Sport

Saturday 27 May 2017

From able player to ace bagman for Rory McIlroy

JP Fitzgerald took on Ireland's best as a player, but on Rory's bag he's really found his niche

Rory McIlroy discusses possible options with his trusted caddie and friend, JP Fitzgerald
Rory McIlroy discusses possible options with his trusted caddie and friend, JP Fitzgerald

Dermot Gilleece

Back in 2009, JP Fitzgerald had only been caddying a matter of months for Rory McIlroy when I ran across a mutual friend, Eddie Jordan. "He must be making 10 times as much carrying bags as he might ever have made had he decided to turn pro," remarked the motoring man, who knows a thing or two about money in sport.

Still, not even Jordan could have anticipated the windfall which Fitzgerald graphically described recently as "a tsunami" hitting his bank account. It amounted to a whopping $1.053m as the caddie's percentage of McIlroy's pay-off for winning America's FedEx Cup and Tour Championship three months ago.

Incidentally, an apparent shortfall in McIlroy's loot is explained by the fact that $1m of the FedEx cash was deferred by the PGA Tour into a retirement account.

All of which makes Fitzgerald something of a star performer in Irish golf for 2016. Indeed no other caddie in the European ranks can have come close to his earnings, and barring special arrangements by acknowledged big payers such as Phil Mickelson to his long-time bagman Jim 'Bones' Mackay, we can take it that the same applies to the US.

And it all began so modestly. I can still recall the World Cup at Dorado Beach, Puerto Rico, in November 1994, when Fitzgerald embarked on tournament caddying as Paul McGinley's bagman.

Given that he had nowhere to stay, I offered him a bed in my generous quarters. He was the perfect guest, in that he spoke only when addressed and crept in and out of the place like a church mouse. As an indication of his tight budget, I retain an image of a tube of toothpaste which had been squeezed so tightly that its edge might have been used as a razor in an emergency.

Most importantly, however, his modest demeanour and resourcefulness gave promise of a productive career on tour. Which contrasted sharply with my first sight of him at Tramore in 1987, when, as a member of Co Louth GC, he became the story of the Irish Amateur Close Championship, not least for informing anyone who would listen, "My greatest asset is my mouth".

He would have got no argument from those who had been exposed to his amusing, boyish chatter, especially after a semi-final meeting with Darren Clarke (below). It was the first competitive clash between the pair and Fitzgerald confounded the odds by winning on the 20th, producing short-game skills to match his mouth. Priceless bragging rights seemed to render his final defeat by Eddie Power almost irrelevant.

Remarkably, he was to become Clarke's caddie 16 years later, forcing the Dungannon man to acknowledge: "Yes, we've known each other for a long, long time. And OK, he beat me. It's there in black and white in the record books. But no matter how often he gets at me about it, he knows in his heart it was a fluke; that he got it up-and-down from all over the place."

Would it leave Clarke in the unenviable position of being the only leading professional to have lost to his caddie in a championship match? "That I don't know," the victim replied defensively. "But all those years ago in Tramore, we could never have dreamt of ending up as a partnership on tour."

Tramore was to have another sequel. It came in the summer of 1991, when Co Louth met Grange in the Leinster final of the Irish Senior Cup. "The match was at Baltray and the order was arranged in such a way that I played JP," recalled McGinley, the leading player in the Grange line-up.

"It became a big talking point, because I also happened to have been a member of Baltray, where I first went with my dad as a junior every Saturday during the winter months.

"That's when I got to know JP and we became such good friends that we spent my last three amateur summers together. When I was away at college in San Diego, he would come out to me now and again to get away from the dismal Irish weather.

"Friendship was forgotten, however, when we got to that particular Senior Cup final. He was up to all his old tricks, shouting his mouth off as only JP can do, about how the team captains would have to set it up so that we met, and how he planned to beat me, just like he had done to Darren four years previously.

"I can tell you he knocked serious mileage out of that win, making sure that his audience were aware of how Darren was the country's top amateur, by miles. For anybody who was prepared to listen, he promised the same treatment for me, now that he had me on his home track and in front of a home crowd.

