SOUTHBURY, Connecticut: Even when Tiger Woods had given up on Tiger Woods and had confided in friends that he was done as a competitive golfer, Joe LaCava remained his last man standing.
The caddie still believed he would share more magical Sundays with his employer. He still thought what happened last month at the Masters was more likely than not.
"I know Tiger can win again," LaCava told his wife, Megan.
As she recalled the darkest days of the extended Tiger-and-Joe layoff last week, Megan LaCava grew emotional just thinking about her husband's blind faith.
Woods' back problems started in the spring of 2014. His fourth back surgery three years later, a spinal fusion, seemed like merely the act of a desperate, bedridden man dying to be able to play with his kids.
Joe caddied for Tiger only two dozen times over four years, so LaCava busied himself watching son Joe's high school football games and daughter Lauren's high school softball games. He painted some rooms inside his Connecticut home, worked on some other house projects, drove Lauren up to college and helped with the dishes and laundry while his wife was at work.
But as much as anything, Joe waited for Tiger. He said he would have waited 100 years if he'd had to.
A sales manager at a women's apparel store, Megan wasn't worried about her husband and her family; Woods was generous with his caddie during the layoff.
Megan was worried about Tiger, and whether he'd ever be healthy enough to play another event.
"But I have to tell you that Joe never doubted that," she said. "He may have had a couple of moments where he said: 'Oh boy, here we go again.' There were a lot of thoughts running through Joe's mind, but he never, ever thought Tiger was done."
So here they are together again at the PGA Championship at Bethpage, the five-time Masters champion and the two-time Masters champion caddie who also won at Augusta National with Fred Couples in 1992.
LaCava, 55, was effectively introduced in April to millions of teary-eyed viewers worldwide who aren't regular golf fans but who were nonetheless mesmerized by Woods' comeback and the Sunday scene on the 18th green, where Tiger shouted: "We did it," as he embraced the bald man in the white jumpsuit.
Those viewers had no idea that LaCava played a meaningful role in so many people crying when the 43-year-old Woods - once a broken athlete and a broken man - finished off his first Masters victory in 14 years and his first major victory in 11.
Woods' previous caddie, Steve Williams, was a snarling, raging bull of a bodyguard who only reinforced the notion of Tiger as a bloodless cyborg built to destroy opponents and ignore fans.
Hired away from Dustin Johnson in 2011, LaCava, the ultimate Everyman, brought a humanity to Woods' bag that, people close to the player and caddie believe, helped inspire Tiger's evolution into a more likable and relatable figure in this second act of his professional life.
To understand how LaCava impacted Woods is to understand LaCava and where he came from.
He grew up lower-middle-class in Newtown, Connecticut, a Revolutionary War town known for its outsized flagpole smack in the middle of Main Street long before it became a global dateline for the 2012 mass murder at Sandy Hook.
LaCava's father, Joe, was a three-sport captain at Danbury High who lost some teeth as a rugged 160-pound centre and linebacker on the school's undefeated football team and who enlisted in the Army rather than attend college.
He started as a teller at Newtown Savings Bank and stayed there nearly his entire working life, finishing in the mortgage department.
His wife, Mary Ann, his high school sweetheart, became a teacher at Middle Gate Elementary. Like her husband, Mary Ann spent more than three decades in the same place.
Joe and Mary Ann raised three girls and one boy in their modest ranch home. The family could afford an annual vacation at the Jersey shore, nothing more exotic than that. The LaCava kids knew if they wanted to attend college, they would need to pay their own way to nearby Western Connecticut State University.
Joe had played some basketball, football and golf in high school. He could regularly break 80 as the No 1 man on his varsity team. But Western Connecticut was a Division III programme in a lousy climate for ambitious golfers.
"I played one year," LaCava said of his college experience. "I had no dreams whatsoever. I knew exactly where I stood."
