One of the constants of Tiger Woods' road back to the course: Caddie Joe LaCava

Tiger: 'I got my feels back' (0:51)

Tiger Woods says he has regained his feel for "tournament golf" after shooting 4-under par in the opening round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational. (0:51)

ORLANDO -- It might have been a chilling conversation for some golf caddies: Tiger Woods telling you he didn't know what his future held after a spinal fusion surgery would keep him from hitting balls for six months.

But the one characteristic that drew Tiger Woods to Joe LaCava is also what kept the caddie from jumping to another opportunity: experience.

"At one time, he gave me the green light," LaCava told ESPN.com of a time last year shortly after Woods' latest back procedure on April 19. "He said, 'You can do one of two things. If you catch on with a guy that you really like and you're having success and want to stay with it, that's fine. Or, if you're wanting to work and nothing really develops and you want to come back, that's fine, too.'"

Tiger's forced time away from the PGA Tour afforded LaCava time for other things. He enjoyed working on his golf game, but you can only do that so much. He also loved attending his son's football games and taking his daughter to college, but even he jokingly sensed his family believed he was around the house too much.

For nearly the entirety of his adult life, LaCava has been a caddie on the tour, working the past six-plus years for Woods. But when Tiger was sidelined, it was fair for LaCava, 54, to wonder if he wanted to get back to more regular work, if there would be more lucrative opportunities by getting back inside ropes.

But LaCava never looked at the situation that way.

"I think [Tiger] was looking out for me more than anything," LaCava said. "I don't think he knew where he was at. ... But he probably knows how bored he was at the time, so he could imagine how bored I was. And it's just a fact -- I don't like to sit around. This guy's been great to me and I love him like a brother. I wasn't going anywhere."

LaCava has had a long career in golf. He began caddying for Ken Green in 1987, and then went to work for Fred Couples in 1990. It was 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.

When Couples took breaks due to his own back issues that began in 1994, LaCava caddied for, among others, Mark Calcavecchia, Justin Leonard, Mike Hulbert, John Cook, Jay Haas, Bill Haas and Camilo Villegas. When Couples turned 50, LaCava stayed with him on the PGA Tour Champions circuit until the golfer encouraged him to go with a younger player who would be able to offer a steadier income. So, in early 2011, he went to work for Dustin Johnson, who went on to contend at The Open that year and also won the Barclays.

Woods, on the other hand, has had just a handful of caddies over his career. He began his career with Mike "Fluff" Cowan before switching to Steve Williams in 1999. But when Woods parted ways with Williams in 2011 and inquired about LaCava's 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?"

The moved paid off when Woods won the World Challenge at the end of 2011, then captured three PGA Tour events in 2012 and five in 2013. He also moved back to No. 1 in the world rankings.

"He's a stud. He's positive, upbeat, competitive," said Woods, who has made a habit of choosing caddies with immense experience. "Man, he's into it and he's been a great friend over the years, but especially the last couple of years when it's been tough."

Woods earned more than $15 million in prize money during that period of success before back problems sidelined him, and the nine victories each came with a paycheck of $1 million or more. If Woods paid the standard fare of 10 percent for a victory and a sliding scale from there, it's no stretch to think LaCava earned more than $1 million during that time.

But these past few years, Woods' career has been mostly dormant. This week's Arnold Palmer Invitational will be just his 25th worldwide start since the first of four back surgeries in 2014. So it said something about LaCava's loyalty to Woods, and his belief in the former No. 1 player in the world, that he rejected overtures to work for someone else.

"People say I was very loyal, they wonder if I thought about leaving," LaCava said. "At the end of the day, there are only so many elite jobs out here. I feel pretty fortunate. They're all great players [in the field] -- really, really good players.

"But there are probably 10 elite guys out here. This guy is one of the top two of all time, so I never questioned it."

And the outlook has certainly changed. Woods is healthy, he's coming off a tie for second at last week's Valspar Championship, and his immediate future looks promising.

"I'm with my guy all the way, so it's that more than anything else,'' LaCava said. "I'm all-in with him. He has been great to me.''