Monday 21 May 2018

McIlroy takes a huge risk in bid to earn rewards

Rory McIlroy and JP Fitzgerald at Royal Birdale on the last day of the Open where there was little sign of what was to come. Photo: PA
Rory McIlroy and JP Fitzgerald at Royal Birdale on the last day of the Open where there was little sign of what was to come. Photo: PA
Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

Rory McIlroy has taken one of the biggest risks of his career by parting company with caddie JP Fitzgerald ahead of two top tournaments that can define his season.

It's not so much the fact of McIlroy splitting with his bagman after nine eventful years which produced magnificent rewards for both of them, because Tour insiders know that longevity of player-caddie relationships is the exception rather than the norm.

So yes, there was a sense of shock in golf that this divorce came seemingly out of the blue, but the key question is: "Why now?"

Why would McIlroy take such a risk as disrupt his routine and relationship with the one man who has been at his side since the days in early 2008 when as a newbie Tour pro, he struggled to find his equilibrium and replicate the magic of his amateur exploits?

Paul McGinley (right) is surprised at Rory McIlroy’s caddie decision. Photo: Sportsfile
Paul McGinley (right) is surprised at Rory McIlroy’s caddie decision. Photo: Sportsfile

This week, the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone in Akron, Ohio, guarantees McIlroy four badly needed competitive rounds among the elite players in the game.

And next week, well, there's Quail Hollow, one of his favourite courses on the planet where the US PGA Championship offers a last shot at Major championship glory in 2017.

So what does McIlroy do? He drops JP off the bag. He puts himself smack bang in the centre of a major media storm. He immediately ramps up the pressure on his performance this week and next week.

Say what you like about McIlroy - and we can say many deserved good things about him - he's a great man for making the world sit up and take notice.

I'm not saying he does it just for notoriety, not a bit of it.

Rory is wonderfully honest, gives his opinion without fear and calls the situation as he sees it.

However, this is a decision from out of left field.

Had he rounded off the season, one which has been disrupted by his now infamous rib injury, with an announcement along the lines of, "Thanks, JP, but our time has passed", it would have not caused such a sensation.

But to drop the man who knows you and your game intimately, and who has endured all the highs and lows of your career by your side, and to do it when the signs are looking positive for your game, is a bold move indeed.

Foolish? It will be fascinating watching the Bridgestone and the US PGA to find out.

Paul McGinley, who has watched the rise of McIlroy since he burst on the amateur scene and who captained him in the 2014 Ryder Cup win at Gleneagles, knows both men very well, and gave Fitzgerald his break into the caddie role.

"I'm obviously disappointed for JP. I gave him his first job. I think he's done a tremendous job with Rory. He can hold his head up high. But, the merry-go-round of players and caddies has always been part of life on Tour.

"I rate him very, very highly, and he'll be hard to replace for Rory," said McGinley.

On the timing issue, McGinley said: "That is surprising, but Rory knows the answer to that. I can't answer that because I don't know the reasoning behind it. Only Rory knows why.

"It is surprising with one Major to go, particularly on a golf course (Quail Hollow) where JP has won with him around there twice.

"They've got a great record there and JP knows the golf course well, but only Rory can answer that. I can't," said McGinley.

Moments

The former Ryder Cup skipper employed Fitzgerald for more than seven years, and they shared some great moments together, with the 2002 Ryder Cup win at The Belfry one of the big highlights.

Inevitably there came a time when they had to go their separate ways, and McGinley's view of the nine years of the McIlroy-Fitzgerald combo is that they had a very good innings.

"That's way above the average length of time that caddies and players stay together, even successful ones.

"They've had a great partnership, culminating in four Major championships between them and a huge amount of wins, and Rory's been the world number one player at some stage.

"I think they both can walk away from the relationship with really good memories and really good vibes about what they achieved together.

"There's a sell-by date with caddies which is regularly illustrated on Tour.

"We thought (Phil) Mickelson and 'Bones' (Jim McKay), were going to stay together for their whole career but that hasn't happened.

"I can't think of any player that's gone a whole career without changing caddie.

"They've shared a lot of experiences with each other, and they'll walk away as friends, I'm sure," said McGinley.

Des Smyth, who watched McIlroy and Fitzgerald operate during the Open at Royal Birkdale in his role as a BBC Five Live analyst just a week and a half ago, sees the golfer's surprise move as one that is part and parcel of life on Tour.

"There are certain times in your career you just feel you've tried this, you've tried that, you're unhappy, you need a change. It's nothing personal.

"Rory's trying to get back to number one, he's trying to win Majors. He's had a lot going on with the change of clubs, with the injuries and all those things have effects. This type of thing happens within the golfing fraternity all the time," said Smyth.

Irish Independent

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