‘Relax, Rory’: Fred Couples spills new details from Rory McIlroy-Joe LaCava dust-up

fred couples at ryder cup 18th green saturday

Fred Couples was greenside at the Ryder Cup when tension heightened between Joe LaCava and Rory McIlroy.


As Fred Couples walked with Patrick Cantlay and Wyndham Clark’s Saturday-afternoon four-ball match at the Ryder Cup last week, Couples noticed the hat-waving. It was impossible to miss: thousands of European fans lining the fairways and circling the greens at Marco Simone collectively removing their headwear and shaking it in Cantlay’s direction.

The fans’ message, though? Couples, who was an assistant captain on Zach Johnson’s squad, hadn’t a clue, given he’d been on the course and oblivious to a spicy report from Sky Sports’ Jamie Weir that alleged Cantlay’s caplessness was a nonverbal protest for his dismay with U.S. players not being compensated for their participation in the event, a decision that, according to the report, had led to dissension in the U.S. team room. (Weir has stood by his reporting, but Cantlay and several other American players and captains have denied the fracture.)

On Saturday afternoon, word of Weir’s reporting quickly spread across the heaving galleries at Marco Simone, but the news didn’t immediately reach Couples who looked on bemusedly as Cantlay and Clark’s match against Rory McIlroy and Matt Fitzpatrick progressed and the fans’ needling only intensified. Couples didn’t get wind of the report until he arrived on the 14th tee and spotted Cantlay’s manager, Preston Valder, giving an earful to a media member. When Valder had said his piece, Couples approached him.

“I’m like, ‘Preston, what was that all about?” Couples said, recalling the incident on his SiriusXM PGA Tour Radio show Tuesday night. “He goes, ‘That’s the guy who wrote the article that just trashed Patrick.’”          

“I go, ‘What are you talking about?’”

“He goes, ‘Don’t you hear these guys chanting?’”

“Well, I see them waving their hats, but I don’t quite get what’s going on,” Couples recalled saying.

“And he said, ‘Well, oddly enough neither does Patrick.’”

The razzing didn’t relent. At the short par-4 16th, fans greeted Cantlay with chants of “Hats off / For your bank account / Hats offff / For your bank account.” Cantlay responded by knocking a chip to 10 feet and jarring the birdie putt to tie the hole and keep the Americans 1 down.

When Cantlay and Clark won the par-3 17th hole with another Cantlay birdie, they advanced to 18 tied with McIlroy and Fitzpatrick. Given the U.S. was already in a six-point hole, they could ill-afford to lose the match if the U.S. side was to have any chance of a miracle comeback in Sunday singles. Down by the 18th green, it felt like half of Italy was waiting to see how Cantlay’s match would conclude. The atmosphere was loud, tense, chaotic, combative — everything a Ryder Cup should be.  

After Clark left himself in a bad spot short right of the green and chunked a chip, the hole came down to Cantlay, who had 43 feet left for birdie, and McIlroy and Fitzpatrick, who had 24 feet and 19 feet, respectively, for their own 4s. Cantlay putted first and — boom. Holed it. He thrust his arm in jubilation and roared; several of his teammates, including Couples, took a few steps onto the front of the green and waved their hats in a salute to Cantlay.    

Couples, in white hat, celebrating after Cantlay’s make at 18. NBC

What was developing just a few yards away from them, closer to the hole, has become fodder for fierce debate: Did Cantlay’s caddie, Joe LaCava, overstep his bounds? When his man’s ball dropped, LaCava raised his cap skyward and gestured toward the crowd, as if to say, How do you like us now? That showmanship felt like fair game given the taunting Cantlay had endured from the crowds — Clark’s caddie, John Ellis, was making the same motion — but, with McIlroy and Fitzpatrick still preparing for matching birdie putts of their own, LaCava lingered on the green, leading many observers to accuse the caddie of overstaying his welcome.  

As McIlroy began to line up his putt, LaCava was still hanging around and waving his hat. McIlroy was peeved, and he told LaCava as much.

“I asked him what was said,” Couples said on his radio show. “He said Rory looked at him and said, ‘Mooove.’ And he made the ooo last a little longer.

“And Joe replied, ‘Relax, Rory.’”

LaCava also began jawing with Shane Lowry, one of McIlroy’s teammates, who was greenside. Tempers were running hot.

When the disruption settled down, McIlroy missed his match-tying putt just low; Fitzpatrick also missed his, never giving it a chance. The Americans had won, 1 up, in dramatic fashion.

Rory McIlroy and Joe LaCava, the caddie for Patrick Cantlay, exchange words on the 18th green on Saturday at the Ryder Cup.
New alternate angle provides context on how heated Ryder Cup scuffle developed
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Couples had taken in the whole scene with a group of Americans — Jordan Spieth, Max Homa, Collin Morikawa, among others — standing on the apron of the green. From his vantage point, Couples said he didn’t see any “disrespectful” behavior from LaCava — who, it should be noted, caddied for Couples for more than two decades — as McIlroy would later characterize LaCava’s actions.

“I want someone to tell me where anything that happened is disrespectful,” Couples said. “I didn’t see it. Patrick screamed, which he doesn’t do very often and he tipped his fake cap. We all were on the front of the green. No one moved. We just took our hats off and made little circles with our hats.

