“It’s a big change,” McIlroy said yesterday during a press conference on the eve of the WGC Bridgestone Invitational in Akron, Ohio. “JP has been a huge part of my life for the last decade. A lot of great times on-and-off the course.”
McIlroy, 28, said despite the split, he still considers Fitzgerald among his best friends, but he’s counting on his best man, Harry Diamond, to handle caddie duties for the next two weeks and provide a spark if McIlroy is to avoid a third successive majorless campaign in a row.
McIlroy and Fitzgerald enjoyed a long, fruitful relationship that began in July 2008, shortly after McIlroy turned pro. They won four majors together over the last nine years. It follows another high profile player-caddie split — Phil Mickelson and Jim “Bones” McKay parted in June after 25 year — that shocked the golf world.
McIlroy missed three cuts in a four tournament stretch prior to the Open Championship, including the US Open, and said he found himself blaming Fitzgerald for his miscues and dishing a brand of verbal abuse that his sidekick didn’t deserve.
“I don’t want to treat anyone like that, but sometimes this game drives you to that,” McIlroy said. “Sometimes to preserve a personal relationship, you might have to sacrifice a professional one and that was sort of the decision that I came to in the end.”
Added McIlroy: “I got to the point where if I didn’t play a good shot or if I made a wrong decision, I was getting more frustrated at him than I was at myself. I would much rather be angry at myself for making a wrong decision than being angry at him.”
McIlroy continued to state that he wanted to take more ownership of his game, and he’s taken on the responsibility of measuring his own distances during practice rounds, carrying his yardage book, and will be pacing off distances before shots, duties that Fitzgerald had long handled.
Carrying the bag is only a tiny part of the job, though with rain gear, balls and a sweater, it’s at least 50 pounds of baggage. A tour player sees his caddie more than his wife and kids. Off the course, many caddies are close friends and confidants. On the course, they are part coach, part psychologist, promoting good tempo and positive swing thoughts.
Fitzgerald has made caddying his life’s work in a profession where the boss doesn’t have to give two weeks notice.
“They have survived a long time in the pressure cooker of the top of the world rankings,” said Paul McGinley, who once employed Fitzgerald. “I think both of them can walk away with their heads held high. It is one of those things that happens.”
Fitzgerald has shared in the bounty of McIlroy’s success. Forbes estimated Fitzgerald earned $1.65m from his cut of McIlroy’s prize money over the 12 months to June this year.
“I think his words were, ‘A tsunami just hit my bank account, so thank you very much’,” McIlroy recounted of his caddie’s FedEx Cup windfall, before adding: “He deserved it. He’s a big part of what we do. He was with me when I was No. 210 in the world and when I was No. 1.”
But not anymore, although McIlroy suggested they could work together again someday.
For now, Diamond, his childhood friend from Holywood and a fierce competitor as an elite amateur golfer, will tote his bag at the Bridgestone Invitational and next week’s PGA Championship at Quail Hollow in Charlotte, North Carolina, where McIlroy has won twice before.
Diamond’s golfing CV includes winning the 2012 West of Ireland Championship, and reaching the final of the 2011 North of Ireland Championship. He has caddied for McIlroy before, including at the 2011 Masters Par-3 Tournament and the 2014 Dunhill Links Championship, and also was by his side as best man at McIlroy’s wedding to Erica Stoll earlier this year.
“I just needed someone who knew me and knew my thought process,” McIlroy explained of choosing Diamond as a temporary replacement.
When asked if Diamond is auditioning for the job, McIlroy said: “We’ll see how the next two weeks go, but I’m not ruling anything out. It could be two weeks, it could go longer than that. Jeez, if we have a couple of good weeks here, you never know.”
After opening the year with a runner-up finish in the BMW South African Open, McIlroy has failed to deliver on the promise of his scorching-hot conclusion to 2016 that saw him claim two of the four FedEx Cup playoff events, including the Tour Championship.
He is winless this year, and his best finishes on the PGA Tour are a pair of T-4s, most recently at the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale.
The timing of McIlroy’s decision to fire Fitzgerald — a week before the final major of the year — is curious, but McIlroy is returning to a Firestone Country Club that he blitzed on the way to victory in 2014, and with no cut to worry about, McIlroy is guaranteed four rounds to get acquainted with Diamond by his side.
If he chooses to look elsewhere for a new bagman after the PGA, McIlroy said he would have 10 days before The Northern Trust, the first of the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup playoffs, begins to find a replacement.
Asked where applicants for the job should apply, McIlroy smiled and offered the email address of his manager, Sean O’Flaherty.
“Sean@RoryMcIlroyInc.com,” he said.