Commentary

Joe LaCava proud Newtown native

For the first time, Tiger Woods' caddie talks about what happened in his hometown

Updated: July 21, 2013, 7:16 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPN.com

GULLANE, Scotland -- Joe LaCava is Tiger Woods' caddie, a position ranking him among the world's most prominent aides. As he carries the bag with the striped Tiger head cover, LaCava is instantly recognizable on the grounds of the Open Championship as the man most responsible for helping Woods try to end his major championship drought.

But LaCava isn't only a caddie who read a half-dozen of Tiger's putts Friday (more than the norm) in guiding his man to an even-par second round and a 2-under total that left him one shot out of the lead. LaCava isn't only a proud contributor to Tiger Woods' quest to finally become Tiger Woods again this weekend at Muirfield.

Joe LaCava, 49-year-old husband and the father of two teens, is also a proud 30-year resident of Newtown, Conn., site of one of the worst mass murders in American history.

[+] EnlargeJoe LaCava
Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty ImagesSure, Joe LaCava caddies for Tiger Woods. But at heart, he's a guy from Newtown, Conn., who will never forget the tragedy that happened in his backyard.

"There isn't really a day that goes by that I don't think about it," LaCava told ESPN.com on Friday.

In the seven months since a gunman fatally shot 20 first-graders and six faculty members at Sandy Hook Elementary School, LaCava never publicly spoke about the killings or the impact it had on his family, friends and hometown. He still finds it hard to believe such an unspeakable crime could be committed in a town of 28,000 residents he remembers as tranquil and protective of its own.

"I hate to make the comparison, but when it first happened the feeling was similar to 9/11," LaCava said. "You're more stunned than anything else, and you just can't believe the victims are kids. As a father, you can't imagine going to that school to find out if your kid is there or not.

"I watched the entire coverage because I just had to know what was going on. My wife at times would say, 'You've got to turn it off,' but I said, 'I can't. How can I not watch?' I wanted answers. I needed to hear how this could happen where I grew up."

LaCava attended Middle Gate, one of Newtown's three elementary schools, before playing golf, basketball and football at Newtown High. His best friend and future best man at his wedding, Bob Gibbons, was a golf and basketball teammate who remembered LaCava, the athlete, like this:

"Just a great competitor who always made people around him better. I always felt like I played better when Joe was on my team than when he wasn't."

On the morning of Dec. 14, 2012, LaCava's wife, Megan, texted her husband that there was a shooting at Sandy Hook and that he should contact Gibbons, whose wife, Terri, worked there as a teacher's aide.

"Joe was constantly texting me about my wife and whether she was OK," Gibbons said from his home. "She wasn't in the classroom where the shootings happened, but she was down the hall and was evacuated out the back and taken with everyone else to the fire station, where it became clear not every class was showing up.

"My wife was shown some pictures when they couldn't identify some of the children, and that was the hardest part of it for her. She knew those kids and their families well. She taught them swimming lessons. She was devastated and couldn't talk about it."

[+] EnlargeNewtown, Conn
AP Photo/Charles KrupaPeople's thoughts will always be with Newtown. Count Joe LaCava among those who will always remember.

The LaCavas and Gibbonses went ahead with their annual Christmastime dinner a week after the killings.

"We didn't ask [Terri] about what she saw," Joe recalled.

Nobody from Newtown was asking any friend or neighbor who was inside Sandy Hook about what they saw.

"You can't comprehend how this can happen," LaCava said. "You knew about Columbine, but this was your home and these kids were 6 years old."

LaCava's mother, Mary Ann, still lives in Newtown, where she and her late husband, Joe Jr., raised their four children in a modest ranch home. Joe Jr. was the captain of an undefeated Danbury High football team, enlisting in the Army before landing a job at Newtown Savings Bank years later. Joe Jr. coached his three daughters and Joe III in everything, and he personified Newtown's slice-of-Americana feel as much as the big flagpole in the center of Main Street.

Joe Jr. died of leukemia four years ago. His high school sweetheart, Mary Ann, had no desire to leave Newtown then and has no desire to leave it now.

"People are staying here and supporting each other," Mary Ann said from her home. "I see us binding together, caring more, taking more time to stop and talk. There was always a community feel here, and a lot of prayer groups, but now the prayer is more out in the open."

For good reason.

"I taught kindergarten and second grade for years," Mary Ann said, "and it took me days and days to come out of my shock after Sandy Hook. It took your breath away to picture it. The granddaughter of my friends was among those killed. Children of that age are so delightful, so full of life, so trusting of adults. In some ways, I still don't think I'm out of my shock.

"It had a big impact on my son Joe, too. He's got a tender heart, and he loves children, and I could tell he was really affected by it."

Fellow caddies called Joe in the hours and days after the tragedy. They asked about him, about his family and about his shattered hometown.

It meant a lot, too. Joe LaCava is universally liked and respected on tour, and he remains a source of pride to the locals back home, the people who remember him as a kid making $4.50 an hour working in a cemetery, as a kid who, like two of his sisters, paid his own way through Western Connecticut State University.

"We couldn't afford to go anywhere else," LaCava said, "not even in-state."

LaCava made it big when he won the Masters with Fred Couples and when he landed the bag belonging to Woods.

"I can't get over the number of people in Newtown who come up to me to say how proud they are of Joe," Mary Ann said.

"I can't go anywhere in town without people asking me about Joe, or if I've seen his wife and kids lately," said Bob Gibbons, whose wife is back to work at Sandy Hook, which has a temporary home at the former Chalk Hill Middle School in neighboring Monroe.

"A model of resilience," Gibbons called her.

Just like the rest of Newtown.

LaCava now lives some eight miles away in Southbury, a short commute to his regular lunches with his mom. He's a fan of the Yankees, Knicks, Giants and Rangers, his old man's teams of choice, and scoffs at the idea that he himself qualifies as a celebrity.

"I work for a celebrity," LaCava said. "I've been hearing from a lot of old friends telling me that they take a lot of pride in the fact that I'm from Newtown, and that I'm working for the greatest athlete in the world."

The caddie will do everything he can to get that great athlete to the house Sunday at Muirfield. But win, lose or draw at the Open Championship, Joe LaCava won't belong exclusively to Tiger Woods.

He'll always belong to Newtown, Connecticut, too.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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