Is it time for Rory to try a new man on the bag?

Mark McGowan

Rory McIlroy and Harry Diamond (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Mark McGowan

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10 Masters have come and 10 masters have gone since Rory McIlroy’s Open Championship win – his third major at the time – put him within arm’s reach of the Career Grand Slam and after he won the PGA Championship a month later, anybody who’d have suggested that he’d go a full 10 years without winning another major, let alone The Masters, might’ve found themselves quickly surrounded by people in white coats – and I’m not talking about Augusta National caddies either.

But yet here we are, and the 10-year mark is rapidly approaching.

Nobody, not even Tiger Woods, has or had a God-given right to win major championships. They’re supposed to be hard to win. Depending on the major, you’ve got somewhere in the region of 88 to 156 players starting the week and almost all believe that they can win.

Some beliefs are stronger than others, but even an amateur qualifier teeing it up at the Open Championship is thinking that if everything goes right, if they play the way they know they can play and sustain it for 72 holes and get that little bit of luck that’s always necessary, then they might get their hands on that Claret Jug.

But of course, only one player does get his hands on the trophy and the other 155 go home as varying degrees of also rans. That’s a tough school to graduate from, but the general consensus is that if you keep giving yourself chances, then sooner or later one will fall your way.

And that’s been the problem for Rory. Yes he’s given himself chances, but not all that many. Don’t be fooled by the yellow squares on his Wikipedia page major championship history, only at the 2018 Masters, 2018 and 2022 Open Championships and 2023 US Open has he been a serious contender on the final day and that’s a more worrying stat than him going 0 for 35 in terms of wins.

Yes, the majors always have the strongest fields, yes they are regularly played on courses that are set up tougher than your average PGA or DP World Tour event, and yes, sometimes the weather means you get the wrong side of the draw, but the cold, hard fact is that he hasn’t played well enough in the biggest events.

We all know he’s got the talent. You don’t win four by the age of 25 and not be incredibly gifted and with a work ethic to match, but something’s happened in the decade since and all too often he’s shown up at a major championship and brought his ‘C’ game with him.

Believe it or not, this year I’m giving him a pass. He hasn’t been playing well. The flaws in his game have been apparent to anybody who’s watched him play, and by his own admission, each time he tries to iron out one of those creases, another one appears. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t capable of showing up at Augusta National and going toe-to-toe with Scottie Scheffler, but it does mean that it was much less likely that he’d do so.

It was hope, rather than expectation this year, but it’s been the other way round on most of the other 34 majors since he last stood atop a major championship summit and surveyed his kingdom.

So the pressing question is not why he hasn’t delivered, but why has he so seldom even threatened to deliver?

The answer has to lie within McIlroy’s own mind. It was the legendary Bobby Jones, a co-founder of Augusta National, who said that “Golf is a game played on a five-inch course – the distance between your ears,” and from the outside looking in at least, there are few golfers to whom the statement bears more credence.

Rory might say all the right things, but I’m not sure he believed that he could win The Masters last week, or believes that he will ever win it. I think he believes that the course has his number. That those putts that seem destined for the heart of the cup will inevitably lip out, that that iron shot that’s on a perfect line will fly two yards too long or too short, and that eventually, he too will come up short.

I’m not sure what the solution is, but every time McIlroy underperforms, there is a loud chorus that suggests that it’s his caddie that’s the problem, that every bad shot he hits is because Diamond didn’t talk him out of it and that Diamond is not a real caddie.

That last point may have been true when he first replaced J.P. Fitzgerald on Rory’s bag, but that was a long time ago and all of Rory’s subsequent successes have come with Harry alongside and in at least one – the Wells Fargo Championship back in 2021 – he’s proven his worth. Diamond is doing exactly the job he’s been hired to do, but professional golfers are fickle, they all have egos and that’s part of the reason that they are where they are. They have an extreme sense of self-confidence, and more often than not, a sustained period of poor play will see the caddie get the chop. Is it caddie’s fault that they’re playing poorly? Very seldom, I’d say, but the player has to find someone to blame – and they have to believe that the fault lies elsewhere – and more often than not, the caddie is the one who takes the shrapnel.

Rory and Harry are best friends, and while it may have been a marriage of convenience at first, come August, Diamond will have been on Rory’s bag for seven years. It’s admirable that they’ve been able to work together and remain friends in such fraught environments, but is that friendship actually counter-productive? Does Rory need to lash out at his caddie every once in a while, get his frustrations out so that he can refocus on the task at hand?

Does Harry occasionally need to give Rory a figurative slap across the face and remind him that he is, in fact, ‘Rory fu**ing McIlroy?’ It’s easy to see why he doesn’t when his predecessor found himself unemployed less than a month after he tried it, but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be done, it just means that it will take a brave man to do it. And maybe a man who doesn’t think of McIlroy as friend first and golfer second.

Rory might say all the right things off the course, he clearly thinks about the psychology of the sport and how to use it to his advantage, but it seems that the moments where it’s needed most are the moments where it’s most lacking.

I don’t know if their friendship would survive a partnership breakup and maybe neither one is willing to risk it –  and that’s admirable in itself if that’s the case – but something has to change if Rory is to be a relevant contender at regular major championships going forward.

He’s notoriously head strong, he admits that he doesn’t like taking advice and that he naturally rebels against any attempt to influence him one way or the other, but flying solo doesn’t seem to be working either.

They say insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Well he’s tried just about everything else…..

A caddie change might not be the answer, but it’s the logical next step.

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