It wasn’t a firing, Rory McIlroy said overnight in explaining why he split with longtime caddie J.P. Fitzgerald. But with the US PGA Championship a week away, the former No.1 player in the world will have an old friend as his new man on the bag in hopes of shaking himself out of a year-long case of the doldrums.
“I still consider J.P. one of my best friends, one of my closest friends, but 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,” McIlroy said during a press conference at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club. “I was getting very hard on him on the golf course and I didn’t want to treat someone that – I don’t want to treat anyone like that. But sometimes this game drives you to that, but I felt like it was the right thing to do, and I don’t think there was any good time to do it.”
McIlroy phoned Fitzgerald last Tuesday with the news that he was making the change – two days after finishing T-4 in the British Open at Royal Birkdale after an awful start in which the Ulsterman bogeyed five of the first six holes of the championship. It was a pep talk from Fitzgerald that helped McIlroy make a remarkable turnaround and get in contention the final day, but that wasn’t enough to help Fitzgerald preserve a job he has had since 2008.
The split of McIlroy and Fitzgerald was the second high-profile team to dissolve this southern winter, after the break-up of Phil Mickelson and Jim “Bones” Mackay following the US Open after a 25-year run.
McIlroy first picked up Fitzgerald after the 2008 US Open when Fitzgerald stopped working with Ernie Els.
He admitted to being surprised that they remained a team for more than nine years, considering they missed the cut in their first three events together. But with Fitzgerald on the bag, McIlroy won four Major titles, including back-to-back in the British Open and PGA Championship in 2014. Sandwiched in between was a victory at Firestone’s South Course. Currently No.4 in the world, McIlroy held the No.1 spot for 95 weeks.
“I think we did as well as we could. We maybe could have won a couple of more times and we probably want a couple of rounds back that got away from us,” said McIlroy, who refrained from specifics, but probably would list the final round of the 2011 Masters as their nadir when McIlroy crashed to an 80. He won the US Open in record fashion two months later at Congressional, but McIlroy still needs a green jacket to complete the career grand slam.
McIlroy, 28, has turned to childhood friend Harry Diamond to caddie for him the next few weeks, though it remains to be seen if Diamond, a fine golfer in his own right, having played with McIlroy on the youth team in Northern Ireland, is nothing more than a stop-gap selection before McIlroy turns to a more proven commodity.
In the meantime, McIlroy, who has been hampered by a rib injury for much of the year, said he is enjoying doing more of the legwork and computations on his yardages. It’s of a piece with the decision, in which he explained that he wanted to “take more ownership of his game”.
The split with Fitzgerald was amicable enough, however, that McIlroy wouldn’t rule out rehiring him.
“There’s nothing to say that J.P. mightn’t work for me again at some point, but right now I just felt like I needed a little bit of a change,” McIlroy added. “I hate the term fired or sacked or axed, because that’s definitely not what it was. I just changed my path a little bit, but maybe in the future that path might come back to where it was. Right now I just needed to mix things up a little bit, and J.P. understood that and we’re still all good.”
But who will give him that pep talk at the crucial time, he was asked?
“Hopefully,” McIlroy said with a grin, “I won’t need it.”