Saturday 16 December 2017

Comment: Time for Rory to look in the mirror after split with caddie JP

McIlroy needs to be honest with himself as shock break-up stuns the golfing world

JP Fitzgerald and Rory McIlroy
JP Fitzgerald and Rory McIlroy
David Kelly

David Kelly

Golf's lush, meticulously-manicured pastures must feel for all the world like a heaving, unnavigable and lonely jungle to Rory McIlroy right now.

It is three years since the sport's most naturally gifted practitioner claimed his fourth Major title, entering Valhalla as a sporting deity and purposefully ascending to the throne as his sport's dominant force, one seemingly set for a dominant, extensive reign.

But while his career has hardly descended into hell since then, he remains a long way from those heavenly heights.

His flickering, natural genius has strayed, stubbornly, like too many of his recently skewed tee-shots from the natural course it had once seemed destined to pursue and into the deepest and thickest tangles of rough.

Measured by Majors, as he does himself, the prolonged drought since that 2014 success weighs heavily on shoulders that too often have appeared slumped of late, where once they propelled him forwards in a ruthless dismissal of all his burgeoning rivals.

Instead, he has been overtaken by so many of his peers and a return to that once ultra-confident period of imperious authority grows increasingly distant with every opening Thursday tee-time that passes.

Not only is he battling a resurgence of the gathering gaggle of players who have attempted to fill the sport's post-Tiger void - there have been nine different Major winners in the three years since Valhalla, eight of them first-timers, topped by three-time winner Jordan Spieth - he is also jousting with the golfer's most feared opponent - himself.

Pursuit

For golf is ultimately a sport whose very essence as an individual pursuit strips itself of all the virtues of the team game and devolves all liability upon the self.

It is a sport of personal responsibility. And throughout all of McIlroy's often turbulent, sometimes clearly understandable, professional and personal decision-making, it is he alone who must now shoulder the burdens of his great sporting gift.

Some issues he has arguably confronted with a ready reckoning of ease, from his change of management to the often indelicately publicised elements of his romantic relationships.

Others he has undoubtedly struggled with; chiefly, it would seem, the ongoing quest to find peace with the financially lucrative but professionally conflicting alteration in equipment which has affected both his mental approach to the game and, earlier this year, even his physical fitness.

Now comes the news of another high-profile fissure with the closest confidante of all for any golfer trampling down those lonely, isolated green acres whose apparent tranquillity masks so much torment, his long-term caddie and friend JP Fitzgerald.

The pair have been together for nine years which is actually a decent stretch for many professional sporting relationships, particularly one as intimate as that enjoyed by a player and a bagman.

So perhaps the sundering is not as dramatic as it may appear; instead, it is its context, that of McIlroy's ongoing on-course difficulties, and its timing, in the middle of the month-long gap between the season's two final Majors, which provides the surprise.

Their closeness transferred from the course to the clubhouse, too, which also exacerbates the intrigue; Fitzgerald's true worth was well-established in his charge's fledgling days as a pro when his ease of manner simply allowed McIlroy the freedom to play with a refreshing liberation that soon catapulted him towards the company of the golfing Gods.

If it can be assumed that the sporting divorce was the golfer's - who is to know if Fitzgerald himself was not more than happy to accede to, if not himself even tentatively prompt the split? - then we can only hope that it moves McIlroy closer to addressing the only person who can extricate himself from, in relative terms, his downward spiral.

Again, himself.

McIlroy always refused to offload culpability to Fitzgerald when so many others, particularly after the 2011 Masters meltdown, chose to do so. Now his supporters can only hope that this decision is a move towards a personal resolution, not away from it.

Last month at Birkdale, McIlroy was not alone in being cajoled by a caddie into remembering just why he is one of the world's best; yet it was Spieth who endured to lift the Claret Jug, not the Irishman.

McIlroy heard Fitzgerald's promptings but we await to see if he really listened; the fact they now part appears to indicate that this was an all too brief consummation of communication.

At 28, McIlroy's gifts have not deserted him.

By any gauge, McIlroy remains central to his sport's determination of honours; last season's FedEx success was not that of the one-off variety and even this year he has produced stunning golf yet his game is riddled with inconsistency and his disobedient putter vividly illustrates his toil.

But by the yardstick with which he himself measures his achievements, the accumulation of Major titles, the three-year drought speaks for itself.

Speaking before the Irish Open, the spectacularly revived event to which his enormous status has added so much lustre and priceless value to this country, he mused upon his current status in the game and was typically honest in his self-assessment.

"It's tough to sustain that level for a long period of time," he said. "But if you look at my career, I've played in bursts.

"I'm not saying that I'm accepting that. I wish it was different. I wish I could sustain that and be able to keep that going for a longer period of time.

"I'm sort of hitting the prime of my career now and I'd love to be able to get on a sustained run like Tiger did back then. It will take a lot of work, a lot of drive, a lot of practice, but I'm willing to do that."

Putting

His lax putting and waywardness from the tee are not technical imperfections but mental flaws; instead of seeking impossible perfection, he needs to re-discover himself. Fitzgerald reminded him of this fact in Birkdale and he needs to summon this inner resource.

The 'kid' is now a man and, no more than the giants of the game in the past who confronted their own career dilemmas, from Jack Nickalus to Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson to Tiger Woods, how the Holywood maestro negotiates this current impasse will be fascinating to behold.

It should not really matter a whit who carries his clubs in Ohio later this week; ultimately, he is the one responsible when he is handed the stick.

US PGA venue Quail Hollow, where he has won twice and holds the course record - he has also won at Akron, this week's venue - may revive him as he searches for answers.

The good news is that he will not have to travel far to find a solution.

In his Holywood home, he has established a putting studio that reflects his action in a mirror.

Perhaps, as Fitzgerald did so memorably after that most wretched stretch of opening six holes on the Thursday at Royal Birkdale, he might look at himself in that mirror and pose the same question that, so memorably, restored his temporarily mislaid vigour, even if he may not have wanted the truth to be so brutally addressed.

"You're Rory McIlroy for heaven's sake. What the f*** are you doing?"

Irish Independent

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