Why timing of Rory McIlroy's caddie change isn't as strange as it seems

AKRON, Ohio -- Aside from his wedding day -- and the lucrative endorsement deals he signed with Nike and TaylorMade -- celebrations have been pretty limited for Rory McIlroy in 2017.

A year that began with so much promise has turned into one of frustration, with two lengthy injury layoffs, a balky putter and no victories. There was even a Twitter spat with former major champion Steve Elkington.

And now there is a high-profile caddie split.

With two big tournaments upcoming -- this week's WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and next week's PGA Championship at Quail Hollow, where McIlroy has seemingly been the favorite ever since the venue was announced -- switching caddies after nine years seems a risky move.

But hearing McIlroy, 28, explain it Wednesday at Firestone Country Club, the risk would have been in sticking with J.P. Fitzgerald and not making a change.

"I got to the point where if I didn't play a good shot or if I made a wrong decision, I was getting more frustrated at him than I was at myself," McIlroy said. "I would much rather be angry at myself for making a wrong decision than being angry at him, and that was really why."

McIlroy acknowledged it is somewhat amazing the relationship lasted this long. He was a fledgling 19-year-old pro in 2008 when Fitzgerald, a veteran caddie who had just parted ways with Ernie Els, took his bag.

They started with three straight missed cuts on the European Tour but went to No. 1 in the world, with McIlroy winning a total of 22 times on the PGA Tour and European Tour, including four major championships, while becoming a mega-rich superstar.

But as early as 2011, there were calls for McIlroy to dump Fitzgerald, who was said to not be forceful enough. The final-round 80 at the Masters that year was particularly difficult, as McIlroy could not stop the slide over the back nine at Augusta National. Then he went out and won the very next major, the U.S. Open.

Those who know McIlroy the best say he has a stubborn streak that would have never allowed him to fire Fitzgerald just because so many thought it was the proper thing to do. So it makes complete sense that he would do so after publicly praising the caddie two weeks ago at The Open for pulling him out of his first-round malaise, when he started out 5 over par for the first six holes.

"You're Rory McIlroy -- what the f--- are you doing?" Fitzgerald said before McIlroy rallied to finish the round with a 71 to get into contention.

But the Northern Irishman was clearly irritated when his comeback attempt was derailed during the third round after hitting the wrong club off the 10th tee, leading to a double-bogey 6. McIlroy said there was no one incident, but the caddie change suggests that the anger after that miscue is exactly what he sees now as something to avoid.

With friend and best man Harry Diamond on the bag for at least the next two weeks, McIlroy envisions a new path that will see the golfer do more of the work.

"I'm trying to take ownership of my game and trying to take on a bit more responsibility." Rory McIlroy, discussing his caddie change

"I'm trying to take ownership of my game and trying to take on a bit more responsibility," he said. "I've enjoyed the last couple of days of carrying a yardage book, doing my own numbers, pacing stuff out, really getting into the shot, something I haven't done for a few years. It was one of those times that I needed to mix something up a little bit."

In the end, it is the player who hits the shots, something the best come to terms with quickly. It is quite common for golfers to play the blame game with their caddies, finding fault with a yardage, a club selection, a misread putt.

As prevalent as that is -- and between-the-ropes scoldings occur far more often that one might think -- such an attitude is not very productive.

"It's a collaboration," said Open champion Jordan Spieth, "good and bad."

McIlroy wasn't making any excuses, but there seemed to be enough irritation and angst that he wasn't going to be helping himself, either. So a change was made, as curious as the timing might seem.

Given McIlroy's state of mind over the matter, it was a decision he had to make.