Kroichick: Do caddies really make a difference?

Oct 7 2011 - 4:10pm

Tiger Woods naturally will come under the most scrutiny in this week's Frys.com Open, as he plays a PGA Tour event for the first time in nearly two months and tries, once again, to rediscover his game.

The man on the spot more than anyone other than Woods might be Joe LaCava, and he won't hit a single shot.

LaCava will make his debut as Woods' caddie at CordeValle, unofficially in today's pro-am (weather permitting) and Thursday in the tournament's opening round. Woods' decision to hire LaCava, finalized last week, unfolded like a presidential cabinet appointment: shrouded in mystery, loaded with gravity, dissected in detail.

All of which raises a relevant question: How much do caddies matter, anyway?

Some tour pros change caddies more often than they change socks. Others stick with one man for the long haul, as Woods did for 12 years with Steve Williams and as Phil Mickelson has done for nearly 20 years with Jim "Bones" Mackay.

Woods did not become the dominant player of his generation because of Williams, but caddies make a difference, especially given the depth on today's tour and the razor-thin line separating winning and losing.

"They make a lot of difference," said Kevin Na, who earned his first PGA Tour victory Sunday in Las Vegas. "If your caddie can help you one shot a round, even a half-shot, he's doing his job."

Na leans on Kenny Harms, a longtime caddie who spent many years working for Hale Irwin. Na appreciates Harms' positive reinforcement, which came into play when Na made bogey on the 14th hole of Sunday's final round.

That dropped him into a tie for the lead with Nick Watney. Na occasionally lets a small misstep grow into something bigger -- witness his 16 on a par-4 at the Texas Open in April -- but Harms immediately approached his boss and said, "Not a problem. We're going to birdie the next few holes."

Na did exactly that on Nos. 15, 16 and 17 and landed in the winner's circle.

There's more to the job, of course, than simply offering encouragement. Most players turn to their caddies to help read putts, make suggestions on club selection and devise strategy for playing a particular course.

The consensus among several tour pros interviewed Wednesday was that caddies absolutely can affect the outcome of a tournament, mostly by remaining calm and clear-headed when the tension rises.

"They need to be invisible, and then when you need them, they need to be right there," two-time tour winner Paul Stankowski said. "In baseball terms, we're the pitcher and he's the catcher."

Ron Levin, then, counts as one of the sturdiest catchers around. He's a longtime tour caddie who has worked for Jack Nicklaus, Todd Hamilton, Anthony Kim and David Duval, among others.

Sometimes, the job requires a deft touch. Hamilton credited Levin with easing the stress during the final round and playoff of the 2004 British Open, in part by chatting about other sports between shots. (Hamilton is a big college football fan.)

Other times, the job requires swift action. Duval nearly tried to chop a shot out of thick rough during the tour event in San Diego in January. Levin stopped Duval and reminded him to make sure it was his ball. It wasn't. The timely intervention saved Duval a potentially disastrous hole, and he proceeded to tie for 17th and earn $87,000.

"You're like a center on the football team," Levin said. "Your job is to get the ball to the quarterback without fumbling or getting called for a penalty."

This brings us back to Woods and LaCava, suddenly the most intriguing tandem in the game. Woods has had only two full-time caddies in his 15-plus years as a pro: first Mike "Fluff" Cowan and then Williams, the occasionally abrasive New Zealander not afraid to confront fans or photographers.

LaCava was the longtime caddie for Fred Couples, so working alongside a big-name player comes as nothing new. LaCava also knows Woods fairly well because Woods and Couples are good friends. This obviously will help.

The partnership ultimately will be judged on one thing: the numbers on Woods' scorecard. He hasn't won a tournament in nearly two years. It falls to Woods to hit the shots to end this drought, but LaCava can help guide him there.

"I'm sure Joe will be a good influence," Hamilton said. "It's just a matter of seeing Tiger's tendencies, maybe getting him to slow down at certain times. No matter how much he's won, because he hasn't had much success lately, everything is going to speed up for him when he has a chance again."

Or, as Stankowski said, "Tiger is going to win again no matter who is on his bag. But the caddie is going to help him along by not getting sucked into the moment."

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