Comment: There isn’t a crisis, Rory McIlroy has just decided that he needs fresh perspective
It was the afternoon of the Irish Open Pro-Am at Portstewart when Rory McIlroy peeled away from his entourage on the 17th fairway after identifying a familiar face he hadn’t seen in a while. It was an off-duty David McNeely, who has caddied for some of the world’s finest players for close to 35 years.
They walked together with Rory inquiring about his well-being after the Belfast man had gone through a difficult time with his health, and catching up.
It was a private few minutes, and McNeely, who knows all about getting the push as a bag man, was deeply touched, but not surprised, that somebody of his international standing would leave his playing partners — businessman Dermot Desmond, horse owner JP McManus, football manager Pep Guardiola and former jockey Tony McCoy — and seek him out to have a quiet sympathetic and reassuring word.
McIlroy is a massively single minded, determined and hugely successful young man, given to occasional fits of temper and petulance, but this is also what he is extremely good at. It was a brief and simple act of kindness, which confirmed how impressive he is with his social skills.
It speaks volumes for the man.
So it’s not difficult to imagine how extraordinarily painful it must have been for him when he decided to tell JP Fitzgerald, his faithful and loyal caddie for nine years, that he was dispensing with his services.
Regrettably for all concerned, this is one of golf’s occupational hazards. Caddies come and go, and in this particular sport which demands so much focus and discipline, no time is ever the right time to say goodbye. There isn’t a professional anywhere in the world who hasn’t issued the same marching orders.
Just ask McNeely. He has worked with maybe 10 or 12 players in his time, among them Irishman Padraig Harrington, with whom he separated somewhat acrimoniously in 2004.
It’s no secret that McIlroy is going through a challenging period after failing to make the cut at the Irish and Scottish Opens. His game isn’t what and where it should be, especially his lack of consistency on the greens, but all seemed fine at Birkdale a fortnight ago during The Open when Fitzgerald delivered a sharp reminder for his man to get his act together after a woeful first nine holes.
And Rory being Rory, he managed to sort himself out to finish a very credible fourth. Good, but obviously not good enough.
Carl Frampton standing on the scales 1lb overweight before a big fight is like allowing a golfer to begin his round without a putter in his bag, and just as boxing fans are agog at the continuing unfolding events in his world, the conspiracy theorists will no doubt have a field day speculating about the reasons for JP’s departure.
They need to calm themselves.
If this had been his long-term coach Michael Bannon who’d been shown the door, the situation might have been heading towards a crisis. But there isn’t one, and this is McIlroy’s way of dealing with an issue which is clearly in need of urgent attention. It goes with the territory.
Rory wants a new man at his side to freshen up the way he goes about his business. In the same way he twice decided to change the people managing his affairs, and the same way he switched his clubs from Titleist to Nike and then Taylor Made.
He’s clearly at the stage where it’s time to move on. Again. JP was also friend and confidant and McIlroy brought him riches caddies can only dream about. He’s a millionaire, and rest assured before the summer is out, he’ll have found himself a new employer.
Ricky Elliott from Portrush, who was with the US Open winner Brooks Koepka a few weeks ago, is having the time of his life. Caddying can provide a brilliant source of income, but the role is also brutal and unforgiving when the going gets tough.
McNeely has worked for the very best, and experienced the hurt of separating with the likes of Nick Faldo, Harrington, and the Italian Matteo Manassero who promised so much, but who has never really developed.
I remember meeting them outside the clubhouse at The Masters a few years ago when all seemed well with the world, even though he’d failed to make the cut. But there is an inevitability about these type of relationships, and sure enough the pair split not long afterwards.
McNeely may have his regrets, but refuses to look back in anger, and once reflected about what happens when players part company with their caddies. Five of the contingent he worked for over the years went on to win a total of 16 Majors.
He told the EamonnMallie.com website: “It is very easy to caddie for a golfer who is playing well, but when things aren’t going well… If the golfer is losing form and that continues, then it’s very, very difficult.
“Because what happens is that the caddie starts saying the same thing. He’ll encourage, but continues to repeat himself. And of course the player has heard it all before and doesn’t have any impact. Then it is time to move on.”
No doubt Rory will explain himself in due course, but McNeely’s views back then — in January 2012 — might not be very far off the mark.
• Deric Henderson, the former Ireland Editor of the Press Association, is a media consultant who runs his own company, Deric Henderson Media.
Belfast Telegraph Digital