One of the popular parlor games among golf’s well-informed has been to attempt to sort out the curious case of Rory McIlroy. He hasn’t won anywhere in the world in 2017 nor has he contended in any of the previous three major championships this year.
It’s a little late for a reset, but McIlroy made a major change in the run-up to this week’s PGA Championship in Charlotte. And he has had quite a bit of success at Quail Hollow, so pardon him if he sees this as a fresh start.
McIlroy parted ways with his caddie J.P. Fitzgerald three weeks ago. Fitzgerald was on McIlroy’s bag from the time the Northern Irishman turned professional, more than nine years ago. On his bag this week will be Harry Diamond, one of McIlroy’s best friends, who also caddied for McIlroy last week at the WGC Bridgestone Invitational.
Yet, a new caddie is only the latest shake-up in McIlroy’s world. Earlier this year, he changed his equipment and perhaps most importantly, changed the golf ball he uses. Even for the best players in the world, that’s not always a relationship that’s easily nurtured.
Early this year, he turned up with a rib injury, which kept him on the shelf for three months.
At the Travelers Championship, McIlroy showed up at the putting green one morning with a handful of putters, searching for something different that would find a way to get the ball in the hole sooner.
And in April, he wed longtime girlfriend Erica Stoll in what Irish media called “the wedding of the decade.”
As anyone who is newly married knows, the ceremony is the easy part. It comes at the end of months of wedding plans, which can take the time and attention of anyone, even one of the world’s best golfers.
Changing caddies, particularly one who has been on the bag as long as Fitzgerald, makes big news in the golf world. McIlroy insists that there was no animosity, just the need for a shake-up.
“J.P. has been a huge part of my life for the last decade,” McIlroy said. “We started in July 2008 and went all the way up until July of this year. A lot of great times, a lot of great times on and off the golf course. 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.
“I was getting very hard on him on the golf course and I didn’t want to treat anyone like that, but sometimes this game drives you to that. I felt like it was the right thing to do and I don’t think there was any good time to do it.”
Now, at long last, McIlroy’s world has gently settled down. He’s becoming accustomed to married life, even if done on the road. He is comfortable with his golf equipment and golf ball. He’s healthy again. He’s gone back to a style of putter with which he has been successful. And with a new caddie, he’s more engaged in the process of playing tournament golf.
All of which leads him to Charlotte this week in search of his fifth major championship and his third PGA Championship title, having won in 2012 and 2014.
McIlroy has won twice at Quail Hollow at the Wells Fargo Championship – in 2010 with a final-round 62, and in 2015, with a Saturday 61. And he tied for second in 2012.
A victory at Quail Hollow would save the year for McIlroy, but he hasn’t been holding back good form, waiting for this opportunity.
“No, not saving it,” McIlroy told the media at the WGC Bridgestone. “If you look at my results, there’s been some decent, I think there’s two, like three, I don’t know, I finished T4 (tied for fourth) at the end of last year at China, and then T4 at Bay Hill, T4 at The Open, T7 at Augusta, T7 in Mexico, beaten in the playoff in South Africa.
“There’s been decent results in there, but decent results right now isn’t good enough. I’m expected to win, I expect more of myself also.
“But I’m not going to press at all, I feel like I’ve more than enough capability to play well here, to play well at Quail Hollow, I’ve shown that before. I feel like my game sort of turned a corner at (Royal) Birkdale, I saw some good fighting qualities. I didn’t have my best stuff but was able to finish fourth in the end. So it’s getting there.”
McIlroy comes into this week having finished tied for fifth at the WGC Bridgestone, so it would appear as if he’s turning a corner – professionally and personally – just at the right time.