Saturday 25 February 2017

Rory McIlroy has the X factor

Rory McIlroy was born to thrill but even he had to develop into a Major Champion. McIlroy’s only coach, Michael Bannon, traces the Holywood star’s epic journey from boy wonder to the top world golf

Karl MacGinty

FEW are better placed than Michael Bannon to understand the magic of Rory McIlroy, the X-factor which has turned a tousle-haired 22-year-old from Northern Ireland into golf's newest megastar.

For nearly 15 years, Bannon has helped McIlroy hone his silky swing and nurtured the talent which thrust this remarkable youngster into the history books at the US Open at Congressional.

And as the world awaits McIlroy's arrival today at Royal St George's for this week's British Open, Bannon explains why he believes the Holywood prodigy can eventually take pride of place on a pedestal once reserved for Tiger Woods.

Having joined McIlroy on last week's reconnaissance of Royal St George's, the coach enthuses: "I watched him for a couple of days there and I've never seen anything as impressive as the way Rory can strike a golf ball. It's the purity of the strike. He hits it differently. Maybe Tiger Woods or some other great players were similar but I haven't seen it.

"I understand why people want to watch him play -- because he's so different. Like Georgie Best or Joey Dunlop or Alex Higgins, there's something in there you can't quantify, you can't quite put your finger on.

"It's the X-factor. It's not definable. It's a combination of everything. Like how Georgie Best could take a ball around people and never lose his balance. It's Joey Dunlop looking like he's part of the bike going around a corner.

"Rory's swing looks great. It flows great and there's great rhythm, stability and balance. But the way the ball is going off the club face is just fantastic. Once I'd watched him play, I wouldn't want to watch anybody else hit the ball, it's so good."

For much of his 50-something years, Bannon has been besotted with golf, so working with a player as gifted as McIlroy is as close as he can get to sporting nirvana.

"To play a lot of golf is very satisfying but I feel very honoured to be able to coach this guy from eight years of age to where he is now. I also feel very humble about it. I just think why has this happened to me? -- I suppose somebody has to do it," he says.

"Rory owns his own swing. He hits the shots. It's not Michael Bannon's golf. I'd say my part as a coach is very much guiding it in the right direction. I'm not just a technical officer. I also coach him in the positive side of golf and talk about course management and all that sort of stuff.

"It's just hard to believe sometimes you're working with potentially the best player in the world."

As a boy, Bannon played hurling but from the moment his dad Sean, a recreational player at the local Kirkistown Golf Club, introduced his young son to the game, there was only one direction life would take him.

Bannon was his own teacher, turning for guidance only to a well-thumbed edition of 'Jack Nicklaus: The Best Way to Better Golf' and by watching better players.

Clearly he taught himself well, reaching the final of the 1980 Irish Close Championship before losing to a teenage Ronan Rafferty.

Back then, he held down a job in a Belfast bank but Bannon was so intense about his game, he famously forgot to don his golf shoes for that final with Rafferty, turning up on the first tee in everyday footwear.

How times have changed. To his parents' dismay, Bannon gave up his day job in his early 20s to assist former Kirkistown pro and good friend Hugh Duggan at Ardglass, and 30 years later, this father of four is universally acknowledged as one of the most polished, cerebral and thorough professionals in the business.

Destiny would bring him from Ardglass to Holywood, where little Rory McIlroy crossed his path.

While Bannon remained a good player, making a play-off with Padraig Harrington at the 1988 Irish Professional Championship, his reputation as a coach was flourishing at that time. So Gerry McIlroy asked him to teach his gifted son.

That process started formally 12 years ago, shortly after Bannon moved on to Bangor Golf Club and the busy pro shop, where he instructs mere mortals at £75 for a 45-minute class... and plots with McIlroy to rule the world!

Frightening brushes with the boy wonder

Michael Bannon first clapped eyes on wee Rory McIlroy as a toddler, sitting in his buggy watching dad Gerry, then a scratch golfer and former barman at Holywood, practise on the range.

"Gerry was a friend of mine at Holywood and a good player," he explains. "When Rory was born, I was aware of him being up at the club with his dad. Clearly he'd been watching Gerry closely -- he learned his early swing, the rhythm of it, from his dad."

By eight, the youngster's talent and mental prowess were "frightening" according to Bannon and, even then, McIlroy loved to perform for an audience.

