April 27, 2009

Bruise Brothers

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favorite pastime: For sports junkies Couples and LaCava, nothing beats a day off, a soft couch and a bunch of games on TV.

It is Monday before the Masters, and a big Monday it is for Fred Couples and Joe LaCava. Not so much because the year's first major beckons, but because their off-day after a tiring week at the Shell Houston Open offers a feast of sports on television: back-to-back-to-back season openers in baseball, followed by the NCAA men's basketball championship tilt between North Carolina and Michigan State. "I haven't moved all afternoon and don't plan on moving," says Couples, plopped comfortably in a cushy recliner directly across from a flat-screen showing the New York Mets and Cincinnati Reds. Freddie never needs an excuse to do nothing for extended time periods, but he has one now. He played 54 holes in two days down in Texas, then arrived late Sunday night to the house he is renting a couple miles from Augusta National.

The fact that Couples, who seemed poised for his first PGA Tour victory since 2003 (also in Houston), finished with three consecutive bogeys does not appear to have wrecked his mood. Couples' achy back needs a rest, but otherwise he seems up to the task of pursuing a favorite diversion: bonding with LaCava, his trusted caddie of 20 years, an eternity for such partnerships. Golfers change caddies like they change grips, with regularity and without much fanfare. Couples and LaCava, however, not only see each other on the course, they socialize off it.

"We met in Japan a long time ago," Couples says. "I don't remember exactly what event, but it was probably another one I lost on the last three holes." LaCava, stretched out on the couch to Couples' left, picks up the story from there. He was working for cousin Ken Green, who had decided to bring his brother out. "I heard Fred was looking for a new full-time guy, so I called him," LaCava says. "Then I called him again, and again. Naturally, he didn't call back for a couple months. Finally, he picks up the phone around Christmas and tells me he's going to play four in a row on the West Coast starting the 1990 season. 'Would I like to work? Of course.' "

Couples, who pretended to be watching the ballgame while LaCava tweaked his communications skills, immediately counters: "Joe, I didn't wait two months, and besides you didn't know a 2-iron from a 7-iron then." In most employer/employee scenarios, taunts such as these would be indicative of latent hostility. But to these two beauties, barbs are a way of life, not unlike breathing. In theory, Couples is management and LaCava is labor. In theory. That doesn't apply this day or most days really. Besides, LaCava brought over lunch so Couples could remain immobile.

"You figure it out," sighs Couples, who turns 50 in October. "I been married twice and can't stay married. But I've been with Joe for 20 friggin' years." On the scant possibility that he might come off as sentimental or profound, Freddie catches himself. Now he throws the harpoon. "You would think," he says, talking to a guest and pretending LaCava, 45, is suddenly invisible, "that a guy wouldn't do what Joe did to me in 1993. On top of that, I just found out about it! He did it on purpose! Tell him the Westchester story, Joe. Go, ahead. Tell him." Feigning anger, Couples turns the floor over to LaCava.

The Westchester Story LaCava: It was a week I dreaded because Fred was staying a long way from the course. I knew with the traffic and all, he would be miserable. Which he was. I had friends and family down from Connecticut, and they were going to pull for Fred because he's such a nice guy. There was only one problem. He didn't want to be there. He didn't want to see anybody from Westchester, from New York City, from the entire state.

Couples: Joe, you're getting pretty dramatic, but that part is true. I was miserable. This house I'm staying at, it's a mansion. I take a walk one morning. Guys are out front painting the columns, touching 'em up. I ask what's going on. They say they're getting ready for the party that night. I ask who the party is for. 'Party is for you,' they tell me. Well, that's nice. I don't want any party for me. Now, I'm all nervous. I go and shoot the temperature, which was like 90. So, yeah, I was miserable.

LaCava: So miserable, he's just stepping up and slapping the ball for four days then firing clubs toward me. How he made the cut, I don't know. I know he didn't want to. Anyway, 18th hole on Sunday, he hits his 6-iron. Then he throws it toward me. I've had enough. I leave it in the rough. Next week at Baltusrol for the U.S. Open, he's practicing on a par 3, 180 or so yards. He wants the 6-iron. But there is no 6-iron. When he asked where the 6-iron was, I wanted to say, 'About a half hour away.' Instead I tell him I don't know, maybe someone stole it. I played dumb.

Couples: And here's the worst part. After all these years thinking the thing just got lost, I find out in Houston last week that Joe left it there on purpose because he was so pissed. Just left the club there to get run over by lawn mowers. I should have fired him. But I can't. And you know he ain't gonna quit. Where can you have so much fun while you're making bogeys on the last three holes to lose in Houston?

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Jim Mackay, a friend of both, says LaCava is the best caddie on the PGA Tour. Oddly enough, when LaCava first worked with Couples at the 1990 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, Mackay was making his tour debut with Larry Mize. Mackay's tenure with Phil Mickelson is notable, yet not as enduring as Couples-LaCava. "Joe will never make a big deal about this," says Mackay, "but at the 2005 Presidents Cup in the States, Tiger Woods asked Joe to caddie for him. Steve Williams wanted to be home because his wife was about to have a child, and Tiger obviously could have had his pick of anybody. He took Joe. But then Fred made the team, so Joe caddied for him, and Billy Foster worked for Tiger."

