Educating Rory lays foundations for a Holywood blockbuster
IN FOCUS: COACH MICHAEL BANNON: Paul Gallagherspent a hectic morning with Rory McIlroy’s coach in his pro shop at Bangor Golf Club
‘I WARN you, this could take a bit of time for I’m in here on my own th’day,” was the opening gambit when walking through to the back of Michael Bannon’s pro shop for an interview. He may be coach to the hottest prospect in golf but there’s still a pro shop and bulging coaching diary to tend to.
Lining up this interview was the most difficult aspect. “What’s it for? . . . we’ve done all this before . . . right, okay, give me an hour to get set up here, call up around 10 o’clock,” says Bannon on the phone. What’s another hour waiting in the car park at Bangor Marina?
Until entering Bannon’s world – however briefly – an outsider isn’t afforded the opportunity to understand what makes this down-to-earth individual tick. He’s a straight-talking, no-nonsense character yet entirely charismatic in an understated way.
He wasn’t wrong about the “taking time” bit for there were more stops in the conversation than the ad breaks during an NFL Superbowl. It mattered little, for Bannon rules the roost and everyone wants a bit of his time – I was but a passing guest. In any case the timeouts gave pause to survey the surroundings.
Bannon’s pro shop at Bangor Golf Club is striking because of its ordinariness. Out front every square foot is taken-up with reams of equipment and clothing lines. Out back it’s much like any other pro shop. A busy workshop area at the rear is set up for club-making and repairs, the usual piles of stock, golf shoe boxes stacked to the ceiling, grips, clubs and more clothes.
The main hub is a more expansive middle area, where behind the large hitting net, crisp boxes, minerals and other stored confectionary spill out from the sides. The normality of it all is juxtaposed with the state-of-the-art TV and video equipment he uses for coaching.
Directly in front of the hitting mat a large plasma screen is mounted on the wall. A quick glance around the place identifies at least five video cameras; a couple are mounted to capture different angles of the swing before analysis is carried out through his V1 coaching package on the PC.
It’s a magical place because we know in this very room Rory McIlroy will have spent hours refining his swing under the expert tutelage of his coach, mentor and family friend Bannon.
“It all started with his dad Gerry bringing Rory up to Holywood (Golf Club) when he was a toddler, probably still in his nappies,” says Bannon, while ushering his visitor to one of the two antiquated, leather-bound chairs placed several yards apart behind the hitting mat. It’s a teacher, pupil scenario. He’ll listen, he’ll advise.
“Rory had plastic clubs and would chip around the lower putting green. He loved the game; it’s all he ever wanted to do. He watched golf all the time; Nick Faldo was his hero when he was young. His dad always got him clubs cut down to suit his size and then he got his first real set when he was about seven,” recalls Bannon.
“When he joined Holywood aged eight, Gerry handed him over to me and we started coaching him properly. It wasn’t long after that I moved to Bangor and he followed me here.
“Rory was always a special talent, even from a very young age. Because he always had a club in his hand it came so naturally to him. He was forever hanging about the pro shop, always wanting to play, always wanting to learn. It was golf, golf, golf.”
By this stage Bannon and Gerry got Rory involved in the GUI coaching scheme up in Greenacres “before he was supposed to go there for he was still too young”.
“He always wanted to get better and was playing in club competitions since he was eight,” explains Bannon. “He’d always play with better players (like Phil Collins or Paul Gray, who was a pro and is now general manager at Holywood).
“His parents also brought him to America for a few summers in his early teens and that too was a crucial part of his development. It was great experience and it quickly let him see what he had to do. He also won the World Junior Series.”
Rather than talk through the mechanics of McIlroy’s swing, Bannon fires up the PC to illustrate the swing. “It was up to me to look after the swing and teaching Rory what he knows about the swing was just as important. Between this and the GUI coaching he was fed from every direction with good information.
“All his life Rory was fed positive thoughts, telling him how good he was, never a negative thought. He was also used to cameras for coaching from an early age, as I was using video equipment for lessons since he was two and Rory started when he was 10 years old,” adds Bannon, who by now had gone out front again to deal with another punter. “You okay there? . . .” and off he goes.
On his return Bannon uploads footage of Rory getting a lesson at Bangor ahead of the PGA Championship at Wentworth. Most of the coaching takes place at Bangor when he’s home but McIlroy is also building a range at his new house.
“He tends to come here early in the morning, usually around 7am. We take him down the course to hit some balls then check everything from alignment to posture. Recently we addressed his take away as he sometimes gets a little upright or on the outside.
“We’ve also been working on tightening up his swing a little for he’s that limber the swing gets a bit too long. I’d like to see it tighter at the top, not so much past the horizontal,” illustrates Bannon on screen.
“Rory has a very powerful hip thrust in his swing, a bit like that boy there,” he adds, pointing to the four-picture sequence of Ben Hogan’s swing hanging on the wall. “That hip thrust through impact generates so much of his power. A real good golf swing starts with the knees and legs on the downswing while retaining the correct angles and levers.”
