A New Caddie, And Another Doubter, For Tiger Woods

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Tiger Woods plays a shot during the second round of the 93rd PGA Championship on August 12, 2011 in Johns Creek, Georgia.

After his messy divorce from former caddie Steve Williams, Tiger Woods has a new man on the bag.

Joe LaCava is a veteran caddie, who for years worked with Fred Couples, one of the most beloved players on tour. LaCava caddied for Couples during his 1992 Masters win. In June LaCava started working for Dustin Johnson, the 5th-ranked player in the world and one of the game’s rising American stars. That relationship did not last long, though. LaCava went from working for a startup – Johnson – to the biggest brand name in the game, whose best days may be behind him.  He traded Silicon Valley for, well, the Motor City.

Would you make that switch? LaCava said he wanted a chance at history. “I’m excited to be working with Tiger,” LaCava said in a statement posted on Woods’ website. “I contacted Tiger and his agent, Mark Steinberg, because this is a unique opportunity to be part of something very special.”

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From the moment Woods could lift a club, it seems, he’s possessed a singular goal: to win more major tournaments than Jack Nicklaus, who won a record 18 major titles. For more than three years, however, Tiger has been stuck with 14 majors. In 2008, after Tiger won the U.S. Open while playing with a broken leg, everyone thought he would have passed Nicklaus already. But thanks to injuries, his well-publicized personal problems, and plain-old lousy play, Woods hasn’t won a single tournament since November of 2009. Woods missed this year’s FedEx Cup playoffs, and to stay sharp, he’s playing in something called the Frys.com Open in early October.

Will a new caddie help Tiger push past Jack? These days, more and more observers – and even some pros – are doubting that Woods will achieve his lifetime dream.  At a New York City fundraising event for the Buoniconti Fund, which supports research on spinal cord injuries, NewsFeed asked Ernie Els, the three-time major winner from South Africa, if he’d bet on Woods breaking Nicklaus’s mark. “You know, I’ve been such a supporter of Tiger,” Els responded. (Els has also been a critic. After Woods called a February 2010 press conference to make his first public apology for the sex scandal, Els called Woods “selfish,” since the speech completely overshadowed a match play event that was being televised later in the day). “He’s beaten my ass so many times, and I’m still such a fan of his. But I’d say no.”

Why? “Momentum,” Els says. “I’ve been through slumps, ups and downs, you know, the last couple years of my career. Also, my knee injury – to keep coming back, to keep working your way back, now he’s got a new swing again, he still has to get over the injuries. He’ll probably win another two majors before he’s done. But I don’t think he’ll break his record.”

Sean Gregory is a staff writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @seanmgregory. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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