'Everything's under control. He's back on track. It's there now'
Michael Bannon believes Rory McIlroy will be back to his best very soon, says Dermot Gilleece
Good memories give powerful impetus to the competitive instincts of the tournament golfer. And we can imagine Rory McIlroy drawing heavily on a closing 65 at Doral when he returns to action in the Shell Houston Open, starting on Thursday.
As McIlroy's last tournament before the US Masters, it fits the pre-Major routine employed so successfully by his mentor Jack Nicklaus. Get there early so you don't have to cram all the preparatory work into tournament week was the Bear's motto.
In this context, coach Michael Bannon is flying out to Houston and will remain with his charge in the build-up to Augusta. "All the recent problems have been ironed out," said Bannon yesterday. "Rory's assured me on the phone that he's been working hard and everything's under control. He's back on track. It's there now."
The last eight weeks have been tough on both of these Co Down natives. While McIlroy had to mentally defend his switch to Nike, the challenge for Bannon was to pinpoint an obvious problem of clubhead control, which wasn't related to the new implements.
"If you were to take all the clubs out of your bag and substitute ones with exactly the same characteristics, it would still take you a month or two to get used to the change," said Bannon. "Just because of the different look to them."
He went on: "I can tell you that no adjustments were necessary to the new woods and irons. It was the swing that had gone out of kilter a wee bit. Rory had been picking the club up on the outside and dropping it too far down behind him on the inside on the downswing. That was the real problem which he and myself had to iron out. And to be totally and brutally honest about it, it's just taken a wee bit of time. That's the bottom line."
Initial problems with the big stick have clearly been rectified, given that McIlroy actually leads this season's driving distance category on the PGA Tour, with average launches of 312.4 yards.
There was also reassurance from Nicklaus that the change of clubs wouldn't be an issue. Referring to his own tournament career, the Bear said: "Here in the States, I played with the MacGregors I grew up with. Then, when I went to the British Open, I played Slazenger England. When I went to Australia, I played Slazenger Australia. I played the English small ball, the B51. I was able to go back and forth and back and forth (across the Atlantic) and it wasn't that big a deal."
Before TV cameras acquired their current ubiquity, other players found decidedly inventive ways of coping with the challenge of endorsing different equipment. Like Seve Ballesteros, who competed in the 1983 Irish Open at Royal Dublin with a set of unmarked Sounder irons in a Slazenger bag at a time when he also had a contract with Mizuno in the Far East.
I then told Bannon about an earlier Irish Open at Portmarnock, where England's Doug McClelland happened to be in a two-ball behind Christy O'Connor Snr. With a professional's curiosity, McClelland looked into O'Connor's bag while waiting on the tee. Horrified, he exclaimed: "Don't hit, Christy. You've got three seven-irons in there." Which was perfectly correct, though they would have varied slightly in loft and shaft-length.
If the former amateur international had looked more closely, he would also have noted the way certain grips were crudely fattened up with insulating tape. The point was that despite their decidedly odd appearance, each club was effectively customised by O'Connor to suit his needs.
Bannon laughed. "I could imagine players doing that sort of thing, especially Christy," he said. "And generally, nobody would have passed much notice. With Rory, however, the situation has been totally overblown, simply because of the nature of the contract and him being world number one. Everybody wants to talk about it which, I suppose, is par for the course."
Yet the fact remains that equipment has become a very complex business. Up to relatively recently, the market offered probably no more than five shaft-flexes, based on technology dating back to the 1920s. With clubs being swung athletically at different speeds by individuals of varying proportions, however, manufacturers decided the choice needed to be a lot more precise. And with tournament professionals, you're into serious physics.
Meanwhile, Bannon retains fond memories of the build-up to the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island last August, when McIlroy captured his second Major. "Rory's swing was in great shape there, as good as he had swung last year," he said. "Full of confidence, he went into the tournament under the radar with no pressure on him at all."
Then he added pointedly: "If you look what he did on the Sunday at Doral, he's now ready to go again. In fact, I would almost guarantee that in the next couple of months, you'll see Rory coming back to his best."
Though his number-one status is under serious threat from Tiger Woods, McIlroy's biggest challenge since an untimely departure from the Honda Classic early this month, has to do with how he handles himself, rather than his equipment. In this regard, he can learn much from a conversation Nicklaus had with the great Bobby Jones.
The Bear recalled: "In talking with him (Jones) about what he called his seven lean years, he said that until he learned how to correct himself on a golf course, he never became a good player. And once he did it, he went on to win 13 Major championships." As a requirement which hasn't changed in the intervening years, Nicklaus went on to emphasise the need to "understand who you are; understand what you can do; understand where you make your mistakes and where you have a tendency to be able to challenge things.
"I always felt like you can't play with something that's not working. Even if it happens to be in the middle of the Masters or the US Open, you've got to figure it out. Go back to fundamentals and adjust it. Obviously I would play conservatively for a couple of holes while I was changing it, so I didn't play myself out of the tournament. But it shouldn't take long to get some confidence, if you understand who you are. That's what I always tried to do, and it served me well."
And what of the Augusta prospects of a young Irishman? "When the Masters rolls around, Rory McIlroy is going to be playing just fine," said the Bear. On which point, this week in Houston should be quite revealing.