, which is why Tiger shouted “we did it!” when the two embraced after the winning the Masters. The entire victory celebration was a very cool scene, so authentic and wonderfully unrehearsed, an explosion of joy no movie producer could ever truly simulate. After the hug, LaCava playfully pushed Woods away, a funny little micro-moment that speaks volumes about their relationship and explains LaCava’s demeanor in a split-second of unforgettable time.
He’s not a man who dances in the end zone, per se, which has nothing to do with LaCava’s beloved New York Giants and their inability to score touchdowns. He is a jolly New Englander, if such a person exists, an unapologetic realist incapable of gloating, showboating or spiking the ball after reaching the promised land.
LaCava’s loyalty to Woods through years of injury and personal turmoil, clearly at his own financial expense, has created a bond and level of respect neither Williams not Mike Cowan were quite able to attain. Some of that obviously has to do with Woods’ growing maturity, but when Williams might have resorted to anger in chaotic scenarios, LaCava relies on humor to diffuse the tension.
During his 20-plus years working for Fred Couples, it wasn’t unusual to hear LaCava needle his man about his short-putting woes or chide Couples for his inclination toward laziness. And when Woods hosted his year-end tournament known for years as the Target World Challenge, he would almost always pair himself with Couples for the first two rounds.
Freddie was Tiger’s hero, but Freddie’s caddie was Tiger’s source of comic relief. And when Woods fired Williams in 2011, there was only one guy who was going to get that job. LaCava had one of the best bags in the universe at the time, caddieing for Dustin Johnson, but I always thought that partnership was a weird fit and wasn’t the least bit surprised when he accepted Woods’ offer.
Tiger had just entered the long funk that, with the exception of 2013, would last until the beginning of 2018. There was an obvious risk to LaCava’s decision, and now there’s a substantial reward. Johnson remains one of the best players in the game, but he also remains stuck on one major title — a prolific winner who regularly struggles on the biggest weekends.
Big picture? Tiger Woods doesn’t need a caddie who’s going to crack the whip or offer short speeches of encouragement. He needs an experienced hand who snickers at pressure and has an innate sense of what it takes to play successful golf on a shot-to-shot basis. He needs a guy who tells a joke when others might choke. Who might bust your chops if you grab a dozen blades of grass and toss it into the air like a 7-year-old girl.
Joe LaCava knows which way the wind blows, literally and figuratively. When so many around him were fooled by the undetectable breeze on the 12th hole in the final round at Augusta National, he saw players dropping like flies on the leaderboard and helped his man become a major champion once again. His boss may not need a ton of help, but with LaCava by his side, Woods can still make a ton of history.
That ain’t no joke.
All views expressed in this column are those of John Hawkins and do not necessarily reflect those of the Caddie Network.