KILLARNEY, REPUBLIC OF IRELAND | On a personal level, events at Royal St George’s a few weeks ago did enough to enhance JP Fitzgerald’s position in world golf, without the need of serious media exposure. But it arrived in unwanted torrents during the Irish Open at Killarney, where the bagman became a central figure in a very public spat involving his employer, Rory McIlroy, and TV commentator Jay Townsend.
While McIlroy and Townsend were tweeting bitter words to each other, Fitzgerald said nothing, though fellow caddies rose to the defence of a colleague whose integrity, in their view, had been seriously impugned.
First, let us explain the caddie’s newly acquired status in golf. It has to do with the 1987 Irish Amateur Close Championship at Tramore GC and a semi-final clash between Fitzgerald and a youngster named Darren Clarke. As it happened, Fitzgerald won on the 20th hole but went on to lose the final by two holes to local man, Eddie Power. “Okay, he beat me,” said Clarke, somewhat defensively. “It’s there in black and white in the record books. But no matter how often he gets at me about it, he knows in his heart it was a fluke; that he got it up and down from all over the place.”
Still, after Sandwich, Fitzgerald can now claim the remarkable distinction among caddies, of having a match-play victory over an Open champion. Nor can his ability on the bag be questioned, given that he caddied for Clarke in what was then the NEC Invitational at Firestone in 2003, and went on to buy a Mercedes for his mother on the strength of his share of the winning, $1 million cheque. And, presumably, he received even more from McIlroy’s $1.4 million haul from the U.S. Open at Congressional in June.
Against this background, it’s not difficult to understand the respect in which he’s held, especially at Chubby Chandler’s ISM. When attempts were made at making Fitzgerald a scapegoat for McIlroy’s Masters collapse at Augusta last April, Chandler would hear none of it. “I’m not suggesting that JP is the best caddie in the world,” he said, “but he’s the best caddie for Rory.”
From a position of 4-under par in his opening round at Killarney on Thursday, McIlroy proceeded to fritter away shots. Most notably, he double-bogeyed the treacherous 18th, where a blocked drive into a bunker right was followed by an ill-judged recovery which found the left corner of the water hazard guarding the green. Townsend, who was working for Golf Channel and the Irish national TV station, RTE, was highly critical on air of the course management of player and caddie over that stretch.
He then repeated it on Twitter, using such terms as “shocking” and “some of the worst (course management) I have ever seen beyond under-10s boys golf competition.” By way of reply, McIlroy tweeted: “Shut up, you’re a commentator and a failed golfer, your opinion means nothing.” Townsend, whose best tournament finish was runner-up in the 1993 Heineken Open in Spain, then insisted he stood by his comments. To which McIlroy replied: “Well, I stand by my caddie.”
The U.S. Open champion later accused Townsend of bearing Fitzgerald ill will from the time they teamed up together in 2008. “This is the first time I’ve responded,” he said. “It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Now, I’ve blocked him on Twitter so I won’t be reading anything more.”
On being asked to comment on the situation, Clarke chose his words with care. “Everybody has wonderful opinions now and again,” he said, diplomatically. “End of story.” Then he added of his one-time conqueror: “JP is a great guy. And he really is one of the best caddies I’ve ever had on my bag. But in saying that, I also have respect for Jay as a commentator.”
All of which could have been dismissed as no more than interesting chatter, but for the matter of European Tour code of conduct, which ordains that members shall not make disparaging remarks about fellow golfers or Tour employees. In the latter context, Townsend’s employers at the Irish Open were technically European Tour productions, which is 50 percent owned by the European Tour. Tournament director David Probyn seemed to let McIlroy off the hook, however, by saying: “It is not a matter for me.”
Then, with the issue apparently at an end, McIlroy was happy to talk further on Friday, this time in more measured tones.
“I’ve chatted to a few people, Chubby and my mom and dad,” he said. “This has been going on for three years, so I had to say something.” Addressing Townsend’s remarks directly, he went on: “He doesn’t need to be that opinionated and his views that strong. I don’t mind if he criticizes me in that I’m the one that hits the shots, but JP can’t stand up for himself in the media. So I have to stand up for him, because he’s the best man I think I can have on my bag.”
The saga was eventually put to rest with a smile. When informed that an American commentator had referred to him as a “spoiled brat,” McIlroy replied: “Well, I’m an only child. If that means I’m spoilt, I don’t know.” And he laughed heartily.