The boy they christened Cha never had the chance to grow old before our eyes.
His retirement from the game at the tender age of 26 was as unnatural as the talent that took him into the public consciousness in the first place. A 19-year-old minor graduate holding down a place in Brian Cody’s starting 15 was as rare then as it is now.
Cody and Kilkenny have handled every high-class breed, yet even they had to stop and acknowledge the rare pedigree of James Fitzpatrick.
Hurling didn’t end for Cha Fitzpatrick when he stepped away from Kilkenny in 2011 but there was a new beginning for him on the golf course. At Gowran, he got his first real taste of competitive golf having dabbled as a youngster around Mountain View, the local track in Ballyhale. Since the beginning of the year, he has been a member at Mount Juliet, the illustrious parkland gem that hosted Irish Opens in the mid-90s.
“I remember going to Irish Opens at Mount Juliet when I was a young lad,” says Fitzpatrick. “I remember watching Sam Torrance and Bernhard Langer win and the buzz around the place.”
Fitzpatrick posted his own winning score on the Jack Nicklaus layout just last weekend — 38 points playing off four would have been enough to win the captain’s prize, except for the fact that a first-year member, like many clubs, cannot lay claim to the most prestigious title in the trophy cabinet. The man himself was more than happy with his performance. Two over for his round, Fitzpatrick is now edging closer to his ultimate goal.
“I’m playing good stuff at the moment and trying to keep the handicap coming down. I started off at 7 and I’m down to 3.6 now. I’d be hoping to get down to 2 or 1 by the end of summer, if not, the plan is to get down to scratch by the end of next year,” says the man who captained Kilkenny to All-Ireland glory in 2008. It seems like a lifetime ago now, considering there has been such a seismic change in the playing personnel since that triumph, the third of the famous four in a row.
“I was very, very lucky the run we got on. At one stage there we had a B team that would beat any team in Ireland,” says Fitzpatrick. “I’ve had my time and a great run at it. You pass on the baton to the next fella.”
Although he won an All-Ireland hurling title as recently as March, when Ballyhale Shamrocks claimed their third club crown in nine years, Fitzpatrick hasn’t picked up a hurley since that triumph on St Patrick’s Day. In fact his next hurling game will be played on American soil when he heads to San Francisco next week for a three-week sojourn on the west coast, where he will link up with some friends in the Na Fianna club.
“I’ll go back hurling with Ballyhale in August, it’s early in the year yet. Last year, we didn’t play our first knockout game until the last weekend of October. The whole year drags on. A lot of clubs go back training in January and February and it’s a long time until September. At club level, you find yourself waiting around. I said I’d take a clean break after the All Ireland. To even win the county final last year was brilliant. I doubted whether we’d get back there.”
When his Kilkenny career ended four years ago, Cha was left with a void that no amount of club hurling could fill. Golf came along at just the right time.
“I achieved everything I wanted to achieve in hurling. The motivation levels and the hunger levels dropped a bit. With golf there’s always a new level to reach. There’s no such thing as the finished article,” he says. “It (golf) suits me down to the ground, you couldn’t spend a day doing anything better.”
Come Sunday, as his former teammates are preparing to take on Galway in an intriguing Leinster final, Fitzpatrick will be coming off the golf course at Mount Juliet, happy to revisit his former life from the comfort of the clubhouse.
“When they play Kilkenny, they have this extra adrenalin. Once they get their tails up, then they’re dangerous,” Fitzpatrick says of Galway. “When they turn up, they can demolish anyone. They scored 1-15 in 18 minutes against Laois. I don’t care who you’re playing, that’s serious shooting.”
As for the hold that golf now has on him, Fitzpatrick finds it easy to explain.
“I enjoy the fact that it’s all down to yourself in golf and you can blame no one only yourself. I enjoy that kind of responsibility, that everything is up to you. It’s frustrating and enjoyable at the same time. Golf is all about trying to keep the head.”
Kilkenny will try to do the same on Sunday. For the Cats, there is no end but Fitzpatrick needed a new beginning. Golf, he has discovered, is the game that keeps on giving.