Armed with a finance degree and prepared to follow his parents into banking or teaching, LaCava was hired by his cousin, PGA Tour pro Ken Green, for whom he'd caddied at the old Westchester Classic. Green won three times with LaCava before making the 1989 Ryder Cup team.
Then Green made a change on his bag, hiring a sibling who was down on his financial luck. Couples, already a three-time Tour winner, decided to give a fellow sports fanatic, LaCava, a shot.
"I knew Big East basketball," Joe said. "That's why Fred hired me."
They won their fourth tournament together at the Los Angeles Open. Two years later, they won the Masters. That Sunday evening after Couples' tee ball on the 12th hole famously stayed dry on the bank instead of tumbling into Rae's Creek, LaCava tried on his man's green jacket after drinking a few beers and ripped one of its seams.
In later years, a graying Couples - burdened by lingering back problems - repeatedly told his caddie it was time for him to switch to a younger bag. LaCava waved him off and gave him a season on the Champions Tour (they won four times that year) before returning to the big show in 2011, when he helped Dustin Johnson seriously contend at The Open and then prevail at the Barclays. LaCava knew he had a great thoroughbred in DJ, but he also knew Woods needed a caddie after firing Williams for, among other things, working with Adam Scott while Woods rehabbed his leg injuries.
"It's Tiger Woods," he said. "If he's calling, I'm going to say yes."
Couples, for one, wasn't surprised by news of the pairing.
"Tiger knew the whole time he wanted Joe," Couples said. "Tiger and Joe spoke a lot when we played practice rounds together ... I didn't know of a better fit for Tiger, and I can surely tell you that Tiger was a perfect fit for Joe. I think one of the things Tiger does really, really well is he stays in the ballgame, and I think Joe does that well, too. He's never down. In 22 years for me, I don't know if Joe was ever sick. One time going across a ravine, he slipped and he thought he broke his wrist. The next day you would've never known. Joe's very tough, but not tough on his player. He's very low key, and I think Tiger really likes that."
LaCava inherited the post-scandal Tiger, the one without a major title since 2008 and without a PGA Tour victory since 2009. They won two and a half months later at the Chevron World Challenge (now the Hero World Challenge), Woods' first victory in 27 starts. After that, they won eight more times over the next two seasons before Tiger's back started betraying him. LaCava had no idea how long Woods would be out.
"There were days I didn't like not doing anything," LaCava said. "When I say days it was months, maybe a year in (2017) where I said to myself: 'It sucks, because I feel like I need to work.'"
LaCava thought of taking a job outside of golf during Tiger's various rehabs, but he was uncomfortable with the possibility of quitting on an employer the moment his player was healthy enough to compete. A handful of pros approached LaCava when Tiger was hurt, surprising absolutely nobody.
"You can spend 10 years on the tour," said Jim "Bones" Mackay, Phil Mickelson's former caddie and LaCava's longtime friend, "and you're never going to find anyone who'll say a bad word about Joe."
Woods gave his caddie permission to carry for another pro if he wanted. LaCava declined.
LaCava said he learned the value of commitment from his parents, who worked for the same employers for decades and who were married for half a century.
"It meant a lot to me," Woods told ESPN.com earlier this month. "Joe could have left and had pretty much any bag that was available, his reputation is that solid. But he didn't. He hung in there with me. Joe's a great person and very loyal, and I appreciate it."
More than anything, Woods appreciated LaCava's friendship.
"I think we have a lot in common," Tiger said. "We're both fiery and very competitive, although Joe hides it sometimes. And we both love sports. I give Joe the needle about his New York teams and how the LA ones are better."
Yes, LaCava has a furnace raging beneath that calm and approachable tee-to-green demeanour. He is hopelessly invested in his New York Rangers and New York Yankees, but nothing can touch his passion for his New York Football Giants. LaCava had the nerve to taunt Bill Belichick at the 2012 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. One day the New England coach was hitting balls on the range next to Mickelson, and LaCava let loose.
