Some caddies find it difficult to live by the age-old maxim to keep up and shut up but that’s no problem for JP Fitzgerald.
He’s been by Rory McIlroy’s side for the past six years and made yesterday’s Open Championship triumph look like another routine day at the office.
The relationship between golfer and bagman was unbelievably relaxed given there was so much at stake and the confidence they placed in each other’s judgement could hardly have been more apparent.
From the Irish Amateur Close week at Tramore back in 1987, the then 20-year-old Fitzgerald was regarded as a very bright and friendly individual with a dry sense of humour. But he was also one who carefully considered his words before opening his mouth.
He reached the final that year and again two years later at Portstewart, losing on both occasions to Eddie Power and Gary Murphy and was soon on his way to a career as a caddy that has made him a very rich man.
That was evident when he caddied for financier Dermot Desmond in the Pebble Beach pro-am a couple of years ago and was asked afterwards if there was anything in Desmond’s game that reminded him of McIlroy. Fearing a set-up, he simply smiled: “They’re both very nice people.”
And I have personal knowledge of how thoughtful and considerate he can be. He was the caddy jumping high in the air in the background when Paul McGinley sank the winning putt in the Ryder Cup at The Belfry in 2002 because Europe’s current Ryder Cup captain was Fitzgerald’s first professional boss.
“I reminded Paul that we had this same putt two years previously during the Benson & Hedges International and that it didn’t break as much as we had thought,” he said at the time.
“I told him this one was only barely on the left lip. I was praying for it to drop. It was such an incredible relief as well as an unbelievable joy. I was so happy for Paul.”
From McGinley, JP moved on to Darren Clarke, with whom he also struck it rich when they captured the NEC World Championship in 2003. After 20 months, though, they mutually decided to go their separate ways, with the Tyrone man readily admitting: “It was JP’s suggestion that we take a break from one another.
“When player and caddie are not getting the best out of each other, then it is the only logical thing to do. We had been friends for 20 years and I didn’t want to do anything to harm that.”
JP also enjoyed a happy relationship with Ernie Els, who paid him the following compliment: “He has a sense of humour which is something I enjoy about him. At times, you need someone out there to keep things light-hearted and not too serious.”
McIlroy was midway through his first season on Tour in 2008 when he linked up with Fitzgerald and they have been together through victories in three Major championships, five international tournaments, six European Tour events and two Ryder Cups. It must be very reassuring for Fitzgerald that the day has long since passed when McIlroy and others have needed to stand up for him in face of some fierce media criticism, much of it levelled after the famous meltdown in the 2010 Masters at Augusta. McIlroy’s then manager Chubby Chandler laid it on the line.
“JP is the perfect minder for Rory as he is a very protective individual,” Chandler maintained. “He gets a bit of stick, but an awful lot goes on around Rory McIlroy that a normal caddie wouldn’t meet. JP may not be the best caddie in the world but he is certainly one of the better caddies in the world and for Rory he is definitely the best caddie in the world.”
McIlroy himself went even further stating he had “complete faith” in JP.
They bounced back to run away with the US Open less than eight weeks later and since then the US PGA and Open Championship have followed. Even so, what happened at the Masters had a galvanising effect on the partnership.
“We sat down after Augusta and realised where we both went wrong,” said McIlroy. “We didn’t communicate like we usually do. Everything went very quiet, it was way too serious. It was different from the way I treated the Thursday at the Masters. I’d warm up, I’d chat, I’d just be loose, then go out and shoot 65. There is no reason why it shouldn’t be exactly like that on the Sunday afternoon. You’re just going out to play 18 holes of golf.”
Rory countered criticism of Fitzgerald for allowing him to play driver off the 10th tee by honestly stating: “I hit the same club I had hit the three previous days.
“JP has been on my bag since the middle of 2008 when I was 200th in the world. He’s a guy who’s been with me through all my wins on Tour. He’s been with me through some tough play-off losses, with me through everything. So if it’s not broke, you don’t fix it. He’s become one of my closest friends and it’s a combination I think is working very well.”
Perhaps one of golf’s great understatements.
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