Sunday 28 May 2017

Paul Kimmage: Caddies sometimes get it spot-on

Rory McIlroy listens to caddie JP Fitzgerald's advice on trying a daring punch shot during the final round of the Masters at Augusta National last Sunday Photo: David Cannon/Getty Images
Rory McIlroy listens to caddie JP Fitzgerald's advice on trying a daring punch shot during the final round of the Masters at Augusta National last Sunday Photo: David Cannon/Getty Images
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

"If you listen to them on the course, you often hear Rory asking, 'What happened there?' More than once I've heard JP saying something like, 'OK, hit a soft draw with a six-iron off that tree.' And I've immediately thought, 'This ball is going over the green'. And sure enough, it does. So you have to wonder. I see Rory up close only occasionally, and I know he's going to hit the ball over the green when his caddie clearly doesn't. It makes no sense." - Golf Digest, April 2017

Rory McIlroy is in the interview room. It's Tuesday afternoon, two days before the Masters, and he has just been asked a question about his previous performances at Augusta and a propensity for high rounds: has he been able to pinpoint why that is?

He recounts some advice he's had recently from Jack Nicklaus: "Don't take on too much," he says. "It's a golf course that can tempt you into doing a little too much. I cast my mind back to the 11th hole on Saturday last year where I'm in the pine straw on the left and I'm trying to hit this low hook around (a tree) and trying to get it up onto the green and hit this heroic shot that goes in the water and I make six.

"That's the last thing I needed. I was three or four over for the day at that point and I needed to hit it to the right of the green and try and make my up-and-down. Even if you make five, five is better than six; take the water out of play. Just little things like that where the golf course tempts you to do something. So it's just a matter of being smart, taking your medicine when you have to and moving on."

The next question seems obvious, but goes unasked.

What did your caddie say? Why didn't JP Fitzgerald tell you to stop?

Confession: for some time now - since the evening of Sunday, April 14, 1996 to be precise - I've been fascinated by the relationship between golfers and caddies. It started during the shoot-out between Nick Faldo and Greg Norman at the Masters, and that nail-biting moment on the 13th fairway when Faldo debated with his caddie, for what seemed like an eternity, whether to hit a five-wood or a two-iron.

I thought, 'Imagine what it's like to be Fanny Sunesson at this moment? What other sport allows you to get so close? Imagine the tales you could tell if you were Bjorn Borg's racket or Lester Piggott's whip or Alex Ferguson's hair dryer?' And 21 years later, only the name has changed.

Imagine what it's like being JP Fitzgerald?

It's Sunday afternoon at the Masters. Two 'comedians' at the back of the seated area behind the 12th hole are hamming it up in appalling Irish accents as McIlroy and Fitzgerald confer on the tee.

"Don't hit it there, Rory," the first laughs.

"I don't need to know where not to hit it!" his friend replies.

"And don't hit the 'tree' iron, Rory."

"You fucking idiot, JP."

Has any caddie since the great Fanny herself been subjected to as much vitriol? What started in 2011 with a selection of barbed tweets from the American analyst Jay Townsend at the Irish Open ('McIlroy's course management was shocking'; 'Rory McIlroy should hire Stevie Williams as I thought JP allowed some SHOCKING course management today'; 'Some of the worst course management I have ever seen beyond under 10s boys golf competition') continued to the eve of the Masters, with a selection of expert (but anonymous) views in Golf Digest on why Rory might struggle.

"Rory is an in-and-out chipper, and his clubbing is suspect at times. How often do you see him and [Fitzgerald] looking at each other in shock after his ball has finished 20 yards over the back?"

"Rory needs someone to tell him what he needs to hear, not what he wants to hear."

"Why he doesn't employ Billy Foster is a mystery. Rory would have 10 Majors by now if he did. Of course, we know what Rory is like. He's as stubborn as anyone on tour. The more people tell him that JP is not the right caddie for him, the more he'll keep him on."

Colin Byrne caddies for Rafa Cabrero-Bello; Dermot Byrne caddies for Shane Lowry. On the eve of the tournament, I showed them the comments and sought their views:

Colin: "Who are these guys? Are they caddies? Do they think it's easy?"

Dermot: "How many Majors has Billy Foster won?"

Colin: "The reason JP gets so much flak is because he is always under scrutiny. We all make mistakes - you just don't see them."

Dermot: "Caddying is easy when a guy is playing well, you just keep up and shut up. It's when his confidence is down that you prove yourself. Rory was only a kid when JP started working for him - look at him now: four Majors, the Fed-Ex Cup last year, and one of the best players in the world. So that's all shite, in my opinion."

I also showed them the transcript of McIlroy's interview from Tuesday and the question that had been bugging me about the 11th last year: why didn't JP tell him to take his medicine?

"How do you know he didn't?" Colin replied. "Did you watch the play-off in Atlanta (the Tour Championship) last year when he hit it into the trees on 18? There was water (in front of the green) and he didn't have a great lie and quite clearly JP says: 'Why don't you hit a wedge out?' And Rory says: 'No, no. I've got this.' That's how it works. That's the dynamic. And they obviously have a great dynamic.

"As a caddie, you often punt caution or the safe option, saying, 'Let's get out of trouble here.' But if you're working with a flair golfer, and they see a shot, you can't stop them from hitting it. It won Rory that tournament and the Fed-Ex Cup. It might win him the Masters. How do you tell when it's right to forget about that flair? Only hindsight will tell if you're wrong."

It's Sunday afternoon at Augusta. Rory McIlroy skips to the first tee with a chance to win the Masters. He booms a driver down the left side of the fairway and winces as it runs off and into the trees. A horde of excited spectators have gathered near the ball. JP gives him the number - "90 yards to the front" - but the trees are impeding his stance and his path to the green.

He pulls a wedge from the bag and seems resigned to take his medicine. There are no options. He will come out sideways and try to save par from 100 yards. But JP has spotted a gap: "What about this?" he says, pointing to a window to the right edge of the green beneath the branches of the trees. McIlroy takes a look but doesn't like it. He takes another look. He still doesn't like it. He grips the wedge, finds a stance and prepares to chip-out out sideways. And then, just as he's about to pull the trigger, he looks at Fitzgerald:

"What do you think?"

The caddie grabs an eight-iron and points to the window: "I think if you punch it through there, you can get it to the front of the green." McIlroy takes the club and tries to swing but the tree is impeding him. He changes his stance, grips down on the club and shortens the swing. "What do you think?" he asks again.

"I like it," Fitzgerald replies.

There were no reports of Fitzgerald's balls, or McIlroy's skill - a majestically punched shot that found the right edge of the green - in any of Monday's papers. Par saves at Augusta rarely make headlines but will probably win them a Masters soon.

In the meantime, there'll be plenty more, no doubt, about what JP gets wrong - but here's the bottom line: Last year, after his brilliant double in Atlanta (the Tour Championship and the Fed-Ex Cup) Rory sent JP a cheque for a million dollars, which suggests one of two things to me: that Rory is a bloody fool, or that JP is bloody good.

And Rory is no fool.

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