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Joe LaCava patiently waiting at home for Tiger Woods to return

Joe LaCava knows about looping for a PGA Tour pro with a bad back. For the better part of two decades he was on the bag of Fred Couples, including during their victory run at the 1992 Masters. Jamie Squire/Getty Images

If circumstances were progressing as usual, Joe LaCava might be in Tiger Woods' ear about returning to Riviera, where the golfer has not played for 10 years. Or perhaps he'd be planning for the annual swing in Florida, with the possibility of an Augusta National side trip part of the itinerary.

There likely would have already been visits to Torrey Pines and possibly Phoenix or maybe even to the Middle East, where LaCava traveled with Woods on three different occasions.

Instead, LaCava has started his 30th year as a caddie waiting and wondering like everyone else when Woods, 40, might be healthy enough to play competitive golf again.

Woods has had two back surgeries since he last played at the Wyndham Championship -- which was nearly six months ago.

"I miss it, for sure,'' LaCava said in an interview with ESPN.com. "I never complain about being home, but I miss working in general. Then when you see a tournament like San Diego come along, a place he owns and you think, he's won at this place ... that stinks. I miss my buddies, some of the caddies, going out to dinner. But most of all I miss being in the hunt and winning. Definitely miss it, how could you not?''

LaCava, 52, lives in Connecticut and highlighted all of the positives of the long layoff. He got to see all 10 of his son Joe's high school football games. He was able to drop his daughter, Lauren, off at college near Boston. A big sports fan, he has been to numerous Giants, Rangers and UConn games.

Then there's golf, and instead of caddying, he was playing. Often. LaCava, a 6-handicap, estimated he played as many as 50 rounds from September through November, and some at places like Ridgewood and Baltusrol, where the PGA Championship will be later this year.

"That's a ton for me,'' LaCava said. "Some days were 27 holes. And I had a blast doing it. And I'm surprised how many of my friends could take off, you know, guys with normal jobs. I never had trouble filling a foursome.''

LaCava joked he has been home so much that his wife, Megan, would like him out of the house.

"Yeah, she's tired of me. That's automatic isn't it?'' he said. "I say that in a funny way. It's been nice to be home for many things.''

It's a strong bet that he will be home for a good bit longer. Woods' last public appearance was the week of the Hero World Challenge in early December, when his news conference took on a somber tone as he said any accomplishments from this point would "be gravy.''

"We all know he has the ability. He certainly hasn't lost any of his work ethic. Does the back issue worry people? I lived it with Fred. When you have a back issue it's tough, in all sports, specifically golf."

Joe LaCava, Tiger Woods' caddie

At the time, Woods had yet to begin rehabilitation from surgery, and there is little to indicate at this point that much progress has been made.

LaCava was aware of the negativity that came from some of Woods' comments, but didn't get the same sense from the golfer when he saw him on two occasions later that month.

They attended a Giants-Dolphins Monday Night Football game together, and then LaCava returned to South Florida to celebrate Woods' 40th birthday on Dec. 30. "A week later [after the Hero] and certainly three weeks after, I didn't get that impression at all from him in the two times that I was down there,'' said LaCava, who felt he saw more positives than negatives. "When we went to the Giants game, it was guys having a good time. He knows how big a fan I am of the Giants, so he teases me, gives me a hard time. At that point I know he's a ways from coming back, and I'm not going to press the issue. I want him to take this time. But this was a buddies trip, and in hanging out with buddies, I sense he's very positive about the future.''

Still, nearly six months after Woods last played, not working for all that time, not sure when you're going to work again ...

"I understand what you are asking and what I'll tell you is this: Tiger has been great to me since day one,'' LaCava said. "And he continues to be great and very generous with me.''

LaCava understandably does not want to delve into those details, but as Woods has suffered through injuries and layoffs, it is sometimes easy to forget that he has won nine times -- each with a first-place check of $1 million or more -- going back to the end of 2011.