"How about my G-Men kicking the Patriots' asses again in the Super Bowl?" LaCava barked loudly at Mackay, who was standing near Belichick. "How great was that?"
LaCava has known longtime Giants executive Chris Mara for the better part of 20 years. In their many conversations at training camp, or by text, Mara said he has never heard the caddie say a single bad word about Woods, DJ or Couples.
"But Joe is very critical when it comes to (the Giants)," Mara said. "I get a lot of bad text messages from him after many of our losses. He thinks he's a coach. He laid into me about the draft. I had to spend 45 minutes with him explaining every pick."
(For the record, though, LaCava wasn't a big believer in Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins. LaCava does agree with the popular opinion that the Giants reached for Daniel Jones at No 6.)
That passion also manifested itself in a game of H-O-R-S-E at Tiger's house. LaCava used his jump shot to beat his boss in nine consecutive games, then called his wife to tell her that Woods was furious and, only half-kiddingly, no longer speaking to him. Megan suggested that maybe her husband should back off and let Tiger get a W. Joe told her that would never happen.
"I'm going to play my game," he said.
That story, said someone who knows Woods and LaCava, "speaks volumes about their relationship". So does the control, or lack thereof, that Tiger exerts over his caddie.
Woods and his camp have long subscribed to an inflexible policy with support staff that the less said publicly the better.
Yet Woods, longtime agent Mark Steinberg and chief spokesman Glenn Greenspan have clearly seen LaCava as a valuable public relations asset. The caddie is free to share stories of how an older Tiger isn't the Tiger of old, of how he's high-fiving more people, signing more autographs, making more eye contact.
"He's much more fan-friendly, which I think is awesome," LaCava said. "He's great with the kids, talking to guys in groups more ... and everybody out there is pulling for him."
LaCava said this while sitting in the back of Tiger's SUV in Augusta National's champions' parking lot - right after Woods' epic victory at the Masters. A week later, while picking at his favorite meatball panini dish at his favorite Southbury lunch place, Julio's, LaCava revealed a telling story.
Woods, he said, would often see a kid in the crowd, or a fan in a wheelchair, and quietly instruct the caddie to deliver a ball to that person.
"And then people clap around me like I'm doing something great," LaCava said, "but it was Tiger's idea. I'm not going to announce that when I give away a ball. This is probably the first time I'm sharing this, and I don't know if he even wants me saying it for a story. But too bad, I'm saying it."
Tiger Woods recalled one thing Joe LaCava said on Sunday morning, Apr 14, that helped him win his fifth green jacket.
"On the first tee, Joe said: 'Let's play loose, but intense,'" Woods said, "and I knew exactly what he meant."
They stayed in separate houses in Augusta, as usual, and LaCava arrived at the course before Woods did, as usual, for a final round moved up to beat the ominous weather forecast. For their 9.20am tee time with the leader, Francesco Molinari, and Tony Finau, LaCava was out checking pin placements in the dark at 6.45am Woods worked with his trainer in a room near the caddie shack, then met LaCava on the putting green at their normal time, about 90 minutes before their opening tee shot.
LaCava liked the way the surgically altered Woods was moving so early in the morning.
"That's the first thing I look for," the caddie said.
Tiger and LaCava followed their normal routine - about 12 minutes of putting, followed by 45-50 minutes on the range (Woods likes to get to the range at least one hour before his tee time), and then another five minutes of putting back on the practice green - before they headed to the first tee box, where the caddie gave the player his brief pep talk.
"Joe is really, really good at what you'd call an economy of words," said Mackay, now an NBC and Golf Channel analyst. "Joe is great at making his point - in not very many words, in a diplomatic fashion, in a very convincing way. Certainly with a guy like Tiger, who has a golf IQ as high as anyone's in the game, if not higher, it just makes for a perfect situation."
Mackay also described LaCava as a preparation freak and told a story of the last time Joe and Tiger played a tournament at Bethpage Black - the 2012 Barclays.
