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Dermot Gilleece on Rory McIlroy

What makes this talented player such a prospect

Posted Mar 02, 2009 by Dermot Gilleece


              All the plaudits directed at Rory McIlroy since his arrival here in Tucson, have served to highlight a rich tradition in Ireland in producing young golfing talent.  We could go back to the beginning of the last century, when Ulster teenagers, May Hezlet and Rhona Adair, became known as the "Golden Girls" of the game.  But the Irish player most identifiable with McIlroy over the last 100 years, is undoubtedly Jimmy Brien.

               Predictions from Ernie Els that McIlroy would one day succeed Tiger Woods as the world number one and from Geoff Ogilvy that he will be in the world's top-10 for "as long as he wants", bring to mind a conversation I had with the great Joe Carr about 10 years ago.  Talking about Bruen, Carr told me: "In my view, from the time he was 18 in 1938 until about 1942, Jimmy was among the six best players in the world, amateur or professional.  Remember, had the 1939 Open Championship at St Andrews been played over six rounds, he would have won it. There was nobody in this country in the same class as him at that stage, myself included."

               It is fascinating to note that the birthdays of Bruen (May 8th) and McIlroy (May 4th) are only four days apart. And they were both born in or around Belfast, Bruen in 1920 and McIlroy in 1989.  Bruen, of course, became famous for the remarkable loop in his swing, but in stark contrast, McIlroy is brilliantly orthodox.

               The great Henry Cotton once said of Bruen:  "Most people who saw this swing of his said he wouldn't last, but I saw immediately that when he got to the top, his right elbow came down to his right hip and his hands flashed theclub-head through with such speed that the ball was hit with the biggest carry you have ever seen - up to 300 yards."  And Sam McKinlay of the "Glasgow Herald" wrote: "When Bruen's imagination was alight and when the 'loop' was working and when he was not breaking steel shafts like matchsticks, he was the most thrilling, accomplished golfer in the world."

                 As one of his earliest memories, McIlroy can still recall the day in 1993 when he was taken, as a four-year-old by his father, Gerry, to the rolling terrain of Holywood Golf Club, overlooking Belfast Lough.  That was where he met the club professional, Michael Bannon, for the first time, while he gave a golf lesson from a mat beside the 16th hole.

              Since then, Bannon has been the player's coach, right up to the point of taking phone calls from him last week during the Accenture Matchplay on the Ritz-Carlton course here at Dove Mountain.  When Rory was nine, Bannon took over as professional at Bangor and the youngster and his father followed him there.  "In that way, I continued to look after him," said Bannon.  "He would just come down to me like he did when I was at Holywood."

              He went on: "I know his swing so well that I find it easy to get him back into shape.  I reckon all the work on his swing was done by the time he was 14.  I could see it suited him and I liked the look of it.  Since then, I just make sure he's in all the right positions.  I remember when he started trying to swing like Tiger Woods and I told him to concentrate on swinging like Rory McIlroy.  And it seems to work, doesn't it?"

              This is what makes McIlroy so interesting from an Irish perspective.  Bruen had his loop and Joe Carr hit a low, slashing hook before switching to a cut, later in his career.  And while displaying remarkably precocious skills during the late 1970s and early eighties, Ronan Rafferty employed a two-handed, baseball grip, an open stance and a steep takeaway.

                 Look at McIlroy, however, and you cannot but be impressed with his flawless technique.  "He's an awful lot better than people imagine," says his manager, Chubby Chandler, as a simple statement of fact, while emphasising the wonderfully quick hands which deliver such remarkable power from a modest physique.  Like when he needed no more than a seven iron for an approach shot of 215 yards to the 18th green here on Thursday against Hunter Mahan and when he consistently drove the ball more than 50 yards outside Tim Clark on Friday.

               Full credit is given to Bannon and to the equally crucial influence of the player's father, who had succeeded in keeping his son solidly grounded.

               Regarding McIlroy's late hit, Bannon enthused: "He makes such a good angle on the way down. There's a way of doing it so that you don't throw the club too early in the swing and Rory holds onto this angle until just the right time.  That, his enormous turn and his leg-drive give him tremendous power.  And he's very flexible as well. It makes for a great unit.

                "Then, as a competitor, he has a real steely eye in his head.  He's been used to winning from the time of his first boys' tournament victory as a 13-year-old at Donaghadee.  And he's been a winner ever since."  All the while, his instructor has observed, marvelled and dreamed.  He knows that as a teaching professional, he has been greatly blessed in being given the chance of nurturing such a talent. 

              Bannon concluded: "You can only expect to get one Rory in a lifetime."  Just as Henry Cotton might have observed of Jimmy Bruen.


- Dermot Gilleece in Tucson

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