Bannon compares this recent swing with others from the banks of footage he has gathered of Rory over the years. In fact he has hundreds of shots from other players he also coaches. This ability to record Rory’s swing and add voice-over instruction to the footage is what allows teacher and pupil to keep in constant contact when his young prodigy is on the road. They keep in touch via email.
“I might be away with him seven or eight times a year. I won’t go to the US Open but I will be in St Andrews and I’m on the phone to him all the time. Thing is we are both so familiar with his swing at this stage. When a bad shot comes out he more or less knows where it’s coming from.”
The phone rings yet again. “Hello Bangor pro shop . . . ” and Bannon is off to put another name into the coaching diary. “I’ve nothing available next week, how about the following Friday? . . .” Such are the demands he is usually only in the shop from 8.30am to 2.30pm on a Thursday. Beyond that there’s a fair bet you’ll find him teaching.
I ask him about the closing 62 at Quail Hollow while he is texting someone on his mobile. When his train of thought returns so too does the typically modest response.
“I was just watching it down at a friend’s house. Of all the people, I know what Rory is capable when he plays his best. I was really pleased for him because he had gone through a lean period. He got his strike back and his second wind for the season. It wasn’t just a win it was massive, especially the way he did it.”
And what of this technically “perfect” swing which is often referred to? “I suppose people like the look of it, aesthetically it looks nice. But his “good-looking” swing is a result of what he is able to do, a decent bit of coaching and lots of practice. That’s what it is, pure and simple. He didn’t always have that rhythm in his swing, it has to be worked at,” adds Bannon, who dismisses out of hand any recent back issues that might impede his swing.
“I’ve been looking after Rory’s swing for a long time. We’re not making drastic changes, more refining and adjusting all the time. It is my job to get the swing back the way it should be and to the way he feels comfortable.
“You’re looking at a fella who has been playing top-class golf for the last couple of years. Realistically he’s not going to play an awful lot better, it’s just the small margins to tease him back to the right position if he gets out of sync.
“Coaches for any top golfer can look at it two ways; if they are playing well you are just maintaining the swing. If they’ve got a problem, hitting certain shots, missing greens or the driver’s off then you’ve got to fix it. If Rory was playing shite, I’d think I’m doing something wrong here, but he’s not, I think the results show that.”
Bannon accepts his role is as much mentor as it is coach and when he’s at a tournament he simply likes to observe, to see how Rory conducts himself on the course. “Mentor? Yeah I suppose that’s part of it,” he says. “We chat about everything to make sure he’s happy. It’s not all about swing coaching, I look at his course management and see if there is anything we can improve and all the time feed him positive thoughts.
“Michael can I take a trolley? . . .” comes the call from the shop and he’s off again. How do you juggle being a club pro with all the coaching? “I find it difficult at the moment, but because Rory comes here most of the time, it’s not too bad.”
He also dedicates time to coaching the ladies, junior and senior teams at Bangor Golf Club. “I try not to do too much, otherwise I’d be worn out and would never get home.”
You also get the impression he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s a great story about Rory because if Gerry hadn’t brought him to the course so early who knows how it would have turned out? Gerry always asked: ‘When will he play off scratch?” I said ‘look he’ll he scratch by the time he’s 12’ because I knew how he was progressing,” adds Bannon, who has been a lifelong friend to the McIlroys. He was at Gerry and Rosie’s wedding and his eldest girl and Rory are the same age and went to primary school together in Holywood.
“From a very young age Rory could play the full game, he could shape shots, which is a very unusual talent for one so young. He could hit it low, high, left, right, it didn’t matter. And the thing was he always liked people to see him doing it.
“Paddy, what can I do for you?” and off he goes one last time. “No that’s members’ hour, you’ll get out after 3pm . . . ”
Time in Bannon’s world was at an end.
AT A GLANCE
Who is Michael Bannon?Head professional at Bangor Golf Club in Co Down and longtime coach to Rory McIlroy since his days as head professional at Holywood Golf Club.
Where did it all begin?Bannon learned his trade playing junior golf at Kirkistown Golf Club. In 1980, then playing as an amateur out of Belvoir Park, he reached the final of the Irish Close at Royal County Down where he lost to Ronan Rafferty. Later that year he took up his first club professional role as assistant to Hugh Duggan at Ardglass Golf Club.
Holywood connection?After three years qualifying as a professional Bannon joined Holywood Golf Club as assistant to Sam Bacon in 1983. A year later he became head professional, where he remained until 1999 before moving to his current role at Bangor.
McIlroy connection?Bannon has long been a friend to the McIlroys and began coaching Rory at Holywood Golf Club from the age of eight. He continues to coach the world number nine regularly.
Professional honours?Bannon has won numerous times on the Irish PGA circuit, and lost the 1997 Irish Professional Championship in a play-off to Pádraig Harrington in Powerscourt.