PADRAIG HARRINGTON bucks the trend. Not that it's overly difficult to appear unconventional in a sport so hidebound by tradition, yet Harrington invariably goes his own way. So perversely, the decision to sack Dave McNeilly, his long-serving caddie, was not the startling development it first seemed.
On the face of it, a five-anda-half-year partnership that produced a hatful of victories, God knows how many second-place finishes, two Ryder Cup appearances and in or around .10m in earnings, should have continued.
Why would Harrington want to tear up the script when he had become Europe's leading player with McNeilly on the bag?
Clearly, he felt the relationship had gone "stale", as he put it last weekend. Liberally decoded, that means Harrington didn't believe he was going to win a major championship with McNeilly as his caddie. He was impatient, frustrated that his rate of progress had slowed, and something had to give.
What was contentious in the aftermath of the announcement was the degree of importance attributed to the caddie's role. On the one hand, the split was couched in terms that wouldn't be out of place in a divorce court. On the other, it was simply a story about someone who lumped a heavy bag around for Harrington and who would soon be lumping another heavy bag around for someone else.
However, if the quintessential advice to a caddie has been to turn up, keep up and shut up, the job spec has morphed into something significantly more important. "The choice of caddie for a top player is right up there as a priority. It's perhaps even more relevant than a player's coach, " says Chubby Chandler, who manages Darren Clarke, Paul McGinley, Graeme McDowell, Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter among others.
"Think about the last nine holes of a major championship, you want someone who knows what he's doing.
He needs to be a clear thinker under pressure, he needs to be able to gauge his player's mood and judge when the adrenalin is flowing." Buying into Chandler's thesis, Harrington would surely have lined up a gnarled veteran to replace McNeilly.
Instead, one of the European Tour's most lucrative caddying jobs went to Ronan Flood.
Now, Flood is by all accounts a useful player who came through the ranks at Harrington's club Stackstown, but an experienced caddie he most certainly is not.
Informing McNeilly his services were no longer required at the end of last season, and then giving Flood time to find his feet would have been an ideal scenario, but the new caddie will start this week on the PGA Tour at the Memorial, followed by the Buick Classic and then the not inconsequential US Open at Shinnecock Hills. Harrington, you don't need to be reminded, does things his own way.
"Padraig's never gone the conventional route, but look at this success he's had, " says Chandler. "His split with Dave McNeilly is surprising, but maybe he feels he needs to move up a notch, and a change of caddie was what was required. The new guy's certainly inexperienced going into such an important stretch of tournaments, but it's always hard to secondguess Padraig given what he's achieved." The confusion surrounding McNeilly's dismissal undoubtedly added to the intrigue. Harrington was adamant that he'd spoken to him at the Macau Open a month ago and that he'd made the situation clear. Equally, it appears it was known among a number of the European Tour caddies that McNeilly was looking for a new bag.
"There's never a good way to sack your caddie, but Padraig probably did it the best way in that he gave Dave three weeks' notice, " says Martin Rowley, chairman of the European Tour Caddies Association. "There's nothing worse than being told on a Sunday afternoon that you're not needed the next week." However, McNeilly's surprised reaction when told of his sacking was an indication that player and caddie weren't on the same wavelength.
Either Harrington hadn't got the message across in Macau, or McNeilly was in denial.
"I can still understand why Dave would be shocked when the news came out, " says Rowley. "You're making a good living, and all of a sudden the doormat's pulled from under you for what you see as no apparent reason, of course you're going to be shocked. If you turn up late, pissed out of your brain, then you expect the sack, but Dave's not like that." While a caddie's average salary on the European Tour is .700 per week, which can be boosted by 10 per cent of a winning cheque, seven per cent for a top 10 and five per cent of total winnings, it's estimated that McNeilly could have earned in the region of .1m during his time with Harrington. But as for job security, a caddie doesn't know the meaning of the words.
According to Rowley, the issue of contracts is a nonstarter. "Let's say I'm with a player who's in the top 50 in Europe, and Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh or Ernie Els picks up the phone and asks me to work for them next week. I have to say 'Sorry pal, I'm under contract'. It's a twoway street and I personally wouldn't want a formal contract and I think that's the view of the majority of caddies.
"Of course the relationship's not balanced. 95 per cent of the earnings go to the player and five to the caddie, how can it be balanced? They've got the talent and we haven't.
We've got our own talent, and we're paid for it. There's no real acrimony about that." Interestingly, Rowley believes there isn't that much sympathy for McNeilly among his peers. "Look, it's a precarious occupation at the best of times and we're philosophical about the situation Dave found himself in. He's had a great innings, he's made a lot of money, and getting the sack is part and parcel of the job." As if splitting with the vastly experienced McNeilly and appointing a rookie caddie in his place wasn't enough, Harrington has further departed from the norm by handing the job to someone who's a close friend. Darren Clarke and JP Fitzgerald, who've been friendly since their amateur days, found the strain on their relationship too much and the partnership was dissolved after the Masters.
"Ideally, you don't want to be great friends with your caddie, " says Chandler. "You don't want to be eating meals with the guy, you want it to be extremely professional. Most of all, it's difficult for a player to give his caddie a good bollocking if they're close friends." There was a time when many caddies were eccentric nomads, but with Tiger Woods' bagman Steve Williams now regarded as New Zealand's highest paid sportsman, that has changed irrevocably. In Lauren St John's insightful book Out of Bounds, the story is told of a caddie nicknamed Fishfinger who would routinely complain he was "surrounded by spastics" whenever one of the players in his group hit a bad shot. "Well, there's one less now, " Fishfinger was informed by the Scot Bill Longmuir as he gave him the sack.
Flood will probably turn up, keep up and shut up for the next few weeks. That presumably is what Padraig Harrington wants right now.