Martin Dempster: Things went stale for Rory McIlroy and caddie

Picture: Rory McIlroy celebrates with JP Fitzgerald after winning the Tour Championship on the PGA Tour last September. Picture: Sam Greenwood/Getty
Picture: Rory McIlroy celebrates with JP Fitzgerald after winning the Tour Championship on the PGA Tour last September. Picture: Sam Greenwood/Getty
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“You’re Rory McIlroy. What the f*** are you doing?” How quickly have those words uttered by JP Fitzgerald less than two weeks ago at Royal Birkdale taken on a totally different meaning. Fitzgerald, after all, is now McIlroy’s former caddie, or apparently so if a claim about his sacking proves to be correct.

That, of course, seems astonishing given that, in revealing what Fitzgerald had said to him in a bid to get a reaction after his stuttering start in the 146th Open Championship just under a fortnight ago, McIlroy heaped praise on the man who has been at his side over the last nine years and won four majors together.

The truth of the matter, though, is that golf’s third big divorce in a short space of time following Phil Mickelson’s split from his caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay then Lee Westwood leaving his long-time manager, Andrew “Chubby” Chandler, has probably been coming for a lot longer than most people might think.

Having picked up his bag not long after he turned professional, the experienced Fitzgerald was the perfect choice for McIlroy starting out, but there have been a number of occasions in recent years when, rightly or wrongly, a finger of blame was pointed in his direction.

Not by McIlroy, who, on more than one occasion, has come out fighting in defence of his bagman, though, and this didn’t get nearly as much publicity as that praise on the first day, there was an indication on the Saturday in the season’s third major that the pair’s relationship had, indeed, arrived at the strained stage.

The 2014 winner was still in the hunt when he ran up a double-bogey 6 at the 10th and his remarks afterwards about it left no-one in doubt about who he thought was to blame for that momentum-stopper. “You either hit a club that stays short of all those bunkers or you take a club that at least only brings the traps up at 300 into play and I did neither,” he said.

Yes, of course, McIlroy should know that himself and he probably wouldn’t have been around for the weekend if it hadn’t been for Fitzgerald’s intervention after he found himself four-over-par following just five holes, but it’s been abundantly clear for some time now that he’s not been himself on the golf course.

He’s been blowing hot and cold – more the former as three missed cuts in four events prior to the Open Championship indicated – and a change of caddie could be just what he needs, especially if that important relationship with Fitzgerland had become stale.

On his day, McIlroy is still the most exciting player by far in the game these days, but it really was concerning to see some of his wedge play, in particular during the recent Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open at Dundonald Links, where he talked openly about taking “ownership” of certain things in a bid to get back firing on all cylinders again.

In spells at Royal Birkdale, the 28-year-old showed signs of turning the corner and now he is set to head into a possible season-changing double-header – the WGC-Bridgetone Invitational in Akron, Ohio, this week is followed, of course, by the US PGA Championship at Quail Hollow – with a bit of freshness that might make all the difference.

Billy Foster, currently working for Westwood, and Joe LaCava, who is waiting to see if Tiger Woods will ever get fit enough to be back playing competitively, are the bookmakers’ favourites for the job, with Colin Byrne, who helped Rafa Cabrera Bello become Scottish Open champion in Ayrshire, another name being mentioned. They would all certainly be more what McIlroy needs rather than either his best friend, Harry Diamond, or Niall Horan, the One Direction signer, because it’s time for him to get back winning titles again and not turning himself into a celebrity circus.

As for Fitzgerald, he won’t have to wait long to pick up another bag, if, that is, he still has the appetite for it and, remember, he’s done pretty well out of McIlroy. For a single weekend alone thanks to McIlroy winning the FedEx Cup last year, he picked up £860,000. “I think his words were, ‘A tsunami just hit my bank account, so thank you very much’,” revealed McIlroy at the time of that tidy pay-day for the caddie before adding: “He deserved it. He’s a big part of what we do. He was with me when I was No210 in the world and when I was No1.”

As they say, though, all good things eventually come to an end.