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The Coach Behind World's Number 1

Meeting McIlroy's Coach, Michael Bannon

Posted Mar 13, 2012 by Dermot Gilleece

bannon

Michael Bannon set off from his home in Downpatrick, Co Down on Monday of this week on a rather special assignment.  He was headed for West Palm Beach in Florida to meet up with his star pupil, Rory McIlroy, for a week of fine-tuning in preparation for the US Masters.  That will be McIlroy’s next tournament after an admirable if unavailing challenge in the Cadillac Championship at Doral.

Even at this stage of their relationship, Bannon still has to pinch himself at the idea of coaching the world’s number one player.  “In earlier years, when I thought of Gerry and Rosie, Rory's parents, and the great responsibility they gave me, it often filled me with trepidation," he said. "It made me conscious of telling him not simply the right things, but things that would be right for him. Imagine if I told him the wrong thing......"

Remarkably, Bannon remains largely anonymous when in McIlroy’s company, though he could not be more highly respected by the player himself.  Generally, his words are few, but you sense him taking in every movement his pupil made.

While learning his craft as a qualified PGA professional, Bannon obviously took on board basic teaching techniques to add to the knowledge he had acquired himself as an accomplished amateur.  Then he went beyond that, studying the fundamentals of the game from books by John Jacobs and Hank Haney, and videos of Ben Hogan.    

"It's called the coefficient of angular momentum (CAM)," he said with a mischievous smile, while explaining the angles created in the golf swing by arm and hand. "Rory's flair, natural ability and personality all come through in the swing. If I tried to change that swing when he was 11, 12 or 13 and replace it with a more mechanical sort of truncated action, it wouldn't have suited him.  It wouldn't have worked.

“I always kept an eye on him, checking if there was ever anything out of place.  Then I'd tell him the reason, while being careful not to say too much, because there are many ways to teach people golf.  And he trusted me and went with it.  Above all, I allowed him to be himself.  Absolutely.  Mind you, looking at him through the years and the amateur championships he won and playing in the Walker Cup and the way he got his tour card after only a few events, you just knew there was something special there."

Though prying eyes were never far away, every move that McIlroy makes these days in a tournament environment, is closely scrutinised by eager fans. For Bannon, this brings to mind a chat he had with the player’s mother a few years ago, when she recalled the time Rory's grip was changed.  "He was about 12 going on 13 and I knew it was time," said Bannon.  "Though the right-hand was OK, his left-hand was too strong, with three or four knuckles showing.

“I drew a couple of spots on the club for him, showing him where the left thumb should go, and I explained that the change would give him a much better strike on the ball.  Otherwise, there would come a time when his strong left-hand grip would start producing a hook. Then I told him about the way Paddy Skerritt [an old-time Irish professional] would take a club with him to bed, where he would practise gripping and re-gripping it.  And Rosie told me how she went into Rory's bedroom and found her son in bed, fast asleep, with a club in his hands, gripping the markings, exactly as I had taught him."

One of Bannon’s favourite memories is of their first trip to Augusta National in late March 2009 followed by the tournament proper, concerned a happening on the Friday afternoon. After a solid, opening 72, the Holywood debutant found himself in the group ahead of Tiger Woods for his second round on the Friday.  Among other things, it prompted humorous speculation among some observers at to which player had the stronger support.

In the event, the excitement grew after McIlroy carded successive birdies on the third and fourth.  That's when Bannon met former Royal and Ancient secretary, Sir Michael Bonallack, resplendent in his green jacket as a member of Augusta National.

On being warmly complimented about McIlroy's stunning technique, the coach modestly acknowledged: "He's doing all right."  To which Bonallack, a five-time winner of the British Amateur, responded: "You can certainly say that", before adding: "Don't, don't let anybody touch him."  And he hasn’t.

- Dermot Gilleece

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