"However it was arranged, we ended up playing each other and I remember being determined to give it my best shot, if only for the fact that this would be my last Senior Cup with Grange before turning professional that autumn."

McGinley then recounted in remarkable detail how JP hit a four iron to four feet at the first, but that they halved it in birdie after he himself had holed from 20 feet. They also halved the long second with birdies. Game on.

He added: "At the long third, both of us were short of the green in two, but I chipped on and holed the putt whereas JP had to settle for a par. I was one up, and at the risk of sounding brash, I remember thinking at the time that I had him. It was game over as far as I was concerned. In the end, I hammered him 5 and 4."

From the moment of victory, McGinley was in no doubt about the significance of what he had done. "While JP would have been considered the hometown boy, I was probably the number one amateur in the country at the time," he said. "For sure, there was a lot of pride and honour at stake.

"Even now, it remains an important match, especially when JP gets on his high horse and starts shouting the odds. I must admit that I found it funny when he would wind Darren up over Tramore. But any time he dares to try the same with me, I promptly throw that Senior Cup match at him. So it was very important.

"Still, I remember leaving Baltray that day with very mixed emotions. Though I'd won my match, Grange lost overall by 3-2, and the team aspect of these events was always so important to me, that I was really disappointed. I desperately wanted Grange to win a pennant before I moved on."

Fitzgerald was to suffer more acutely a year later, before departing the amateur competitive scene. He lost another Close final, this time to Gary Murphy in the 1992 staging at Portstewart, which is certain to be the source of bitter-sweet memories when he returns there with McIlroy for the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open next July.

In the event, our paths crossed again in the spring of 1994 on the delightful terrain of Old Sotogrande on the Costa del Sol. JP was a guest of Jordan's, who had a house close by and, for reasons that somehow escape me, I found myself partnering Eddie in a fourball match against himself and Jordan's wife, Marie.

Having started in late afternoon, it was almost inevitable we would be

playing the final hole in total darkness. So we were forced to putt by sound rather than sight, with the opposition rattling the pin in the hole to indicate its location. Jordan still delights in recounting it, perhaps as a reminder of a time when, as the owner of a competitive Grand Prix team, he liked to maintain established contacts in the media.

The World Cup came later that year, marking the beginning of JP's eight-year partnership with McGinley. And when they split at Christmas 2002, Fitzgerald found himself replacing Billy Foster as Clarke's bagman. It seemed a decidedly odd arrangement in view of what had gone before.

"I would describe our relationship as both a working and a friendly one," said Clarke at the time. "Sometimes JP says to me, 'Just imagine, if I wasn't handicapped by such a shut clubface at the top, the situation could be reversed - you could be working for me'. Now there's a thought."

He went on: "I accept criticism from him, provided, of course, it's merited. For instance, I remember Dubai where he urged me to knuckle down and make some more birdies and I responded with six in a row for a closing 66.

"You need a good, solid guy by your side coming down the stretch, and JP knows me well enough to read the signs. He was with me when I won the Chunichi Crowns in Japan [2001], so when I learned that he and Paul had split up, I remembered how much I had enjoyed having him on the bag. He's unbelievably keen to do well for himself, so he's highly motivated."

Then, in the context of McIlroy's problems on the greens, it is revealing that Clarke should have observed: "Like others, I would readily agree that putting was the strength of JP's game and that he is technically very sound with the blade. So, he's been very good for me.

"He's also very good at reading greens, which is something I have ongoing problems with, especially on double-breakers. I've always tended to hit it too hard through the break. And he certainly knows the difference between a good stroke and a bad stroke. He's not going to stand there with his mouth shut if he sees me do something wrong. He's not afraid to make suggestions, which is massively important."

In August of that year, their partnership was crowned with a four-stroke victory for Clarke in the NEC Invitational at Firestone. That was Fitzgerald's first big payday and, from his 10 per cent of Clarke's winning cheque of $1.05m (€933,000), he bought his mother a Mercedes car, which prompted a lot of favourable comment at the time.

