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Ahead of the World Golf Championships, Rory McIlroy parts ways with J.P. Fitzgerald, a fruitful partnership that lasted nine years.
USA TODAY Sports

AKRON, Ohio — Back at Firestone Country Club for the first time since he won the 2014 World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational, Rory McIlroy enthusiastically took to the South Course on Wednesday for a practice round ahead of the last WGC event of the season.

Under plenty of sunshine, McIlroy’s swing was in full flight on the tree-lined course he counts among his favorites. He was pacing off distances, jotting down notes in the yardage book and consulting his coach, Michael Bannon, throughout the 18 holes.

Nothing really seemed out of the ordinary except for the man carrying the bag — Harry Diamond, McIlroy’s best mate from childhood and best man at his wedding earlier this year.

McIlroy split with his longtime caddie, J.P. Fitzgerald, two days after finishing in a tie for fourth at the British Open at Royal Birkdale. McIlroy, winless this season, won four majors and 26 titles with Fitzgerald on the bag. He paid tribute to Fitzgerald at the Open for a pep talk that changed McIlroy’s course after he made bogeys on five of the first six holes.

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“It’s a big change,” said McIlroy, who didn’t play the 2015 Bridgestone because of an ankle injury and the 2016 contest because he played in the French Open. “J.P. has been a huge part of my life for the last decade. A lot of great times on and off the golf course. I still consider J.P. one of my best 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 felt like it was the right thing to do and I don’t think there was any good time to do it.”

McIlroy said he was taking out his frustrations for a bad shot or bad decision far too often on Fitzgerald instead of himself. Now he’ll direct all his anger and frustration at himself.

“There’s nothing to say that J.P. mightn’t work for me again at some point, but right now I just felt like I needed a little bit of a change,” McIlroy said. “I hate the term fired or sacked or axed, because that’s definitely not what it was. I just changed my path a little bit, but maybe in the future that path might come back to where it was. Right now I just needed to mix things up a little bit, and J.P. understood that and we’re still all good.”

Diamond, a friend from McIlroy’s boyhood club, Holywood, is on the bag this week and next week’s PGA Championship at Quail Hollow, where McIlroy won the Wells Fargo Championship in 2010 and 2015, lost in a playoff in 2012 and notched three other top-10s in seven starts.

Diamond has caddied for McIlroy in the past, including at the 2005 Irish Open, 2008 Dubai Desert Classic and 2014 Dunhill Links Championship, when McIlroy was No. 1 in the world. Diamond was a very good amateur player — he won the West of Ireland and played on the Irish amateur national team.

“He knows me, he knows my game, and that was the big thing about the next two weeks,” McIlroy said. “I just needed someone who knew me and knew my thought process.”

McIlroy, No. 4 in the world, hasn’t won since he captured The Tour championship and the FedExCup in the process last September. He’s been bothered by a rib injury that has sent him to the sidelines on three occasions this year and hasn’t been able to get in any sort of rhythm.

In 11 starts, he has five top-10s. But his comfort level here on the South Course and at next week’s venue has him in good spirits.

“I feel like with how I play around these two golf courses, the two weeks could save — not save my season, there’s still a long way to go — but it could shoot me back into a place where I feel like I belong basically,” he said. “But I’m not going to press at all. I feel like I have 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 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. … We’ll see how it goes.”

 

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