Comment - Reaction to Rory McIlroy ditching JP Fitzgerald highlights how the role of caddy has evolved
Caddies have come a long way since Old Tom Morris, the Godfather of professional golf, issued the decree at St Andrews that they should "appear for work clean and moderately sober”.
Indeed, they have come a long way since Seve Ballesteros, the Godfather of modern European professional golf, said that all that was required of the bagman was “to turn up, keep up and shut up”.
A reminder of that has been emphatically provided by the reaction to the news that Rory McIlroy has parted ways with JP Fitzgerald.
There has been shock in some quarters - where it has been pointed out that less than a fortnight ago McIlroy was singing Fitzgerald’s praises at the Open – and shrugs in others. “Why did it take so long?” has been the general gist of their response to the split after nine years, four major titles and 18 other wins around the globe.
Whatever else it showed, there can be no doubt the importance that the caddie now commands in the game’s narrative.
Whether it is pulling the right club from the bag - as Fitzgerald palpably failed to do at the 10th hole during the third round of the Open– or providing mental support in the tough situations – as Fitzgerald did in pulling McIlroy from the mire in the first round at Birkdale - the role of the man, sometimes the woman, in the bib is now more scrutinised than ever before.
Their fame has increased exponentially with their bank balances. A report in the Daily Telegraph 15 years ago, expressed amazement that a caddy to a top player could earn as much as £80,000 per annum. That would about £100,000 in today’s money and would be mere chickenfeed at the rich end of the caddyshack. Last year, Fitzgerald is estimated to have earned £1.3m – and with that amount of reimburse comes responsibility.
The very fact that there are caddies who are perceived to be excellent and those who are considered to be poor surely proves the merit of the trade. Until the day when the authorities allow laser range finders to be used in competition, then “yardages” will be the caddy’s bread and butter. The overwhelming majority of on-course disputes occur because the player feels he has being given duff info by his employee.
It is not simply a case of Steve Williams telling Tiger Woods “you have 150 yards to the pin”, but knowing the distances to the hazards, to the best lay-up points, to the danger zones. Fitzgerald assured McIlroy he could not reach the fairway bunker on the 10th with his three-iron. He was wrong. Caddie error. Yes, social media will scream “but it was McIlroy who hit the shot” but it is a lot more complex than that.
Caddies are professionals and as such should expect to be judged by their actions, or in some cases, their inactions. Over the last decade, Fitzgerald has, fairly or unfairly, been cricitised for his work with McIlroy. A couple of the weaknesses of the Ulsterman’s game have been his course management and his reaction to adversity on the course. It is a difficult one as the 28-year-old is notoriously headstrong and perhaps would not have responded positively if Fitzgerald had been overly vocal, either with advice or even a reprimand.
In general, the modern multimillionaire golf pro is surrounded by yes men who satisfy his every whim. It is too easy for the caddy to become part of this complicit entourage, but the best caddies are the ones who stand apart. Williams was so successful with Woods, because the latter admired the Kiwi who was never shy with providing his input.
Maybe his influence was best seen on the final hole of regulation at the 2008 US Open. Woods was playing with a blown knee and stress fractures in his left tibia, but at Torrey Pines, the course where he had experienced so many formative days as a junior, he was determined to prevail.
Woods needed a birdie on that par five to tie Rocco Mediate and was keen to hit a sand wedge for his third shot from 100 yards out in the rough. Williams, however, thought a hard lob wedge was the play and to get his way basically lied to Woods about the yardage.
Eventually he told Woods: “Tiger, you have to absolutely trust me on this one. And if I’m wrong, fire me. I know how much this means to you, so if I’m wrong just fire me.” Woods listened to his caddie, hit it to 12 feet, holed the putt and won the play-off. The incident showed that even the greatest player who ever lived needs a helping hand every now and again.
Of course, not every caddie is Williams and not every player would appreciate his forthright manner. If there are many ways to skin a cat then there are just as many ways for a caddie to be a positive force on his boss.
Billy Foster has enjoyed a garlanded career working for the likes of Ballesteros, Sergio Garcia, Darren Clarke and, for the last decade, primarily for Lee Westwood. His knowledge of the game cannot be questioned but he chooses to dispense it with humour. It is a style which has worked for Foster and his players, but that does not mean there is a wrong way or right way.
In his fifties, Foster has seen the old guard leave and the young guard arrive and agrees that the new breed are fitter than before and more professional. They are more acclaimed and slated as well.
After each and every victory, Jordan Spieth credits Michael Greller. When Spieth speaks about his rounds he always uses the “we” pronoun. Spieth and Greller are a team and as near to equals on the course as any player and caddie have ever been.
Some say McIlroy needs the same. Some say he does not. Ultimately, he is an individual contractor and it will be his decision alone. But the very least he should expect is the right yardage.