Since going to work for Woods starting at the Frys.com Open in 2011, LaCava has caddied for him in 64 official worldwide events -- and that doesn't count two Presidents Cups and a Ryder Cup or any corporate activities. During that time, Woods has earned more than $16.4 million on the PGA Tour alone.

But Woods is not making any money on the golf course now, so it is fair to wonder if LaCava has explored or been asked about any other opportunities.

"A couple of guys approached me, I don't want to name any names, but I [politely] said no,'' LaCava said about offers to caddie part-time. "My plan is to wait for Tiger to get back. I've told them I just want to work for Tiger and nobody else at this point. They were all nice about it. They didn't know what my situation was. I've elected to wait things out with Tiger and that is my plan going forward.''

LaCava has had a long career inside the ropes. He began caddying for Ken Green in 1987. He then went to work for Fred Couples in 1990, the start of a successful partnership that lasted more than 20 years, during which LaCava counted 12 victories, including the 1992 Masters and 1996 Players Championship.

Over the years, when Couples took breaks due to his own back issues that began in 1994, LaCava caddied for the likes of Mark Calcavecchia, Justin Leonard, Mike Hulbert, John Cook, Jay Haas, Bill Haas and Camilo Villegas.

He stayed with Couples on the Champions Tour until the golfer encouraged him to go with a younger player who would be able to offer a more steady income. That's when he went to work for Dustin Johnson in early 2011, and they contended at The Open that year and also won the Barclays.

But when Woods -- who had parted ways with Steve Williams earlier in 2011 -- inquired about his services, LaCava didn't waste much time fretting over the decision. "Because he's Tiger Woods,'' LaCava said at the time. "It's a no-brainer. That's my thought. It's Tiger Woods, right?''

"A couple of guys approached me, I don't want to name any names, but I [politely] said no."

Joe LaCava, Tiger Woods' caddie, on offers to work for another golfer

And that attitude persists. Even though there have been long bouts of inactivity in 2014, 2015 and now into 2016, LaCava said he has no regrets.

"None whatsoever,'' he said. "That's meant to be a positive toward Tiger and not a negative toward anyone. We all know what Dustin has done and what he is capable of. It's certainly not a knock on him. But I love working for Tiger. He's been fantastic to me. Generous from the get-go. Is it frustrating at times? Of course it is. It is for him. But you can't do anything about those things.''

LaCava was among many who were encouraged after Woods' performance at the Wyndham Championship. Woods tied for 10th after sharing the 36-hole lead, his best finish of the year. He didn't qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs. But after a break and more work with instructor Chris Como, Woods was expected to play at least three fall tournaments with an eye toward being fully ready to go in 2016.

It didn't work out that way, as Woods had a second microdiscectomy surgery Sept. 16 on his lower back. (The first was March 31, 2014.) He had another back operation on Oct. 28 in the same area.

"I was pretty optimistic the way he played, certainly,'' LaCava said. "I'm right next to him so I knew he was in more pain than most people. I didn't know it would lead to what it would lead to. I don't know enough about it to talk intelligently, I just know it [back pain] comes and goes.

"But as far as the golf, I thought he played very well. It was looking like full steam ahead. Like I always say, more reps. I just liked the fact he was going to play more golf after the playoffs. I was looking forward to those. I was thinking at the time that he gets four or five weeks off to practice that stuff and start working on his swing and then looking forward to '16.''

Now he is looking forward to ...?

LaCava said he remains confident that Woods will return to form with time and has shown a good bit of confidence and loyalty by patiently waiting for him to return.

"I know what he's capable of,'' LaCava said. "I saw it these years I worked for him. We all know he has the ability. He certainly hasn't lost any of his work ethic. Does the back issue worry people? I lived it with Fred. When you have a back issue it's tough, in all sports, specifically golf.

"I still have faith he's going to continue to do well and win. My thought is he will overcome the injury or whatever you want to call it. He might not be able to play as often as he would like. Once he's healed from this, he'll come back and play again and play well. My outlook is basically the same as when I started with him. He's Tiger Woods.''