After weeks of remote misses, Rory McIlroy ended his year-long winless run with victory at golf’s “fifth Major”, The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass on Sunday.
The Holywood star produced some pure golf on his inward half after an uneasy start to pip 48-year old, Jim Furyk to the title by a single stroke. In doing so, McIlroy became just the third player after Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods to win 15 times on the PGA tour, including four Majors, before his 30th birthday. And to think not too long ago there were people writing his golfing obituary?
Much has changed in McIlroy’s life in recent years. That bit older, that bit wiser, he’s playing with a patience in his game that has propelled him to a level of consistency not previously seen. After his double-bogey at four yesterday, taking into account the multitude of near misses of tournaments gone by, it would have been easy for him to hit the panic button. The McIlroy of a few months ago would have allowed his shoulders to slump, would have nullified the bounce in his step that signals he’s on it. But the McIlroy of this season is a different beast; brushing his dip in the drink off as a common workplace hazard without allowing an ounce of negative energy linger.
You could make a case for many in bringing Rory to this enlightened state of golfing eutopia. Brad Faxon’s influence on McIlroy’s putting is certainly most obvious. A student of Bob Rotella, Faxon’s transformed Rory’s head space over the putts that plagued his scoring in recent years. Instead of propping up the field in strokes gained putting, he’s now occupying spots atop the statistics board across most facets of his game, making McIlroy a frightening proposition ahead of all four Majors this year.
The maturity he has landed off the course has helped too. He was entitled to lose focus in his mid-twenties – what good’s having all the money in the world and no time to spend it? Newly married with a lust for life, who could say they wouldn’t take their eye off the ball in McIlroy’s position? I know if I won the lotto today, I’d struggle to come into work the next morning. But that chapter looks to be closed now and Rory seems settled, and his rediscovered focus has reaped rewards so far this term.
But perhaps the change that’s most overlooked in this jigsaw is that of best friend and best man, Hazza – Harry Diamond, who looks to be finding his feet as a Tour caddie for arguably the most naturally talented golfer on the planet at long last.
When JP and Rory parted ways, Diamond’s appointment looked like nothing more than a stop-gap until someone of great experience came calling. When the hire became permanent, it was seen as the great case of nepotism for our time – jobs for the boys because the mighty McIlroy can’t get past his own ego to take a second opinion on board. McIlroy’s faltering results only heightened the scepticism but it was to be expected that Diamond would need time to fully grasp the weight of the job description. A few weeks of orientation, a learning curve here and there. What other job in this life comes without a bit of training?
Now, however, maybe those who dubbed Diamond as nothing more than a privileged pack horse might take note of McIlroy’s comments after last night’s win:
“People just think he’s my best friend and I got him on the bag because I didn’t want to listen to anyone else but that’s not true,” said McIlroy “Harry is an accomplished golfer and he has turned into one of the best caddies out here, if not the best. He’s so committed. He’s so professional. And having him by my side out there is so good, and it’s so comforting.
“He knows when to talk to me, whenever I need distracted, in terms of not thinking too much about what’s going on around me in the tournament, and he also knows when to say a couple of things. He’s been a big part of this.”
Indeed, just like McIlroy, Diamond grew up an exceptional amateur golfer in Ireland under coach Michael Bannon. A plus handicapper, he won the coveted West of Ireland championship at Rosses Point in 2012 and if it wasn’t for his entrepreneurial expertise, perhaps he would have joined his best friend down the professional path too. Instead, he’s been entrusted with the most lucrative caddie job in golf right now and is said to be as meticulous as a bag man can be in terms of preparing his charge for a course from week to week.
No doubt his business acumen translates to the role. Forecasting figures, risk assessment, exploring any intricate detail that could gain an advantage over the opposition – Diamond is believed to shine brightest in this sphere. So perhaps, after all the negative press – we had our doubts too – it’s time to recognise where we were wrong and acknowledge that this powerhouse partnership, tight-knit, both on and off the course, could now prove a serial winner for many years to come.