In Defense of Joe LaCava

A former insider on why Patrick Cantlay’s caddie deserves a Ryder Cup do-over
Joe LaCava Rory McIlroy 2023 Ryder Cup

There’s nothing in golf like the heat of a Ryder Cup moment. But Saturday’s session at Marco Simone was intense even by those standards. Patrick Cantlay sparked the gallery’s ire by not wearing a hat, apparently in protest of the PGA of America’s lack of player compensation. And when he drilled a 43-foot putt on the 18th green, tensions boiled over when his caddie, Joe LaCava, doffed his cap toward the rabid fans. But he did it perilously close to Rory McIlroy’s line—the Northern Irishman still had a 20-footer to tie. McIlroy missed the putt and lost the match, which led to the now famous scenes of him shouting at the Americans in the parking lot post-round. We don’t condone LaCava’s actions, but there is much more to the man who has been on Fred Couples’ and Tiger Woods’ bag. To fill in the gaps, we turned to Jim Moriarty, who covered the PGA Tour for decades, and knows LaCava much better than one hot moment in Rome.—Travis Hill

It was the week of the 1999 U.S. Open in Pinehurst. My pub, the Bitter and Twisted over in Southern Pines, was experiencing an influx of out-of-towners. As I leaned against the bar, my ears perked up when I heard a familiar name, but didn’t see a familiar face. A gentleman—and I use the term advisedly—was attempting to pick up a young lady. His come-on: Claiming that he was Fred Couples’ caddie. She had other friends to chat with, but seemed mildly interested. When an appropriate opportunity presented itself, I leaned over to the young man and said, “You’re not Fred Couples’ caddie. I know Fred Couples’ caddie.” It was enough to send the fellow slinking off.

The next time I ran into Joe LaCava, leaning on Fred’s bag at a practice range somewhere on the Tour’s traveling circus, I shared the story with him. “What the hell?” I said, “This guy thought he could impress someone by pretending to be you.” We had a good laugh.

When you spend 35 years hanging around touring professionals, you get to know your fair share of caddies. They figure out which media types they can trust, and the media types figure out which caddies will give trustworthy information. This does not mean that Joey and I are best buddies. But we shared that respect.

Our interactions were most often like the time I stopped to chat on the practice ground at Innisbrook’s Copperhead Course in Tampa about a decade ago. Fred had been announced as the Presidents Cup captain a couple of weeks before, long enough that it was an old story. He was staring down at something in his hands, mildly befuddled. Fred famously doesn’t wear a glove and whenever he got a blister, he covered it with super glue. He was fighting the bottle like it was child proof and he was the toddler. 

“Joey bought the wrong kind,” Fred said, clearly miffed.

“I bought the only kind they had,” Joe said, shaking his head. Stay together long enough, and players and caddies interact like an old married couple.

The bottle of super glue from the 7-Eleven opened differently than the kind Fred preferred. Golf professionals don’t much care for change. And Fred, who had reached a certain age, couldn’t read the directions. “Here, try these,” I said, and passed over my reading glasses. Fred put them on, read the directions, got the bottle open and covered the blister.

“These are great,” he said, handing back my glasses.

“Seventeen dollars at the CVS,” I said, then turned to walk down the range.

“Hey, where are you going?” Fred called after me. He thought I wanted some quotes about the Presidents Cup. All I really wanted to do was say hello to Joey.

I’ve been to more than my share of Ryder Cups. I was at The Country Club when the U.S. team mounted the biggest comeback in Ryder Cup history, and I was at Medinah Country Club when the Europeans returned the favor. I was at Valderama to watch two Swedes dance down the 17th fairway as the crowd chanted “Olè, Olè.” I was at Kiawah Island when the Americans threw Dave Stockton in the Atlantic and I was at The Belfry the last time the U.S. won on the other side of the same ocean. I was at Valhalla, Oak Hill and PGA National. But I was not in Rome this year and I have no independent knowledge of what went on with Patrick Cantlay’s hat nonsense and Joe’s interaction with Rory McIlroy on the 18th green after Cantlay ran the tables in fourball on Saturday. Here’s what I can confirm: Joey is fiercely loyal to his bag.

The last 19 years I covered golf championships, I wore a Carolina Panthers hat. The reason—outside of an apparently enduring appreciation for futility—was to have an identifiable trademark. If I wrote something about a player that the player thought was unfair or just plain wrong, I wanted him or her to be able to find me. They could ask someone, “Hey, who the hell is this guy anyway?” And their friend or caddie or whoever could reply, “He’s the asshole wearing the Panthers cap.” And the player could find me to register their displeasure. Fair is fair.

In 2011 at the Tour Championship in Atlanta, I was wandering around with my Panthers hat on and Joey was, by then, Tiger Woods’ caddie. Joe is a huge Giants fan and they were playing my Panthers in a Thursday night game. We bet a six-pack of beer on it. Eli Manning was 27 of 35 for 288 yards and a touchdown. The Giants led 20-0 at the half. Cam Newton threw three interceptions. The final was 36-7. (Remember what I said about futility?) When I showed up the next day, Joey said, “You got a lot of nerve wearing that hat.”

I asked him what kind of beer he drank and he said Bud Light Lime. “Joey,” I said, “don’t ever tell anyone that.”

Shortly thereafter, Tiger Woods drifted off for one reason or another and in 2014 my magazine, Golf World, stopped appearing in print and I drifted away too. Our paths stopped crossing and I still owe Joey that Bud Light Lime.

And I’d be willing to bet all six bottles that he’d like to have a do-over on his exchange with McIlroy on the 18th green in Rome, because I know Joe would never want to insert himself into the competition. If anyone deserves a mulligan it’s him.

Photo by Zac Goodwin/PA Images via Getty Images