JP relishing trip down memory lane
Fitzgerald hopes Rory McIlroy can mount strong challenge in bid to retain Irish Open title
Though sentiment and sporting ambition can be uneasy bedfellows, JP Fitzgerald is looking to some precious memories being stirred today, on catching sight of Portstewart links for the first time in 25 years. He's heading there to be at Rory McIlroy's side, for the defence of the $7m Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, starting on Thursday.
Named recently by Forbes magazine as one of the five highest-earning caddies in world golf, Fitzgerald turned to the bag-carrying craft after an amateur career containing two runner-up finishes in the Irish Close Championship. The first was at Tramore GC in 1987 and the second, in 1992, came on a re-designed Portstewart stretch.
"To be honest, I don't remember all that much about Portstewart, other than the spectacular dunes where the new holes on the front nine were built," he said. "I suppose that's a price you pay for getting beaten. But I'm sure memories will come rushing back of shots I played in various situations, and maybe of putts I holed, except that the result would suggest there weren't enough of those."
Fitzgerald's enjoyment of the new Strand Course, designed by the club's greens convenor Des Giffin, were reflected in two 73s in strokeplay qualifying. Then came matchplay wins over significant challengers in former West of Ireland champion Colin Glasgow, followed by Dale Baker, Val Smyth, Niall Goulding and Jody Fanagan, before he lost 2 and 1 in the final to Kilkenny's Gary Murphy.
An abiding memory of that occasion was the pride of Liam Reidy, who gained the distinction of becoming the first president of the GUI to present the Close trophy to a member of his own club.
"It's always difficult to find a positive side to losing," added Fitzgerald. "But the picturesque nature of the front nine has definitely stayed with me. The back nine also posed an interesting challenge, though the terrain was not quite as memorable. Still, I don't imagine I'll need too much of a refresher. For instance, I don't see the need to walk it, as I normally would with a strange venue. My first trip around will be with Rory, probably on Sunday."
Fitzgerald was back home from the Travelers Championship at River Highlands in Connecticut, where McIlroy shot a closing 64 last Sunday to be tied 17th behind the winner, Jordan Spieth. "That was an important step in the right direction for Rory, especially after the disappointment of the US Open," said Fitzgerald. "Hopefully he can maintain that last-round form and put on a good show next week. He took great pride in winning at The K Club last year and I know he's going to love the links challenge of Portstewart, where control of the golf ball will be crucial, especially in crosswinds. That's where Rory excels when he's on his game. Absolutely. It should give him a definite edge over the competition."
Mind you, the final entry is formidable, easily the strongest to grace the event in recent years. In attempting to emulate Mark James (1979-'80), Seve Ballesteros (1985-'86), Ian Woosnam (1988-'89), Nick Faldo (1991-'92-'93) and Colin Montgomerie (1996-'97) by becoming only the sixth player to successfully defend the title, McIlroy will have to outscore such luminaries as Hideki Matsuyama, Jon Rahm, Justin Rose, Danny Willett, Ian Poulter, Thomas Pieters, Rafa Cabrera Bello, Tommy Fleetwood, Andrew 'Beef' Johnston and Tyrrell Hatton.
Meanwhile, though he mischievously denies having knocked quite a bit of fun out of his semi-final victory over Darren Clarke in the 1987 Close at Tramore, Fitzgerald claims nothing comparable arose from his Portstewart exploits.
Given that McIlroy was barely three months past his third birthday back then, it's hardly surprising he hasn't alluded to that occasion. "We'll start thinking about the Irish Open when we meet up at Portstewart," said Fitzgerald. "That's always his approach to an upcoming challenge. Just imagine, I haven't been there in 25 years. God! That far back and so much happening in between."
In the immortal words of Sam Goldwyn, a lot of people have passed water under the bridge since then. And for Fitzgerald, the most important move was to link up with McIlroy late in 2008, the player's rookie season on tour.
He first took notice of his future employer during the 2007 Open Championship at Carnoustie, where Pádraig Harrington made his Major breakthrough. "I saw Rory on TV hit a two-iron second-shot into the wind to the last," he recalled. "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.'"
Their enduring relationship owes much to the caddie's reputation for discretion, which is a priceless quality in his craft. A perfect example came in the wake of caddying for financier Dermot Desmond in the AT&T Pro-Am at Pebble Beach. On being asked if there was anything in Desmond's game that reminded him of McIlroy, he side-stepped a perceived ambush by replying: "They're both very nice people."
So far, their greatest test was the post-mortem to McIlroy's collapse on the final nine of the 2011 US Masters. "We sat down after Augusta and realised where we both went wrong," said the player. "We didn't communicate like we usually do. Everything went very quiet; it was way too serious, different from the way we had been on the Thursday."
McIlroy later remarked: "JP has become one of my closest friends and it's a combination I think is working very well." Which might have been viewed as something of an understatement on the occasion of the $1.05m pay-off which Fitzgerald received as his percentage of the FedEx Cup triumph last autumn, when the player was memorably prompted to remark: "I think his words were, 'A tsunami just hit my bank account, so thank you very much.'"
During a TV interview last weekend, McIlroy was seriously upbeat about coming home to defend the Irish Open. "Oh yeah," said Fitzgerald. "He takes great pride in it. You've got to remember that since Rory got involved in the championship through his Foundation and with Dubai Duty Free, the prize fund's gone from €2.5m to $7m.
"That's apart from the money he's raised for charities, north and south of the border, at Daisy Hill [Co Down] and in Mayo, which is astounding. From being close to Rory, I'm very aware of what these projects mean to him."
Looking again towards Portstewart, the caddie said: "The first thing to be understood is the total difference between the way I played the course and the way Rory will play it. The Strand has obviously developed into a great test, offering a special challenge of its own, with events such as the British Amateur going there. Which is why it wouldn't be my place to compare its character to renowned venues like Royal Co Down, Portmarnock or Royal Portrush.
"What I do know is that it's more important for the average player to be on his game in links conditions, especially if the wind blows. For Rory, however, there's no issue in adapting to links or parkland. And it will also be pretty much a standard caddying challenge for me, except for obvious differences in the detail.
"That's where the practice rounds are important. We'll have a few good looks at it, knowing that if the wind blows, you could be hitting a seven-iron from 140 yards, where last week, we were probably hitting an eight-iron over 200 yards."
On moving on to grander pursuits, some players have a tendency to look back dismissively on their amateur career as if it represented a dangerous disease. Which made it refreshing to hear Fitzgerald reflecting with such obvious affection on his Portstewart experience.
"I'm really excited about going back there, especially for such a big occasion," he said. "Let's hope Rory gets into contention and we get to create lots of new memories."
A suitable silver jubilee celebration, you might say.
Sunday Indo Sport