It is no secret that Rory McIlroy was a big fan of Tiger Woods as he grew up on the shore of Belfast Lough in Holywood, Northern Ireland. And in his natural talent, his prodigious early achievements and his increasingly brawny physique there are significant similarities between the two outstanding players of the last quarter of a century. He even chose to play Nike clubs, just as his idol did in 1996.
But there are differences, too, one of the biggest being their different approach to coaching. Woods turned pro in 1996 and after unprecedented success over eight years, split with Butch Harmon. He is now on his fourth full-time coach.
McIlroy, on the other hand, shows no sign whatsoever of parting company with Michael Bannon, who has guided his golf swing for so long that it was he who used to cut down irons for him when he was a bairn.
When McIlroy turned pro in 2007, many expected the world’s most feted amateur to seek out a big name on the Tour coaching circuit. Certainly, the list of those interested in the task of keeping an eye on his swing will not have been a short one.
But Bannon has been by McIlroy’s side from the days when 130 yards represented a tremendous drive to the youngster, right along to the four-week spell during 2014 when he won two Majors.
The partnership is patently working, and one only needs to spend a short amount of time in Bannon’s company to understand why McIlroy places such faith in him. TG was fortunate to do just that as Bannon helped his man tune up for the new season. It was the second occasion we had met, the first being in the more prosaic and chilly surroundings of Bangor GC just days after the Boy Wonder’s demolition job on the 2011 US Open at Congressional.
There might have been four years between meetings – Bannon does not seek publicity – but the same friendly, engaging, humorous, modest demeanour was just as evident in 2015 as it was back then, when his working environment was a small but characterful pro shop next to Bangor Golf Club’s clubhouse and a large but hardly Tour-calibre practice range.
Having since left Bangor to give McIlroy his full attention, spending his life jetting around the globe with one of the world’s most celebrated athletes has not made even a hint of a dent in the personality Bannon was born with.
So, when we phoned ahead to say we were running a minute or two late for our appointment, he sympathetically agreed that the traffic was bad. When we eventually turned up in a small hire car that had seen much better days, he asked if it was ours with a little smile and a raise of an eyebrow that suggested he was quite glad not everyone in the new world he inhabits was chauffeured around in ludicrously shiny new saloons (then happily threw his Nike Tour bag across the back seat and hopped in the passenger seat).
You probably don’t need to be told that this kind of humility is fairly rare in the increasingly precious world of Tour golf.
It is not difficult to imagine that McIlroy welcomes and enjoys this kind of grounded presence, a link with his solid upbringing and of parents – Bannon went to their wedding – who worked multiple jobs to fund his golf career. And while Bannon’s coaching method is not soaked in trendy jargon or complicated by ego, he can analyse a golf swing between blinks of an eye. When TG went off for coffees midway through our instruction shoot, we returned to find photographer Warren – a lapsed five handicapper – hitting balls with Bannon enthusiastically advising between shots. Warren’s soft draw had been relocated!
Lots of coaches ‘know’ the swing of course. But no-one knows McIlroy’s as well as the 56-year-old and, probably more importantly, no one knows how to communicate with him as effectively. What’s more, one suspects McIlroy leans on his coach as much for psychology – Bannon would no doubt describe it as common sense – as he does for technical matters. It might go further. It would not be a surprise if the man who was a good enough player himself to have finished runner-up to Padraig Harrington in the 1998 Irish PGA Championship is also an unwitting moral conscience to the World No.1.
Having known him all his life, it is doubtful if the young charge will want to disappoint his long-time master. It might sound crazy to suggest – although McIlroy himself might be one who agreed – but Rory might need Michael more than Michael needs Rory. Neither will be thinking of it that way though, because theirs is a special relationship. Listening to how they created it – and how they maintain it – is an education...
How did it all begin?
I lived across the road from Rory’s parents and I went to their wedding. Gerry was a scratch golfer at Holywood, where I was the pro. Then along came Rory and he loved golf right away, chipping and putting all day in the summer even though he wasn’t a member at that stage. He joined when he was eight, but I moved to Bangor Golf Club. Rory came to practise there and that’s when we started to create his swing together.
When did you know he was going to be good?
I thought he’d get to scratch about 12, but you never know how good they’ll be until they start winning competitions. He won the World Under 10s but it was when he kept winning aged 14 and 15 I thought he had a chance.
In these early years, how much did you have to work on his swing?