"Rory was a golfer at age eight. You've no idea how good he was," says Bannon, who convinced the club to waive a membership age limit of 12 so McIlroy could join. "We used to watch him play. He'd say, 'here, look at this,' and you'd have to look and see what he was doing.

"I'd say, 'hey Rory, fade one there,' and next thing he'd hit a lovely wee fade. 'What about a wee hook?' I'd say and he'd ask, 'Do you want a high one or a low one?' You know, he could actually do it.

"They talk about having great hands. Well that's what he had. It was the most amazing thing. He could see the shot and hit it. He knew what to do, straight from the head. Even on the course, he'd say, 'this is how I see this,' and he'd try to play the shot like that.

"Seve (Ballesteros) was very much in that mould. Rather than thinking of the technical aspect, he said if you can see the shot you want to play, your body will put itself in the position to do it."

Winning 'four majors' with dad on the bag

"I'VE won four Majors, how many have you?"

Caddie JP Fitzgerald was still glowing with satisfaction after his man's US Open victory when Gerry McIlroy popped this priceless question.

McIlroy snr's cheeky ball-hop was based on the back-to-back victories secured by Rory at the West of Ireland and Irish Close with his dad on the bag.

"Yeah, but yours were amateur Majors," the caddie retorted.

Perhaps they were but those first four adult amateur titles won by Rory at age 15 and 16 represented major achievements for the remarkable youngster, who at that tender age had started to play golf that Bannon believed good enough to make the grade on tour.

Bannon had given young Rory a few tips as a child but his instruction formally began at age 10 in his teaching facility at Bangor Golf Club.

"I have videos back that far," Bannon says. "Look at the swing then and you can always see some similarities. But we've kind of built it up as he grew so it'd always suit Rory at the time he was playing.

"For example, he had a swing that suited him at 10 or 11. Then at 12, he got a bit bigger and we had to fit it a bit. At 13, 14 or 15, we looked at it and said, 'this is going well here -- there's a few wee things. Maybe your backswing's a bit too around yourself or a bit flat but I think we'll leave it there because you're happy enough at the minute'."

Any alterations made were "done almost by stealth, almost teasing a change into the swing which will always continue to flow," Bannon explains. "I was very lucky because he wanted to learn and just soaked up the information and kind of trusted me all the time.

"Yet he was also aware of his responsibility in dealing with such a massive talent. I always knew I was telling him the right things, but you're always kind of nervous, thinking is it the right thing for him, is it going to take him to another level?

"Luckily enough it was. It all just happened that way, through a lot of hard work from himself, mainly, and the fact that Rory's so strong mentally and smart."

Once McIlroy reached 15, however, Bannon noticed just how far he could hit the ball for his size and his age.

"I thought this was fantastic. It was further than a man then and he was able to send it out with regular consistency," he recalls. From that point on "we became kind of a double act there," as McIlroy took an ever greater role in the decision-making process. He was maturing... very fast.

McIlroy enrols in the university of life

RORY McILROY made a couple of crucial life-decisions in his mid-teens, firstly at 15, when he left school to concentrate full-time on playing golf, then at 17 when he turned professional after the 2007 Walker Cup at Royal Co Down.

Once the decision had been taken, in conjunction with his school headmaster, for McIlroy to quit school before his GCSEs, Bannon gave the youngster his "100pc support".

"You have to tell him it's going to work and then you have to tell him what he needs to do to make it work," he says. "That is the time that Gerry would have stepped in and said, 'son, if you're going to do this, this is what you've got to do. You've got to work harder, practise harder and step your levels up'."

McIlroy certainly responded, his golf game coming on in leaps and bounds as he swept, albeit briefly, to No 1 in the World Amateur Rankings in the spring of 2007, won the European Championship and then lifted the Sliver Medal as leading amateur at that summer's British Open at Carnoustie.

"We used look back at the pictures and say, 'that's just a pure class swing'," says Bannon. "We related it to how he hit the ball at the time and how he felt about the swing and maybe, as an amateur, it was perfect.

"The takeaway was great, width at the top of the backswing, balance, strike, everything was in line. As pros, what we look at, everything was there."

Yet another step up would be required on Tour.

"As a professional he started playing more golf, and he had to go up to the next level. Again there was more responsibility because he's doing this for a living now. So you're biting your nails hoping it's all going to pan out.

