Hawk's Nest: LaCava's Tiger decision keeps looking better


Wind. Rain. Cold. Pro golf has its Big Three, and we had ours at the Little Brown Dog’s annual member/member, my personal favorite among the three or four big events at the club. Bidding was up – a couple of teams went for $2,600 in the Calcutta – but we weren’t playing it down, as the atrocious conditions led to preferred lies everywhere but in bunkers and other hazards.

Casual water, anyone? Competing with a partner, especially one who chips and putts like Bobby D., will always float my boat, but the excess energy required to play in lousy weather can be a real drain on the middle-aged psyche. All those layers of clothing in addition to the fear and loathing, then fluffing it up in the rough and trying to putt through a creek suddenly bisecting the fifth green …

“I’ve never heard of a wind-chill index on Memorial Day weekend,” Kano cracked Saturday afternoon. Easy for him to say – he’d withdrawn from the tournament two days earlier because we had an odd number of participants. See? Sometimes, nice guys do finish first.

MY LONGTIME FRIEND Joe LaCava obviously had better things to do over the holiday than test the threshold of his rain gear. Since getting to know LaCava in the mid-1990s while he was solidifying his reputation as one of the game’s best caddies under Fred Couples, I’ve always been impressed with his abundance of instinctive intelligence. He’s smart in a very simple kind of way.

Two years have passed since LaCava left Couples to work for Dustin Johnson, a relationship that lasted for five months before he was hired by Tiger Woods. In October 2011, many people thought LaCava was making a huge mistake by leaving Johnson, who had won three times in 18 months and appeared to be evolving into one of the world’s top players.

Woods was still struggling from the repercussions of post-hydrant syndrome. With each start that summer, he looked less and less like the player he’d once been, but to me, LaCava’s decision to accept Tiger’s offer fell somewhere between a calculated risk and a no-brainer.

Even at 75 or 80 percent of the level he’d reached in his prime, Woods was and is a better player than Johnson. A much better putter, a far more tenacious competitor and clearly more durable under Sunday pressure. I said it repeatedly on my live chats during the 2011 FedEx Cup playoffs: LaCava would be nuts not to go work for Woods, and the caddie I know doesn’t have a single pistachio in his mental makeup.

As usual, LaCava made the smart move. Tiger’s high ceiling isn’t the only reason Joe did the right thing, however. More on Johnson in a bit.

NOT TO BRAG or anything, but I did pick Boo Weekley in the Fantasy Challenge this past week. I indulge in this brief moment of self-glorification not because I’m very good at picking winners, which I am not, but because Weekley and Colonial make perfect sense. If a PGA Tour venue requires you to drive it straight and hit lots of precise iron shots into tiny greens, Boo is a can-do.

You know where else Weekley might emerge as a serious factor? Merion GC, site of the upcoming U.S. Open. Don’t listen to me, though. I’m pretty awful at predicting the future.

TWO MEMBERS OF last fall’s U.S. Ryder Cup team failed to hold 54-hole leads in Texas. Keegan Bradley at the Byron Nelson, then Matt Kuchar at Colonial, and though each guy led by only a stroke going into Sunday, there is an element to their demises that relates to my take on Johnson.

Three of his seven Tour victories have come in 54-hole events, a freakish trend even when you consider that Johnson has come up short on Sunday three times at major championships. Now it’s not Johnson’s fault that the weather was lousy at Kapalua, The Barclays and Pebble Beach – you don’t give back a quarter of the winner’s check because there never was a final round.

About half of all 54-hole leaders go on to win the event. Would Johnson have finished first in all three of those tournaments if they hadn’t been shortened by weather? Perhaps, but we’re talking about a very talented player who suffered through an unsightly meltdown at the 2010 U.S. Open, a guy who missed a spot in the playoff at the PGA Championship two months later because he didn’t know a local rule posted all over the locker room, a guy who shanked an iron out of bounds with the game on the line at the 2011 British Open.

History doesn’t lie, regardless of whether it tells the entire story. Some people out there think Johnson could become a dominant player, but I’m not one of them. I think he lacks the focus and passion to become a big, big deal, and nothing in his personal life will lead me to feel any differently about him anytime soon.

I don’t understand how anyone that big and strong can continue to struggle with injuries. I don’t understand the wild inconsistencies in his putting statistics over the course of his career, and I definitely don’t understand how a kid who grew up in Myrtle Beach can be so lousy in a bunker.

Without question, Johnson has immense physical gifts. It explains why he can be so slipshod in several aspects of the game and still collect $4 million a year in earnings. If LaCava had stayed with him, Johnson might be further along in his career than he is now, but that is something of a moot point at this juncture.

I’ve probably been harder on Woods than any athlete I’ve covered in my 30 years as a sportswriter. I also think he is the greatest pressure performer who ever lived – a man of such enormous mental toughness that many of his conquests have come about because of sheer will.

When I contacted LaCava Saturday to ask him about he decision he made in the summer/fall 2011, he politely declined to comment, saying, “I would just [like to] lay low and fly under the radar. Certainly hope you understand.”

I’m probably not the only one. I told you he was a smart guy.