“It’s the last match of the day. We’re getting absolutely hammered. Now, we got a chance to get a halve. But what, did someone do a Justin Leonard, ran across the green? Patrick didn’t.”

Cantlay was wrapped up in the moment, Couples said, and so was LaCava. As happens with competitors.

“Rory, God bless, Rory, ’cause when he makes a putt in the Ryder Cup, he screams and yells ‘vamos’ and ‘let’s go’ and all that. That’s what you should do. Joe LaCava was standing [on the green]. I don’t think he moved two feet.”

Footage of the episode shows that LaCava, in fact, wandered far outside a two-foot radius, at one point coming within five or six feet of McIlroy’s ball as McIlroy was assessing his putt.

“People think he shushed Rory when he did that hand gesture,” Couples continued. “Little Harry Diamond, who we all love, too, caddies for Rory, then he chimed in. So Joe said, ‘I don’t have time for you.’

joe lacava jawing at harry diamond at ryder cup
LaCava and Harry Diamond, far left in black hat, on Marco Simone’s 18th green on Saturday. getty images

“Then Joe turned to get out of the way. And…Shane Lowry and [European assistant captain] Thomas Bjorn were screaming some things at him, which is fine. I don’t have any problem with Shane Lowry or Thomas Bjorn — they’re protecting the number one player on their team. But no one did anything wrong. [LaCava] didn’t bump into [McIlroy]. He didn’t stand over him. It wouldn’t be a 15-yard penalty in college football for taunting. … He said he was 6 feet from him. Was Joe right? Probably not. [But] did anyone disrespect the European team?” 

On Sunday evening, after the Europeans had closed out the competition, 16.5-11.5, McIlroy said of the Saturday dust-up: “We felt like it was disrespectful. And it wasn’t just disrespectful to Fitz and I. It was disrespectful for the whole team.” He added: “I get that we get the banter when we go over to the States and play and the same happens here. It’s just the way it is. It’s the way the Ryder Cup goes. And you have to have thick skin. That’s just the way it is.”

Couples didn’t hang around the 18th green for long after Cantlay’s win, but as he was making his exit, he did bump into Lowry and Bjorn, who he said were none too pleased by what had gone down. “Shane Lowry and Thomas Bjorn both put their hands on my shoulder and said, ‘That’s bull—. That’s so wrong. What just happened?’”

“I said, ‘Look, you guys, I’m not here to argue about it. We won a point. I didn’t see anything horrible.'”

“And then [Lowry] said, ‘Well, I was at Whistling Straits,'” referring to the 2021 U.S. Ryder Cup site, where the Americans clobbered the Europeans by 10 points.

“As I kept walking,” Couples said, “I just looked back and said, ‘What does that have to do with anything?’”

The tension on Saturday didn’t end there. Later that evening, as McIlroy was about to get into his car in the Marco Simone parking lot, he was still running hot, with Jim “Bones” Mackay, who just happened to be in the vicinity, taking the brunt of McIlroy’s rage.

Rory Mcilroy ryder cup
Rory McIlroy confronting Jim Mackay on Saturday evening. NBC/Golf Channel

“[Bones] was just the first American I saw after I got out of the locker room,” McIlroy said Sunday. “He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I texted Bones this morning and apologized for that.”

“He was yelling at Bones,” Couples said, “which is disrespectful with his wife standing a foot from him saying words that shouldn’t be said. Now, I’m on Rory’s side too — because I love Rory McIlroy to death — but when you’re incensed and you want to fight, you’re going to say things. Is that disrespectful?”

McIlroy said when he got back to his hotel, he cooled off by taking dip in a cold plunge pool. But, according to Couples, that wasn’t McIlroy’s only activity: He also got in the ear of yet one more caddie, Ricky Elliott, an Irishman who loops for Brooks Koepka. Couples said Elliott told him that McIlroy “went at me in the middle of the foyer at the hotel.”

Couples joined several other U.S. team members who have insisted there was not a hint of disharmony in the U.S. team room.

“It just gets old that we’re so bad in the team rooms,” he said. “I mean, it’s laughable. Is there a better team room than theirs because they won and they’re all from different countries? I don’t know. They’re all great guys. Our team is phenomenal. I mean, I sat there every night and watched them.”

The U.S. will have to wait two years for a shot at redemption, when the next Ryder Cup visits Bethpage State Park on Long Island. At least several of the same players are likely to back for the Americans, and Couples said he has no concerns about their chemistry.

“Don’t believe all this crap,” he said. “These guys, they’re all together.” 

Alan Bastable

Golf.com Editor

As GOLF.com’s executive editor, Bastable is responsible for the editorial direction and voice of one of the game’s most respected and highly trafficked news and service sites. He wears many hats — editing, writing, ideating, developing, daydreaming of one day breaking 80 — and feels privileged to work with such an insanely talented and hardworking group of writers, editors and producers. Before grabbing the reins at GOLF.com, he was the features editor at GOLF Magazine. A graduate of the University of Richmond and the Columbia School of Journalism, he lives in New Jersey with his wife and foursome of kids.