There were murmurs on Sunday during the Canadian Open that Rory McIlroy had split with his caddie of nine years J.P. Fitzgerald. Well, at least one Tour player had already learned of the news before teeing off in the final round. This relative unknown player shared the information with those in his group, which completely caught them off-guard. At first they thought it was a joke, so the player had to clarify that he was serious.
Rule no. 1: Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see. I’ve been around long enough to know that rumors fly around the Tour more than any other group of people I’ve ever encountered (and that says quite a bit, to be honest). The kind of BS that spreads doesn’t surprise me anymore, but it did when I first started covering the Tour (which feels like a lifetime ago now). Anyway, of course there is often some truth or even truth to things you “hear.” I feel like I have a decent amount of experience at this point to smell out what’s worth pursuing and what’s not. A lot of the time it’s just dumb gossip that you wouldn’t repeat because, well, it’s stupid. There are various factors to this super mathematical equation I’ve developed — 1) the source; and 2) the information.
The person that told me about the alleged split is actually one of the few people on the Tour circus that doesn’t spew gossip and B.S. In fact, this person asked me if I had heard the “news” or if anything had been reported. I said, no, but did a quick Google search to double-check.
We were just a bit confused as to how the source came to this knowledge because he doesn’t have full PGA Tour status, but you really never know who knows whom all the time. I broke out my deductive reasoning skills (thank you, liberal arts education!). My first guess was he was friends with someone who was at Sergio Garcia’s wedding this past weekend. I only know the source of the hearsay by name and I might have met/spoken to him once (???), but I did know where he went to college and whom some in his circle might be. That said, it was entirely conceivable that perhaps one or two of his buddies were at Garcia’s wedding. I’m also assuming Rory was a guest at the major festivities over the weekend at the bride’s family’s ranch in Texas.
Quick pause to emphasize: I’m completely speculating and I have no idea if that’s the case, but just taking you through my thought process.
So, you know, based on my scientific truth test with tons of totally hard facts on my side, I felt like the odds were pretty good that Rory had indeed parted ways with J.P., and I decided that it was worth pursuing. At the same time, it was around 10:30pm Sunday night when I first heard the rumor. I sent out a few text messages to people who were probably at the wedding and/or others that might be in-the-know and could confirm the Rory/JP breakup. I also held back at reaching out to a few because, well, I’ve handed people stories enough times and I’m got a bit of my competitive edge back after finally waking up from my ongoing two-plus- year never-ending personal nightmare.
There was actually another wedding on the other side of the pond that was attended by many Tour types — Gareth Lord, Henrik Stenson’s looper, tied the knot in England. One of the guests told me that none of them had heard a word about it until the news broke this morning.
It was actually kind of surprising who broke the news only because this journalist Andrew Both — who was the Aussie AP golf writer for many years — hasn’t been on the golf beat since 2011. (FWIW, wish he were still at a few tourneys because even though I don’t know him well, I’m a fan. He has a sterling reputation and he’s a lovely person.) He sort of “retired” and took up an editorial position with Reuters. (Which is understandable after he spent so many years on the beat. I know it may seem “glamorous,” but it gets old after a few years of traveling to cover 20-30 tournaments, most of which are at the same venues in the same cities with essentially the same story lines; just a different cast of characters every now and then. Two words: Groundhog Day).
Rory McIlroy has sacked his long-time caddie J.P. Fitzgerald, a source familiar with the matter told Reuters on Sunday, ending a partnership that took the Northern Irishman to four major titles and the top of the world rankings.
McIlroy will have a new caddie on his bag at the World Golf Championships Bridgestone Invitational this week after ending his nine-year relationship with his fellow Irishman, the source, who did not want to be named, said.
There was no immediate response from McIlroy’s management to an e-mailed request for comment late on Sunday.
No surprise that Team Rory is staying mum for now. McIlroy’s manager Sean O’Flaherty returned an email to Golf Channel, saying, “Nothing to share. Rory will address all questions on Wednesday in Akron.”
That’s very “Rory” — and by that, I mean, Rory prefers to deliver any kind of news on his own terms and not via some superficial statement released by a spokesperson or PR flak (which is why we love him–he’s genuine).
I was a little taken aback at how some were “shocked.” I mean, I admit that it threw me off a little initially when I initially heard the rumor, but only because of the timing. After getting off to a horrendous start at Royal Birkdale, Rory fought back and credited Fitzgerald for giving him a timely pep talk:
“He said to me, ‘You’re Rory McIlroy, what the f— are you doing?” the man of the hour reflected last night, with a grin. “At that point, I just mumbled and replied, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ But it definitely helped. He reminded me who I was, what I was capable of.”
“I was anxious, timid, thinking, ‘Geez, here we go again,’” he said. “But I knew that I needed to stay patient, stay with it. I didn’t get angry out there, I didn’t let my head drop too much. I kept a positive attitude and thankfully it turned around for me.”
Asked about the root of his apprehension, he explained: “There was just a lack of confidence, with what has happened lately.” It has taken time for McIlroy to rebound from a rib injury, and he acknowledged in recent days that the stiff winds were playing havoc with his alignment over the ball. “I let all of that get into my head. It’s a major championship and you’re desperate to shoot a good score. I’m always more nervous playing a links than I am any other course. There was a lack of self-belief. Somehow, I was able to find it again halfway through.”
McIlroy ended up finishing tied for fourth. So, the timing definitely threw me off, but the news? — it was like, well, it’s about effing time. Look, some would argue that this has been, like, six years in the making.
