Sunday 21 April 2019

Dermot Gilleece: 'How caddie Diamond adds sparkle to team McIlroy'

Rory McIlroy on Harry Diamond: ‘People just think he’s my best friend and I got him on the bag because I didn’t want to listen to anyone else. But that’s not true’. Photo: Getty
Rory McIlroy on Harry Diamond: ‘People just think he’s my best friend and I got him on the bag because I didn’t want to listen to anyone else. But that’s not true’. Photo: Getty

Dermot Gilleece

With the customary end-of-round courtesies completed, Rory McIlroy departed the 18th green at Sawgrass last Sunday with caddie Harry Diamond by his side. Followed by a TV camera, they gently stretched an arm around each other's back in a gesture which spoke volumes of the bond between them.

A working partnership which was considered no more than a temporary arrangement when formed in August 2017 has since developed into a key component of Team McIlroy. And it is based as much on Diamond's caddying skills, as on a friendship that has been a lifetime in the making.

As the Players Championship approached its climax, McIlroy eyed his ball sitting nicely in the rough to the right of the long 16th fairway. At 15-under par and level with Jim Furyk's clubhouse lead, he knew the next shot of 178 yards would determine his chances of victory.

With a fresh breeze helping from the left, he wanted to hit a wedge. Whereupon Diamond interjected: "I don't see a flier wedge clearing the bunker [guarding the front, right of the putting surface]."

McIlroy paused before nodding in agreement. He then proceeded to hit a high cut with a nine-iron to the heart of the green, setting up a two-putt birdie four and a potential winning figure of 16-under par. From there, Diamond exuded a sense of calm while the two of them made the fearsome walk to the forbidding tee on the short 17th, a walk which prompted Furyk to remark: "I'm looking at the crowd thinking, 'Look at all the people that came to watch the car wreck'."

Two closing pars delivered the duo's biggest win together, earning Diamond a handsome bonus of $250,000. Which was a world away from Easter 2005 when, as eager teenagers, they travelled from Holywood to Rosses Point for the West of Ireland Championship. At 19, Diamond could have been an older brother for the 15-year-old possessed of remarkable skills. And he proceeded to card creditable rounds of 70 and 71 while his young pal shot 68 and 67 to be second leading qualifier.

Then, where Diamond lost in the first round of match-play the following day, McIlroy went on to become the youngest winner of a title which he retained a year later. Diamond, meanwhile, continued with a more gradual ascent in amateur ranks as a member of Belvoir Park, capturing the title in 2012 for a reward of international honours. Two years later, he was playing off plus 2.5.

It is as a caddie, however, that he is now making his mark. "A hundred per cent," came McIlroy's endorsement. "Harry has been a massive part of this, making me more comfortable on the golf course."

He went on: "People just think he's my best friend and I got him on the bag because I didn't want to listen to anyone else. But that's not true. Harry is an accomplished golfer, and he has turned into one of the best caddies out here, if not the best. He's so committed. He's so professional. And having him by my side out there is so good, so comforting. He knows when I need to be distracted. And he also knows when to say things. Like when walking to the fifth tee after the double-bogey on four. We have a constant dialogue. He's been a big part of this."

Which contrasted starkly with the postscript to the 2017 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, where McIlroy was tied fourth behind Jordan Spieth. Only five days after praising JP Fitzgerald for helping to turn things around from a wretched start of four-over after five holes, he fired him, saying: "Sometimes to preserve a personal relationship you have to sacrifice a professional one. I was getting very hard on JP on the course and I don't want to treat somebody, anybody, like that."

So the man whom McIlroy's one-time manager, Chubby Chandler, once described as not necessarily the best caddie in the world "but the best caddie for Rory", was gone. A few weeks later, Diamond was carrying the bag at Firestone. Evidence of their friendship had earlier been on public display when he was best man at McIlroy's wedding at Ashford Castle the previous April. And it was confirmed once more in their role reversal for Diamond's marriage last December.

As it happened, Sawgrass last weekend was a lot more subdued for McIlroy off the golf course than previous occasions there, two of which were quite memorable. "I came in 2009 as a 19-year-old," he said, "missed the cut and got kicked out of bars in Jacksonville Beach for being under age."

A year later, he returned in very different circumstances, in the wake of his first US Tour win at Quail Hollow. The victory celebration, organised by caddie Fitzgerald, took place at Sawgrass where they had flown to on the Sunday night.

The scene was Lulu's, a popular eatery just by the resort's back gate, of which McIlroy recalled: "There were probably 40-50 people. We had a few drinks and a bit of dinner. A good time."

Last Sunday reflected his growing maturity. Rather than a similarly boisterous celebration, it entailed a quiet gathering at Ponte Vedra Beach, which included the player, his wife Erica, manager Sean O'Flaherty, Diamond and some commercial representatives.

Meanwhile, his resounding triumph revived memories of the last serious Irish assault on this title, which almost delivered victory for Pádraig Harrington. It happened in 2004 when the event was also staged in March before its move to May three years later.

Even now, it is staggering to imagine a player completing the last six holes of this punishing stretch in six threes. But that's what Harrington did after something of a rehearsal in 2003, when he was tied second behind Davis Love. The Dubliner's stunning figures from the 13th represented par, birdie, birdie, eagle, par, birdie, to complete a homeward journey of 30 in a round of 66.

Interestingly, like McIlroy, he also stumbled over the opening holes, carding three bogeys and a birdie in the first five. "After birdies on the 14th and 15th, which are two of the tougher holes on the course, I remember feeling good going to the 16th tee," the Dubliner recalled. "Because I was getting into contention, I hit driver there for the only time that week, so as to give myself a more aggressive approach shot."

Even allowing for the wind assistance McIlroy enjoyed, it is still quite revealing to note that in similar ground conditions, Harrington was left with 216 yards as against 178 yards to the green. In the event, he hit a glorious five-iron second to four feet and holed the putt for an eagle. "The flag was cut in a hollow on the right-hand side and I remember being determined not to miss that hollow," he said. And he didn't.

Thinking his 11-under-par total might get him into a play-off on the 17th, he warmed up on the driving range, having taken the exact compass reading of the iconic par-three. Repeated shots off a tee-peg were to no avail, however, after Adam Scott holed a 12-footer on the last to win by a stroke.

McIlroy has a firm belief in destiny, a conviction that "the golf gods will reward you for making a good, committed swing." For him, that means picking his target and swinging "as hard as I can." Which is an approach greatly reliant on confidence.

So, in this week's $10.25m WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play at Austin CC, the objective must be to consolidate what was achieved at Sawgrass before heading to Augusta National. And from the street-football he and Diamond enjoyed during his US Masters debut 10 years ago, they'll be hoping their sense of togetherness can lead to even greater deeds inside the fairway ropes.

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