Couples says he encouraged LaCava to switch to Woods for that week, anyway. But LaCava is loyal. "My dad worked for the same bank, my mother taught at the same school for 30-plus years," he says. "We've had a nice run. People forget Fred was No. 1 in the world for a while and made a lot of money and had a lot of laughs."

Couples does not play a heavy schedule, allowing LaCava occasionally to moonlight with others, such as Davis Love III. Couples will captain this year's U.S. Presidents Cup team and promises LaCava will be appointed to a "huge" job. "It's a secret, because it's so huge," Couples says.

LaCava gives that the old eye-roll. "In a perfect world Davis will make the team, and I'll caddie for him," he says. "That's why I got into this in the first place. I'm a huge fan of all sports, and by being a caddie, I have a front-row seat on the action." Last autumn, life even got better than that. Couples and LaCava teamed up at the ADT Skills Challenge, placed third, and shared $155,000. "Fred played there as a favor, which was nice," concluded LaCava in a moment of weakness.

LaCava secured a finance degree from Western Connecticut University. He worked a while at Apex Glass, a chapter in his life upon which Couples gleefully pounces. "What did you do there, Joe?" asks Freddie, turning beet red as he tees it up for LaCava, who responds, "I was a glazer." Couples is gasping for air now. "A glazer?" he howls. "What does a glazer do? Is this a glass place or a doughnut shop?" Couples continues to attack. "When you left Apex Glass to go caddie for Ken Green, did their business suffer? Are they still in business, or did they just hire another glazer?" LaCava now is roaring too, even though his beloved Yankees are taking it on the chin on ESPN. "If we actually lived close together, instead of Joe in Connecticut and me in California," Couples says, "we could really wear each other out because we'd see each other all the time, like brothers. We are like brothers."

"In fact," LaCava says, "when Fred is playing out our way, like between Westchester and Boston last year, he'll come to the house. After a burger at The Blazer Pub on the way. It's a big deal." Southbury is a small town, so when Couples visits, it is indeed news. Megan, Joe's wife, and their kids, Joe and Lauren, adore Fred as does Joe's dad, Joe. So does the LaCava's neighbor, Lou Bunnosso. "That's Big Lou Bunnosso to you," says LaCava to the invading media. "My dad loves to hang out with Fred. Fred likes to go antique shopping, and my dad, who knows nothing about antiques, drives Fred around anyway. Fred likes to drive like he likes to talk on the phone."

Another insight on the private Couples: You probably didn't know that he carries a cell phone, but mostly to text people. Now, we find out he likes antiques? And what does he do with them? "I leave most of them in homes where I am no longer welcome and no longer have the key," says Couples, referencing his well-documented domestic difficulties.

Joe the son says his sister, Shalor, has this recipe for apple pie to kill for. "She'll bring one over when I do something nice, which isn't often," he says. "But when Fred's at the house, here comes the apple pie. Then it's over to The Farm for ice cream. He stayed three days last year. We played golf, went to a Yankee game, and he went antique shopping."

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After his near-miss in Houston, Couples figures it would be a "slight miracle" if he wins again. LaCava begs to differ. "He was the best guy, tee to green, at Riviera and Houston," he says. "If Fred made a few more putts, he would have won twice."

LaCava cites as his two fondest memories Couples' 1992 Masters victory and the 64 he shot in the final round to win the 1996 Players. Couples says he plans to join the Champions Tour, and LaCava says he's right there, although there exists a mutual understanding of sorts. If LaCava wants to keep doing this (and he says he will unless he tires of the grind, unlikely because he still has more weeks home with family than not), he's welcome. But if LaCava is offered a job by some hot-shot, Couples gladly will say goodbye with no hard feelings.

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"If Joe wants to go for a money machine, or some kid," says Couples, "he should go for it, absolutely. Because Joe's so good, it's not going to be a one-year thing. Whoever he goes to is going to want to keep Joe for a long time."

LaCava could be blushing now, but instead is stewing about the Yankees. The University of Connecticut women's team, on the other hand, advanced to the NCAA final Sunday night. Fred and Joe are friends with Geno Auriemma, the UConn coach, who evidently shares their affection for unvarnished sarcasm. After Couples stalled in Houston, Auriemma texted that Fred shouldn't be afraid to make a 10-footer once in a while. Unfazed, Couples issued a return volley. "He's up by 30 points in the semifinal game," Fred says. "I wrote to Geno, 'I think the thing is over' with two minutes left. 'Why not use a substitute?' He's still got all his starters in. What's the bench for?" Couples met Auriemma at the National Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame in Chicago. Complete strangers, they became instant buddies, a predictable development to LaCava, who notes, "Women want to hang with Fred, guys want to be like Fred … players out here like playing with him, other caddies like being around him. Briny Baird shot 80 in our group Sunday at Houston. After it was over, he said to us, 'Fred made a miserable day less miserable.' We were wearing everybody out. Even people who weren't there."

LaCava says he wishes Couples could find a soulmate. "I would love for Fred to have a lasting relationship," says LaCava, "but it's not like he's lonely."

Couples nods his head in agreement: "There's a big difference between being alone and lonely. I'm tickled pink that Joe has a great family, great kids, great wife. Same with Bones [Mackay]. Same with a lot of guys out here. Me? I like to keep the economy going, so I keep buying antiques that are spread out in houses where I am no longer welcome. Joe, when does the basketball start?"