Colin Byrne: Every caddie living on borrowed time with his player
Rory McIlroy splitting with long-time caddie JP Fitzgerald is just a part of the game
Rory McIlroy celebrates with his caddie J.P. Fitzgerald after victory in the TOUR Championship to clinch the FedExCup at East Lake Golf Club. But the relationship was always going to end at some point. Photograph: Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
For those of you who like to tune in for their weekly golf fix on Sunday evening, watching a new champion make some impossible putt to win and unceremoniously hugging his caddie in elation, it can be an extremely uplifting end to the week.
The glory, the success, the prize money and sense of satisfaction are all evident in the final moment of joy. But this is as good as it gets – the reality of what the average bagmen does to earn a living is an entirely less glamorous prospect.
I write this after a long trip to Akron, Ohio for the Bridgestone International. Travel never seems to get any more exotic than a bleary-eyed connection in a major US airport hub and a functional midnight welcome at a nondescript hotel, a stunted sleep and an early tee off.
There is a grinding process of preparation the modern golfer has to go through in his build up to each tournament that can often look like overdiligence.
A Monday practice round with multiple shots hit off tees and into greens. Countless chips and sand shots swatted from every possible position around the putting surfaces to every possible pin position imaginable. In an effort to combat the unknown we all try to pre-empt every possible scenario that could happen under the gun.
So after five hours of a practice round, there could be another practice session on the range, chipping green and putting green. If there was any tinkering to do, the manufacturers have their trucks on site to cater for any adjustments that may be needed.
The same could happen on Tuesday and then comes the Wednesday pro-am. Already we may well have spent 30 hours with our players before the first shot of the tournament is hit.
Sure, we need to know what is going on from a golfing perspective but more importantly we need to get along with our boss, given our constant proximity. Or at least we need to not annoy them. So assuming we know how to pick up the (heavy) golf bag, the most important quality required is compatibility. I sense you comparing relationships in general, that is exactly what it is like.
Of course the Sunday night scene of success brings with it a large cheque, as it did so often for Rory McIlroy’s caddie, but there are many caddies going through the mundane weekly slog without the rich rewards. It is important to recognise the Sunday night glory is not a standard.
As much as preparation and being a good professional golfer is about habit and routine, the art of it is about knowing when to break routine. We often talk as player and caddie during the practice rounds about strategy and what we would ideally do, in the heat of battle, on certain tricky holes. The art of the game is about the contrast between rationale and flair.
There was a pivotal moment is the playoff between Rory McIlroy and Ryan Moore at the Tour Championship last year when the sound logic of JP Fitzgerald to hit a sensible recovery wedge was overruled by the innate instinct of his master with a scent of victory.
Rory opted for the swashbuckling , seemingly impossible longer iron shot, perilously over water, taking him closer to the green. Of course he pulled it off. His caddie’s advice was sound and so was the player’s instinct. Such is the dynamic of a player and a caddie partnership; two different opinions, neither wrong, resulting in the right decision.
Rory and JP enjoyed an exceptionally long and successful partnership together with multiple victories and Majors. Rory felt comfortable with his chosen bagman. He trusted his yardage and strategic advice. There was a synergy that resulted in success. Success is what our relationships are built on.
We are an extremely strange bunch of professionals in the sense that it is hard to define the skill of caddying, but there is an art to getting the best out of your ‘man’; When to step in, when to be deferential. When to criticise and when to praise. When to up the work ethic and when to relax. It is all the little things that a caddie does that add up to the big picture of making their player’tick’. It is almost impossible to teach and is learnt through daily absorption and observation.
The art of playing successfully is as much about keeping routine but more importantly knowing when to break it. Much like Rory has decided to break the routine of his nine-year partnership with his bagman JP; he felt it was time for a change. Who could blame him? There is a very good chance that he will win either this week or next week if not both. When players make a big decision in their lives or profession it tends to free them up to play their best and take ownership of their destiny.
As with all relationships in any walk of life, familiarity can often breed contempt.
When things are not going exactly to script on the golf course players can easily resort to the blame game and shirk responsibility. This is what Rory said he found himself doing with JP. His bagman was doing nothing different, it was the way he was reacting that was irritating McIlroy. You can say the right thing and the wrong thing as a caddie even though it is exactly the same thing. The way it is heard depends on when the player hears it.
Our job as toters has become increasingly one of a psychological nature. The yardage books we use are sophisticated, the books with green contours make reading the greens a lot easier, coaches monitor the swing, psychologists balance the mind, in theory.
But the only person who can deal with an addled mind during the round is the caddie. The mind is what separates the good from the great, so being able to help your player turn around mentally is becoming a more important task in our job description. A subtle word at the right time can have a huge impact on performance.
There has been an influx of ex-players to the caddie ranks in the past decade. Seemingly a great place to come from as a prospective caddie. Sergio Garcia had Jose Manuel Lara caddie for him earlier in the year while his regular man was on parental leave.
Jose Manuel has won on several occasions on the European Tour. It should have been a much easier prospect for him to advise Sergio than trying to score himself. He found it rewarding to caddie but indescribably more difficult than he ever imagined and it has heightened his respect for the rest of us full time loopers, as a result of his brief stint on the other side of the bag.
We all work on a handshake and with no job security. It is the only way it can work.
Being a bagman is not for everyone. Things are said and done under pressure that nobody is proud of in the calm of the setting sun. Being able to compartmentalise this is what we do as caddies.
The standard of caddying on tour today is extremely professional and polished, players demand so much more than the modest expectations of yesteryear. There are huge lures at the very top and added pressures that come with helping make decisions under the intensity of competition.
We all work on a handshake and with no job security. It is the only way it can work. It is not like an office scenario where others can absorb the tension when things are not going well. We all know this, it is a fundamental of the job, this is what keeps us on our toes, the fact that there is no security. There is an old adage of living every day like it is your last which is particularly poignant in the world of professional golf. The only problem with that theory is that one day it will be your last.
It is the nature of the business that as soon as a caddie/player relationship begins it is heading towards the end. This can take a long or a short time depending on how you gel as a team. Success is the glue that bonds us all. If the results don’t come then someone has got to go.
We are true dilettantes, with a lot of patience, tough skin, a flexible nature and loads of cop-on. We need to blend and realise what we are really paid for is the back nine on a Sunday when things are getting tight and our man needs a steady hand on his bag.
Rory has decided it is time for a change. JP Filtzgerald has had a wonderful life- changing time with his ex-boss. It was always going to end at some stage. It is the nature of the bizarre relationship between a player and his bagman.