"They were with another player who was walking off the tee after hitting a driver on the 11th hole," Mackay said, "and the player and the caddie were discussing where the player's ball might've ended up, because he pulled it off the tee. And Joe said to them just very casually: 'That ball is in the first cut of the rough,'" which means Joe knew from 305 yards that the ball had finished in a 5- or 6-foot area because he knew the golf course so well ... When you combine all those things with the kind of confidence Joe carries himself with, that's a heck of a combination for a player to have to deal with. It's no wonder Tiger loves him to the degree that he does."
Woods would show his love on that glorious Sunday at Augusta. LaCava knew it was coming, too, even before he saw what he called "a great calmness" inside Tiger during the final round. The caddie worries a lot about the self-imposed weight of expectation on his boss.
"Tiger puts so much heat on himself," LaCava said.
So it was a good sign that Woods was relaxed enough on Wednesday to play his practice round as a foursome - he usually plays with only two others. And as one of those players, Couples, left the ninth green and headed for the Par 3 Contest, LaCava told him: "My man's ready."
Sometimes LaCava had to fire up Couples back in the day and boost his sagging confidence.
"Hey, grab a glove and get in the f---in' game," he barked at Couples after he fatted an iron off the third tee during the '92 Masters.
After Woods bogeyed the fifth hole on Sunday of this year's Masters, his second straight bogey of the round, LaCava ripped into him, too. Woods just listened as his caddie gave him a profane lecture.
"Then I went into the restroom and proceeded to say the same things over and over to myself," Woods said. "And then I came out and I felt a lot better."
Woods would play the next 10 holes in 3 under while Molinari drowned his hopes at the 12th and 15th. Tiger hit it tight at the 16th, then told Joe to look at the putt. Woods has deep respect for LaCava's ability to read greens, in part because the caddie consistently drains difficult putts on Tiger's backyard green.
"You don't expect a guy built like Brian Urlacher to be rolling in 10-footers," Mackay said, "and yet Joe can really roll it."
But this request by Tiger on the 16th on Sunday at the Masters was a bit ridiculous.
"Take a look?" LaCava said incredulously. "It's a foot and a half."
It was a little longer than that, but Woods knocked it in to get to 14 under and to grab the Masters by the throat.
"That was genius Joe LaCava," Mackay said. "How many caddies, in the biggest spot maybe those guys are ever going to be in, are going to laughingly look at their player and say: 'Are you kidding me? It's a foot and a half.' That's what makes Joe so good at what he does."
But as much as LaCava helped Woods, Tiger helped Joe, too. Woods has never yelled at LaCava for misclubbing him or for some other not-so-venial sin.
"Not once," Joe said. "I swear to you."
Asked if Tiger ever shot him a dirty look after a lousy read on the greens, LaCava said, "No. If anything, he does the opposite. He almost always comes back and says 'I pushed it', or 'I pulled it' ... And even the other caddies in the group, they admire that about Tiger. He takes ownership of everything."
Over the years, LaCava would sometimes tell Woods: "Hey, I'm a big boy. If you need more from me, less from me, whatever you need, just tell me. I want what's best for us. I know it's not your personality to scream at somebody all day, but if you need to get something off your chest while you're on the golf course, f---, fire away."
Woods would normally respond by simply saying: "We're all good."
So LaCava didn't have to worry when he suggested a 9-iron for the approach on the 13th, and when Tiger instead chose the correct 8-iron shot that led to his birdie. Nor did LaCava need to worry when Woods' tee shot to the right on the 18th left him blocked out in an area the caddie hadn't fully scouted. When he surveyed the course the previous Sunday, LaCava decided against walking past the Drive, Chip & Putt Championship unfolding on the 18th green and possibly ending up on TV ("I didn't want to look like Joe Caddie," he said), and never returned to the right side of that hole until Tiger put his final tee ball there ... and discovered the severe overhang of the obstructing tree.