It’s a swing that is natural to Rory, so we only ever made small adjustments. When he was 11 his swing was a little upright, then it got a bit ‘in behind’ him when he was a teenager. He was playing well at that time so we just left it for a while even though he was aware of it. Then we tackled it at the right time. I know from playing myself that sometimes you need to be left alone. His swing got a little flat at times and a flat swing relies too much on consistency, so he could have got away with it when his timing is good, but you can’t rely on it all your life and win big events.
Did his seamless transition from top amateur to Tour winner surprise you?
After the Walker Cup we were talking about going to the next stage of Tour School. He told me ‘don’t worry about that, I’ll get my card in one of the tournaments coming up’. He did have some invites for Tour events coming up but… Well, he was third in the Dunhill Links and basically got his card. That to me was amazing.
Do you notice individual swings that he makes during a tournament and then later ask him about them?
Yes. I’ll ask what ‘went on with the swing on the 3rd tee?’ and Rory will feed back what he was thinking and what he was feeling. We will really look into something when it becomes a more regular occurrence. If it’s one-off we’ll probably ignore it, if it starts happening regularly we’ll look into it properly. We also get really good feedback from JP (caddie) as well. But the best feedback is from the player, it always is – as long as they are honest enough… and Rory always is. He’ll say ‘I’m not hitting this properly’ so we’ll concentrate on that aspect of the game, while also keeping an eye on other aspects of the game.
Is he getting to know his own swing better?
Of course. Definitely. No doubt. As he goes on he is getting to know more and more and it is becoming more simple to fix if anything does go a little wrong. He is into the technical side a bit more now, more than he used to be – he understands what does what and what keeps what stable, what moves and what doesn’t move. He’s very knowledgeable now in fact, about the positions he needs to be in.
Is a grasp of technique essential for a player?
It’s important for a player to have an understanding of the swing… as long as you don’t overthink it or over-worry about it. My ethos is that it is important, but you don’t want to be over aware. Even more so for amateurs!
Would you work with another player?
(Quick as a flash) No, no, just Rory.
Has your relationship changed down the years?
No, not really. Rory is just the same as he always was, albeit he is now 25 and he has matured into a man. He is not a young fella anymore, he has settled down now. I have seen him grow up; I have seen him stay exactly the same as he always was. He has not changed a bit.
Do you two ever disagree with each other?
Sometimes. It might be my concerns about a certain thing he would be trying out. I would say ‘are you sure about this?’ and he would maybe try it and then he’d say he’d try it another way. Sometimes, but not often. We are almost always on the same hymn sheet. Everything is done in consultation with Rory. Sometimes I’ll ask him to do something and he’ll say to me ‘no, don’t get that, I need a different feel’ so I’ll think of one. He’ll go away and practise it and come back and say ‘I can do it now’.
Was it is a difficult decision to go full-time with Rory?
No, because it actually gives me more time at home with my family. Yes I am on the road with Rory for a few weeks of the year, but the rest of the time I can be at home. When I was at Bangor, I was never at home! And the big advantage is that I can be with Rory when he wants me to be there. We can make sure he is on track at certain points in the year.
Do you have a fixed schedule with him?
Normally at the start of the year we set a schedule for the first three to four months. Dr Steve McGregor and I are the team that goes with Rory, along with JP [caddie]. We’ll decide together what we will do and when. He and I are the performance team – that’s what Rory calls us! Dr Steve does all the biomechanics, nutrition and fitness – and he’s a good man. I am the swing mechanic and he’s the body mechanic.
Are you a nervous spectator?
Earlier on I was more nervous, but I realised there was no point in getting worked up. What will be will be. I follow him round, watch every shot, and love to be out there watching. And there’s no difference to being at home or at the course – you are still as concerned. You’re watching your player, you have concern for them... but I’m not as nervous as I used to be because you are watching to analyse so you can feed back to your player.
You must feel great pride at his results?
Yeah, oh yeah. The big thing for me, I think, is that one morning a couple of months ago I woke up and thought ‘Rory has won The Open’. On our side of the water, every wee boy growing up says every putt is ‘for The Open’. It’s not for the Masters or the PGA or the US Open. It’s for The Open. That was the big moment for me, especially after all the crack about him not being able to control it in the wind and keep it low. Nonsense. Rory is one of the best wind players I have ever seen.
And this is surely just the start of the story?
It has been a gradual progression; he won a few tournaments, then he was in the Majors and then you are with him when he won them. You’re in the mix and you’re with him and before you know it, it becomes normality and you aren’t thinking about it. If he wins a few more it would be lovely, great. You know?