There’s been plenty of criticism doled out publicly and privately by members of the media, talking heads, other caddies, players, managers, etc. It really started back in 2011 after McIlroy entered the back nine of the Masters with a four-shot lead before imploding on the back nine, when he kicked off the 10th by hitting it so far left that his ball came to rest by some cabins — which no one really knew existed until that day. Many thought Fitzgerald did very little to get Rory out of the funk. And to Rory’s credit, he’s very loyal and stood up for J.P.
Jay Townsend, the American ex-pro-turned-pundit, used Twitter to berate McIlroy for his course management, calling it “shocking” and “some of the worst I have ever seen beyond under-10s boys golf competition”.
A bruised McIlroy was having none of that. “Shut up,” he tweeted. “You’re a commentator and a failed golfer, your opinion means nothing!”
His willingness to engage on such robust terms was influenced by frustration and loyalty to his caddie, JP Fitzgerald, who was soundly walloped by the critics after McIlroy’s collapse on Masters Sunday.
Townsend was one of many suggesting Fitzgerald should have done more to stem the bleeding. Townsend stood by his comments and went further by suggesting that McIlroy might profit were he to employ Steve Williams, released by Tiger Woods, to carry his bag. McIlroy responded by ‘unfollowing’ him on Twitter.
After his runaway victory at the U.S. Open less than two months later, McIlroy stood by his remarks and J.P.:
“It was one comment too far, I’ve got to stand up for my caddie. J.P. is one of my closest friends. I’ve had to deal with it for three years and not really say anything. He’s just kept at him and at him. I just had to say something. I don’t care if he criticizes me, I can take the criticism. J.P. can’t stand up for himself…
“J.P. has taken me from 200th in the world to major champion and fourth in the world.”
Despite McIlroy winning four majors in just over three years (with the last at the 2014 PGA Championship), there were still many critical — mostly privately — of Fitzgerald and his effectiveness and some pundits voiced their opinions that McIlroy would have even more (major) wins if he had a looper who was better with Rory’s course management and stepping in at the right times instead of just being a “yes, man.” (Hell, I’ve even seen a fellow caddie and a close friend (though I’m not sure what their status is anymore) of Fitzgerald mock him.)
More recently, there were some very critical words by players and insiders in Golf Digest’s Masters preview (which was a really good read and it’s nothing I haven’t heard before in off-the-record chats):
“When he gets into trouble he’s tempted to try to get out of it with one swing. You can’t do that in the Masters. The course can make you feel like you can be a hero, but all too often you end up with a big old black eye.” . . . “Whatever happened to him in 2012 [a 77-76 finish], maybe that’s just stuck in his head.” . . . “Rory is an in-and-out chipper, and his clubbing is suspect at times. How often do you see him and [caddie J.P. Fitzgerald] looking at each other in shock after his ball has finished 20 yards over the back?” . . . “If you listen to them on the course, you often hear Rory asking, ‘What happened there?’ More than once I’ve heard J.P. saying something like, ‘OK, hit a soft draw with a 6-iron off that tree.’ And I’ve immediately thought, This ball is going over the green. And sure enough, it does. So you have to wonder. I see Rory up close only occasionally, and I know he’s going to hit the ball over the green when his caddie clearly doesn’t. It makes no sense.” . . . “Rory needs someone to tell him what he needs to hear, not what he wants to hear.” . . . “Why he doesn’t employ Billy Foster is a mystery. Rory would have 10 majors by now if he did. Of course, we know what Rory is like. He’s as stubborn as anyone on tour. The more people tell him that J.P. is not the right caddie for him, the more he’ll keep him on.”
Well, there you have it. And that said, on second thought, the timing of the breakup isn’t so surprising because right now is the first time in over six years that we heard about something Fitzgerald did that was incredibly effective and had a very positive impact in Rory’s performance. Which has left the naysayers to either stay mum or give credit where credit is due. Naturally, this is how it had to happen — on Rory’s own terms.
We don’t know the entire story yet. I try always to remind myself that WE DON’T KNOW WHAT IS GOING ON IN PEOPLE’S PRIVATE LIVES, so since we haven’t heard from Rory, we can only provide background info, opinion and inevitably, a bit of speculation.
I also want to shut down the idea that Rory will hire Jim “Bones” Mackay. First of all, Bones has signed a deal as an on-course commentator with NBC/Golf Channel and he’s been dealing with knee issues. I also simply don’t think Bones would be the right fit for Rory, who isn’t a guy that is going to want to analyze every shot to death a la Phil Mickelson or Jordan Spieth. Rory’s personality and playing style is rather different from both those guys. He doesn’t need or want someone talking his ear off with an influx of information.
Rather, Rory is more of a guy who wants someone to chat with and that he gets along with, but he could use an experienced guy that knows when to speak up and intervene. Hmmm, well, who would fit that bill? Oh, yeah, I think Joe LaCava has some spare time these days. Personally, I think that would be a great match, but it’s not up to me.
There’s also the other big component: The European factor. I can’t really explain it, but there’s sort of a cultural divide. I feel like Rory will go with a European caddie. I know that sounds odd, but it’s one of those things out on Tour where there’s not that much globalization in player-caddie relationships. So I’d say the top contenders (IMHO) are Billy Foster (Lee Westwood), Mick Doran (Luke Donald) and Colin Byrne (Rafa Cabrera-Bello).
Who knows, I doubt Rory even knows what his long-term plan is at the moment. However, the oddsmakers have spoken and you can place your bet!