"Now I'm feeling: 'Oh s---, I didn't do my job,'" LaCava said.
Woods didn't blink, even with mud on his ball. He needed only a bogey to win, so he sliced an 8-iron short of the bunker, chipped onto the green and two-putted to close out one of the greatest American sports stories ever told.
"It's the first time I saw you smile all week," LaCava's daughter, Lauren, told him.
Woods and his caddie hugged and playfully shoved each other, and, of course, Tiger told Joe "We did it" instead of "I did it".
In the scoring room, Woods turned to LaCava and said, "This is the first time I've come from behind to win a major."
Typical Tiger, the caddie thought.
"He knows exactly what he's done and hasn't done," LaCava said.
The room eventually cleared out, except for one green jacket who kept reminding them, over and over, that they had to get to the ceremony quickly. The man was just doing his job, a fairly important one.
"But we both kind of looked at him like: 'Get away from us. Let us enjoy this for 10 seconds,'" LaCava said. "He went out the door, like he almost read our minds."
And then Tiger and Joe stared at each other. No words required.
Tiger spent part of the aftermath thinking about what this all meant to his kids, his mother and his late father.
Joe did the same. His dad died of leukemia in 2009, at age 72, and never saw his son ride shotgun with arguably the greatest golfer ever. Joe's mom, Mary Ann, almost never watches golf tournaments on TV, but she was smart enough to head over to her daughter's to watch this one.
LaCava grabbed the flagstick from the 18th hole and loaded it into Tiger's SUV, then conducted interviews as he sat in the cargo area of the black Mercedes. He eventually made his way to Butler Cabin, where he was later joined by his wife. Without a credential, Megan had talked her way past a security guard and waited and waited near the caddie shack, with her husband's peers, for the winning caddie to show. He never did. Cellphones aren't allowed at Augusta National, but someone put out an APB on Joe, put Megan in a cart and, after more than an hour, the LaCavas were reunited at last.
Joe later wore his sweat-drenched Saquon Barkley T-shirt and shorts to a ballroom filled with men in green jackets and women in formal dresses and merrily drank some cold Bud Light. LaCava would tell The Caddie Network that he read some of his 670 text messages before going to bed that night, including one from his boss.
"Appreciate you hanging in there with me," it read. "I love you like a brother."
Tiger had said a lot of kind things in past texts to Joe. "But 'love you like a brother', I don't think that has been in there," the caddie said.
LaCava did some Monday interviews before and after his flight to LaGuardia. At some point he texted Chris Mara to honour Joe's tradition of matching up Tiger's total victories (in this case, 81) with the Giants who wore that jersey number (in this case, Andy Robustelli and Amani Toomer). Finally, LaCava made it to his Southbury home with his best friend, the former high school tennis player he married 25 years ago this September.
They met at a Danbury sports bar. Joe took her to a Clint Eastwood movie ("Unforgiven") on their first date, and then to the US Open tennis tournament on their second; Joe impressed Megan by buying her a US$20 Open hat. She knows Joe the way Joe knows his players. Over the years, Megan has watched her husband connect with them, push them, calm them, respond to their body language.
"It's a gift," she said.
A gift that helped the caddie read Woods like a book.
"Somehow Joe knew Tiger would make it back," Megan said. "To have that belief and gut feeling for someone is a special thing."
Before they attend their daughter's college graduation on May 25, the LaCavas will have a date at Bethpage, where Woods won the US Open in a different life with a different caddie. Joe will be among scores of his fellow New York sports fans. It would be a hell of a place for him to win his next major.
But win or lose on Long Island, Joe and Megan will always have that moment they shared after they returned to Connecticut, unpacked their bags and fell into each other's arms. Megan told her husband that she couldn't believe this was happening and that she was so proud of him for pulling it off.
Joe looked at his wife and said the three words that will forever define the 2019 Masters: "We did it."