If ever you wanted to demonstrate to a young child just how quickly the fortunes in sport can turn around (once you have the right mindset), then all you have to do is look at how Rory McIlroy’s performance improved on Thursday and again yesterday, after the sharp rebuke from his caddy JP Fitzgerald, writes John McHenry.
“You’re Rory McIlroy! What the fuck are you doing?” It only took two short lines from Fitzgerald to jolt McIlroy out of his malaise but they were perhaps the most important words he has heard in all of his professional career.
McIlroy is a man used to very much controlling his own environment. In some people’s eyes, he is refreshingly honest, but his naivety at times (“I didn’t get into golf to try and grow the game”) has meant that he has also had to defend criticism, all of his own making.
For a long time now, I have been very critical that those around him are not having enough impact in terms of helping to shape McIlroy’s career. Critical of some remarks , I have also been critical of things like his tournament scheduling leading up to major championships as well of his performances on the course.
I have also been critical of his very experienced caddy JP Fitzgerald, (who is also a great putter and reader of lines), for not being strong enough in terms of his on-course contribution, especially if you compare it to the contributions made by caddies Steve Williams and Jim ‘Bones’ Mackay to the respective careers of two men who have won more major championships than McIlroy — Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
But all of that has now changed.
Fitzgerald’s intervention on Thursday was not only brave, it was critical. Brave because it was the right decision and brave because no player likes to be criticised mid-round. Not knowing how McIlroy would react, his words also potentially challenged his friendship and future employment on one of the most lucrative bags in professional golf.
Fitzgerald’s interjection was also critical because it has forever more drawn a line in the sand. It has demonstrated that his role to McIlroy is far more than someone who is there to simply bark at photographers or to glare at anybody who dared to think about considering the possibility of moving an inch when McIlroy addresses his ball.
Someone who McIlroy obviously trusts, we know all about Fitzgerald’s game knowledge and positivity. We also know he can take great credit for guiding McIlroy so successfully through the start of his career. He showed enough “thick skin” on Thursday to take responsibility for sorting out his poor mindset (short and sharp as it was), and without hesitation or doubt in his voice. By doing so, Fitzgerald has also fundamentally grown his personal relationship with McIlroy as well as the commercial potential of their partnership.
Fitzgerald’s intervention has less to do with McIlroy’s immediate results. It has more to do with how he now approaches his profession going forward — but the immediate signs are already encouraging.
Contending after a second round of 68, McIlroy is playing with more purpose, levity, and charm. It was nice to see him bounce around the course yesterday. It was nice to hear him not talking about any injuries and it was particularly nice to see him having fun, holing out putts, and competing against the elements, something which we know he is more than capable of doing, regardless of how comfortable he felt in that environment.
Yesterday, we got a good glimpse of Rory, the competitor, and you felt that golf was once again almost becoming fun.
How will he do this weekend? Who knows, but the process is now even more important than the result. McIlroy, no doubt, will harbour ambitions of winning as much as he will be motivated to prove all of his critics wrong, but he shouldn’t lose sight of further solidifying the foundations he has now built. He now knows what he must do and you feel that if he can continue to enjoy that process and encourage Fitzgerald’s contribution more often, then he will get back to where he belongs sooner than later.
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