As it happened, he had moved on to England's Greg Owen on the PGA Tour by the time the 2006 Ryder Cup came to The K Club. That was when, during a free week, he proved himself an admirable host at his Castleknock home to American caddying friend, Cayce Kerr, who had made the trip as a consequence of collecting winnings of $10,000 after backing Australia's Geoff Ogilvy at 100/1 to capture the US Open at Winged Foot in June of that year.

They made a formidable pair. When I suggested to Kerr that such opulence would surely have meant he and Fitzgerald commuting to Straffan by chauffeur-driven limousine, he replied with mock outrage: "And what about the traffic? I don't do lines.

"I was waiting in a little queue - as you say over here - in the merchandise tent when I saw a special desk for players and caddies. So I marched right over there."

Whereupon he showed me a wrist-band with the name Ryder Helicopters. The lift for himself and Fitzgerald had been arranged by Paul Monahan of Castleknock GC and, as Kerr remarked: "It's rude to turn down hospitality of that capacity."

Fitzgerald's next big bag was Ernie Els, in whose employ he caught sight of a hugely-gifted amateur who would go on to change his life. It was Pádraig Harrington's Open at Carnoustie in 2007 and McIlroy was in pursuit of the amateur medal.

"On television, I saw Rory hit a two-iron second shot into the wind to the last," he later told me. "What really impressed me was that with 230 yards to go, he hit it so high up in the air that it stopped on the green almost where it landed. I later made a point of saying to him: 'That was a special shot.'"

Before the end of 2008, he had become McIlroy's caddie, and they've since shared four Major championship triumphs together, along with other memorable successes.

A real measure of McIlroy's respect for him came in the wake of the player's dramatic collapse in the 2011 US Masters.

Fitzgerald was widely criticised for failing to lift his man on the fateful, final nine. He was again targeted in the Irish Open at Killarney three months later, becoming the central figure in a very public spat involving McIlroy and TV pundit Jay Townsend.

While the two professionals were exchanging bitter tweets, Fitzgerald maintained a dignified silence. But Townsend, having been highly critical on RTE and America's Golf Channel of the course management of player and caddie at Killarney, repeated his criticism on Twitter, using such terms as "shocking" and "some of the worst (course management) I have ever seen beyond an under-10s boys' golf competition".

By way of reply, McIlroy tweeted: "Shut up . . . you're a commentator and a failed golfer, your opinion means nothing." Townsend then insisted he stood by his comments, to which McIlroy replied: "Well I stand by my caddie." Which must have been huge for Fitzgerald.

Later, the player accused Townsend of bearing JP ill-will from the time they teamed up together in 2008.

"This is the first time I've responded but it was the straw that broke the camel's back," he said. "He [Townsend] doesn't need to be that opinionated with views that strong.

"I don't mind if he criticizes me in that I'm the one that hits the shots, but JP can't stand up for himself in the media. So I have to stand up for him, because he's the best man I think I can have on my bag." Later, this view was expanded in the comment: "JP has become a really good friend of mine. He's been very loyal to me and I feel I've been very loyal to him. I like being able to talk to him in between shots about things other than golf on the course - takes my mind off it."

I remember thinking how well they worked together for McIlroy's eight-stroke triumph in the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island in 2012.

"You don't have to bring things to this fellow's attention," said Fitzgerald, playing down his role. "Rory knows everything that's going on, believe me. You might say he's a bit of an anorak."

All of which illustrated the astuteness of McIlroy's former manager, Chubby Chandler, in the wake of Augusta 2011. "I'm not suggesting that JP is the best caddie in the world," he said, "but he's the best caddie for Rory."

As a long-time friend, who took Fitzgerald under his wing all those years ago, Eddie Jordan will have watched the development of one of golf's leading partnerships with particular interest. "Tournament golfers are a lot like racing drivers in that they're involved in a one-man sport," he said.

"And Rory appreciates the importance of good psychology, which was certainly in Harrington's locker. I'm so happy for JP."

With that, we reflected once more on our fourball's attempt at conquering the darkness enveloping Sotogrande's 18th green. And on the carefree young man for whom a great caddying career beckoned.

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