RORY McILROY and caddie JP Fitzgerald will still be side by side next April when the 22-year-old bids for redemption at the US Masters.
Insisting his relationship with the Dubliner is as strong as ever, McIlroy refuses point-blank to let Fitzgerald shoulder the blame for his final-round implosion at Augusta National last spring.
McIlroy's course management and the role his caddie might have played in helping him curb his natural aggression came under fire after the Masters and during the summer.
However, the US Open champion launched a cogent and persuasive defence of Fitzgerald yesterday when the subject arose.
Saying he'd felt absolutely no pressure to part with his caddie after the Masters, McIlroy said: "There was no point in me saying, 'JP didn't do a great job there, I'm going to get someone else'.
"JP has been on my bag since the middle of 2008, when I was 200th in the world and he's helped bring me to where I am now (third).
"Here's a guy who has been with me for all five of my wins on Tour. He's been with me through some tough play-off losses. He's been with me through everything.
"I've a great relationship with JP. He's become one of my closest friends over the past two and a half years. It's a combination that works very well," McIlroy added. "I firmly believe if it ain't broke, don't fix it."
Both men sat down after the Masters and carefully analysed what went wrong. "We didn't communicate like we usually do with each other that Sunday," explained McIlroy.
"Usually we chat to each other around the golf course but it was completely different on Sunday at Augusta. It was both of us feeling the pressure of it. You've got to understand, it was the first time he'd been in that situation as well.
"It was a learning process for both of us."
McIlroy rubbished suggestions that his caddie should have talked him out of using his driver for the ill-fated tee shot he hooked between the cabins to the left of Augusta's 10th hole.
"I hit the same club the previous three days," he said. "If you have a game plan, you stick to it. I actually was more comfortable that week turning my driver.
"The ball comes off my three wood with a lot less spin so it's not got as much turn on it, though obviously I got too much turn on my driver on that occasion."
After winning his first Major championship and two other tournaments in 2011, the pain of his Augusta implosion has subsided and McIlroy said: "Sunday at the Masters was huge for me.
"I reached a crossroads that day. Had I won, I could have kept going the one way. Yet after what happened, I really had to take responsibility for myself and my game and do what I needed to do to improve as a player.
"It was a huge disappointment at the time but when I look back in 20 years, I'll probably see it as the most important day of my career."