"We changed only a couple of little things, which were important but very basic and not massively hard to do and he's hitting the ball majestically now."

There have been highs, like McIlroy's Tour wins in Dubai (2009) and Quail Hollow (2010) and lows, including his battle with a debilitating back problem in the early part of last year, but the swing has remained consistently good, Bannon reports, giving the youngster an opportunity to work on different aspects of his game. All in all, Bannon reveals, "the package was getting stronger and stronger."

Out of darkest night came a brave new dawn

MICHAEL BANNON watched the final round of the US Masters on TV at home, admitting that he headed for bed when McIlroy missed a par putt on 15 and it was clear the gremlins of Augusta were not going to offer him one whit of relief that black Sunday.

Reaping huge benefits from the exercise regime put in place over the previous winter by English fitness guru Dr Stephen McGregor, McIlroy seemed to have the Green Jacket in his grasp after playing sublime golf over the first three days of the 2011 US Masters.

McIlroy had made a good run at the 2010 British Open at St Andrews, equalling the Major scoring record with his first-round 63, before slumping to a wind-tossed 80 on Friday and rebounding into third with a strong weekend. He then finished just one stroke outside the play-off at the US PGA.

Yet McIlroy was looked comprehensively stronger and more stable at Augusta.

Bannon reveals: "Stephen McGregor did a great job in creating more stability for Rory in his set-up. It was up to him to build up a lot more muscle in the legs and the buttocks, just making him stronger overall so the swing we had built up over the years could work better and be more consistent.

"It's like putting better tyres on the car or souping up your engine a bit more. You've got the same car but you're making it more efficient and more powerful," he adds, explaining that this extra power and stability has eliminated any stress there had been on McIlroy's lower back.

As for Sunday at Augusta, Jose Maria Olazabal was among those who suggested that McIlroy should not have taken driver at 10. Bannon disagrees, arguing that it had been his club of choice on that hole all week. The use of the driver was not the problem with that wayward tee shot.

"I think it was more the mental side," the coach suggests. "It maybe happened to him before that. He got frustrated about his putting (on the front nine) and that was bit of a pressure on him then because he felt he wasn't going to hole anything."

Bannon declined interview requests after Augusta, saying: "I told people I'd not do a post-mortem because I knew that Rory would learn from it and come back stronger. It was the first time he'd led going into the final round at a Major and he felt maybe he had to do something to finish off the golf tournament.

"I believe the experience he had at Augusta helped him more than if he had won the Masters. It's given him the plan, the way to come in and finish off tournaments."

Quick learner McIlroy reborn as golf's Celtic Tiger

RORY McILROY brilliantly justified his coach's confidence by lapping the field, Celtic Tiger-style, at the US Open after sagely seeking advice from several quarters, notably Jack Nicklaus and, on the advice of caddie Fitzgerald, US putting guru Dave Stockton.

"When he came home after Augusta, Rory said, 'look, I've got to do this a bit differently.' He worked it out for himself with a bit of information and a wee bit of help from people around him. Rory is a remarkably quick learner and he always has been," explains Bannon.

"Jack Nicklaus was very good for him. I'm always a great believer in those people who have done it before. He gave that idea of always competing with himself and setting himself small targets on the golf course and it worked well at Congressional."

Bannon credits Stockton, a two-time US PGA winner, with getting McIlroy's putting style back in sync with his swing and fluid, instinctive style of play.

"Here, do your signature," the coach says to me, pushing a piece of paper across the table.

"Now try and copy it exactly as it is there. Difficult, isn't it? Write it without thinking, however, and there's no problem. That's how Dave Stockton explained to Rory what he should do with his putting."

McIlroy, meanwhile, vowed to listen more to Fitzgerald at Congressional.

"JP is a very good caddie and he's great with Rory out there. He's good company for him and they relate very well with each other," says Bannon.

The coach positively snorted at suggestions that McIlroy's high ball-flight might put him at a disadvantage at Royal St George's, especially if the sea breezes blow.

"Rory puts a flight on the ball depending where he needs to play it. He can keep the ball down. Don't ever think he can't keep the ball low," he insists. "He can hit a ball in two feet off the ground, if need be. He's got the whole game. The entire package."

Irish Independent

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