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McIlroy on the Rise

He may be behind Luke Donald but he's catching up

Posted Dec 13, 2011 by Dermot Gilleece

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It is only in the light of Luke Donald’s amazing achievement in Dubai at the weekend, that Rory McIlroy can fully appreciate the depth of his rival’s pre-tournament compliment. “Rory has the most talent of anyone I have played with, and that includes Tiger,” said the inherently decent Englishman.  “I see him winning lots of tournaments and lots of Majors because the sky really is the limit for him.”  

The fact that Donald, apart from his status as world number-one, has now gained a unique position in the game as the money leader on both sides of the Atlantic, lends enormous weight to those words.  Small wonder then that when it was all over, the Holywood star felt moved to acknowledge that “this year has been a massive step in the right direction for me.”  

As it happened, McIlroy remained in Dubai for a few days on medical advice and opted out of this week’s Thailand Open.  In the player’s words, it would have been “too much of a struggle”, after a recent bout of debilitating dengue fever.      

Meanwhile, the massive year to which McIlroy referred, can be seen in the amassing of €3,171,787 as number-two to Donald on the Road to Dubai, six months after an astonishing, eight-shot victory in the US Open at Congressional last June.  In between, as a rather nice bonus, were tournament victories in the invitational Shanghai Masters on October 30th and the Hong Kong Open on the weekend prior to Dubai.  And, of course, he is solidly entrenched at number two in the world rankings.  

It seems a long, long way from a Sunday evening in early October, four years ago.  That was when McIlroy’s coach, Michael Bannon, stepped away from the television in his Downpatrick home where he had been watching remarkable images from the Dunhill Links in which McIlroy carded a closing 68 on the Old Course at St Andrews, to finish third behind Nick Dougherty. Bannon instinctively moved towards a cupboard where he knew there were very different images of his amazing pupil. And he felt the need to look at them once more.

Almost instantly, he had them in his hands, in the pages of an old photograph album.  There were snaps of a diminutive, pixie-headed nine-year-old hitting bunker shots in bright sunshine on the practice area of Bangor Golf Club.  And of the youngster with his father, Gerry.  And one of him with Bannon, who would become his long-time golf instructor.

Comparing those images to the self-assured 18-year-old with the powerfully-developed chest and shoulders he had just seen crossing the Swilcan Bridge, the proud pro marvelled: "Look at the size of him back then!  How did this wee lad ever manage to become a champion golfer?  Isn't it unbelievable what he's done?"

That third-place finish had secured a European Tour card in only his second tournament as a professional.  It became a milestone in a sparkling career, like the day in 1993 when he was taken, as a four-year-old by his father to the rolling terrain of Holywood Golf Club, overlooking Belfast Lough.  That was when he met Bannon for the first time, as the then resident professional gave a lesson from a mat beside the 16th hole.

When Rory was nine, Bannon took over as professional at Bangor and the youngster and his father followed him there.  And so, those photographs were taken.  "I'm still looking after him, just like I've done since he was a wee boy," said the professional, with the warmth of an adoptive father.  "He just comes down to me when he's at home.

"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.    
"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.”

Indeed it does.  Since then, Bannon has been at McIlroy’s side at such iconic venues as Augusta National, hardly believing the way his young protégé has developed. "I don't see any other lads coming along," said the coach in mock disappointment.  "Still, I suppose it's very hard to get more than one Rory in a lifetime."

And he has the pictures to prove that he was there, right from the start.

- Dermot Gilleece

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