PALM HARBOR, Fla. — Joe LaCava stood by Tiger Woods even when that meant sitting at home. For the better part of the past two years, caddie and player were separated by roughly 1,300 miles — LaCava in Connecticut, Woods in Florida — and a seemingly impassable expanse of uncharted territory as Woods entered his 40s and attempted to come back from several surgeries, including a back fusion last April.
As Woods rested, per doctors’ orders, so did a hale LaCava, who could have found lucrative work caddying for any number of other stars.
In the nine months between Woods’s fusion surgery and his unofficial return to competitive golf, three major winners — Phil Mickelson, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy — let their longtime loopers go. Brandt Snedeker, a former top-10 player who has been paired with Woods in four of the 13 rounds that so far compose his official comeback, also recently changed caddies.
Perhaps no one takes more pride in earning his keep than LaCava, but he was willing to endure two mostly idle years so that he could have weeks like this one at the Valspar Championship, which has unfurled like a highlight reel from yesteryear.
With LaCava by his side, Woods posted a four-under 67 — his second consecutive sub-70 score — in the third round on Saturday to pull to within one stroke of the leader, Corey Conners, at eight under through 54 holes.
The tournament had never been a priority for Woods, who added it to his schedule at the last minute, at LaCava’s urging, to sharpen his game in preparation for next month’s Masters.
Woods’s solo debut at the Innisbrook Resort’s Copperhead course (he played a mixed gender event here with Kelli Kuehne in 1996) has created a Woods-stalk festival, with fans flocking to the course by the tens of thousands and holding aloft their smartphones like lighters at a concert to capture images, however blurry, of the 14-time major champion and 79-time PGA Tour winner.
This week, the local populace has gotten its first up-close-and-personal look at Woods twirling his club after a well-struck shot and walking his putts into the hole. On Saturday, those close to the ropes or on someone’s shoulders or standing on a footstool saw Woods hammer his fist after chipping in from a difficult lie for a birdie 3 at the ninth hole.
What no television camera caught was LaCava’s reaction. As fans shouted to try to get Woods’s attention, LaCava deftly slipped out of the picture, unobtrusively making his way to the 10th tee.
“It was so loud,” LaCava said. Referring to Woods, he continued: “He knows I’m pumped out. I don’t need to go say anything.”
Woods, 42, has relied on LaCava, who has been on his bag since the end of 2011, to read the occasional putt and the swirling winds and to shield him from determined fans.
On Friday, LaCava was unable to help Woods in and out of a tight spot. He looked on in dismay from the 17th tee as a large crowd surrounded the portable toilet that Woods scurried into, a few steps ahead of his head-swiveling security patrol. “People following him in there with a camera, it’s ridiculous,” LaCava said.
Woods’s first shot of the day — and one of his worst — elicited one of the loudest bursts of noise. His drive on the first hole landed well left of the fairway, and the crowd went wild when Woods waded into their midst.
“From greens to tees, you can get a headache out there,” LaCava said, adding: “People were pumped up. It was great. He’s back in action and everyone was rooting for him.”
From the time Woods took his first tentative swings last October to now, LaCava has seen a lot that makes him cautiously optimistic. “I’m starting to see him get into a pretty good groove out there and start to hit the shots that he’s trying to hit,” LaCava said.
He added: “Good, better or indifferent tomorrow, coming here was a big step. You don’t want to get carried away with one good tournament, but you can see signs of him playing well and hitting it better.”
Woods, who doesn’t have a coach, leans on LaCava to be his second set of eyes and first responder when any shot goes awry. “He’s a stud,” Woods said. “He’s positive, upbeat, competitive. Man, he’s into it and he’s been a great friend over the years, but especially the last couple years where it’s been tough. Just an unbelievable friend and just an unreal caddie.”
On Saturday night, as darkness descended and a light rain began to fall, LaCava shrugged off any suggestion that Woods’s play here had validated LaCava’s loyalty to him.
“It’s too early to say that,” he said. “I’m with my guy all the way, so it’s that more than anything else. Whether he finishes first tomorrow or 15th, I’m all in with him. This guy’s been great to me and I love him like a brother. I wasn’t going anywhere.”
Published at Sun, 11 Mar 2018 11:52:07 +0000