Rory McIlroy's mentor plans thrilling future
Rory McIlroy was just eight years old when he first came under the wing of coach Michael Bannon.
Fifteen years on McIlroy is the greatest golfer in the world and one of the most popular sporting superstars on the planet.
This year Rory won a second major title, the US PGA Championship to follow on from his US Open success in 2011, topped the money lists in Europe and America, won five tournaments including his season-ending event in Dubai thanks to birdies on each of the last FIVE holes and helped his continent retain the Ryder Cup.
He's all loved up with stunning tennis playing girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki and has landed a bewildering $155 million deal with Nike to use their equipment from next year.
No wonder every time you see the Holywood hero these days he has a big smile on his face.
Michael Bannon is enjoying life too.
Earlier this year, at McIlroy's request, he left his position as PGA professional and tutor to all at Bangor Golf Club to work full-time with the 23-year-old.
The move has paid off for both.
McIlroy has gone from strength to strength and Bannon has revelled in being part of it, including seeing Rory win a pro tournament in the flesh for the first time – the Deutsche Bank Championship in Boston in September – something he never did when working with the world number one on a part time basis.
Ask the modest and unassuming 54-year-old Bannon about their dynamic double act though and he says: “To me it's all about Rory. He's the one who is hitting the golf ball, he's the one achieving the scores. I just have to do my very best to try and make sure everything is in place to help him. That's my job. I don't want to be the man. He's the man.”
McIlroy's season starts on January 17 with a tournament in Abu Dhabi. Bannon will be with him 10 days before that in Dubai honing Rory's craft.
They'll also be together next week in Florida for a little fine tuning before Christmas.
As well as practice on the fairways and greens, there'll be chat about course management and Rory's thoughts on his game.
Michael says: “I like to talk to him about how he feels when he's hitting a shot.
“With a top player like Rory they have to be comfortable with what they are doing. I don't brow beat the player with information — it's more a case of drawing out the best in him.”
Nick Faldo has suggested it may take time for Rory to be at his best in 2013 using his new Nike equipment following the big money switch from Titleist, the manufacturer that has supplied his clubs and balls throughout a successful career to date.
Coach Bannon has no such concerns, insisting McIlroy's work ethic and talent will ensure there is no negative impact. That being the case I wonder if Michael, well qualified that he is, can answer those two frequently asked questions about his protege. Will Rory overhaul the record of 18 majors won by the great Jack Nicklaus and will he become the best golfer ever?
“Rory is the world number one now and he can stay there for as long as he wants to. When he's on his game there really is nobody better than him,” says Bannon.
“To win the US Open and US PGA by eight shots each was amazing. And what he did in Dubai in the last tournament of the year, finishing with five birdies to win, I still haven't got over how good that was.
Like all sporting greats Rory is able to draw on something different. They get that little bit extra out of themselves.
“Can he win 18 majors? It's hard to know but every tournament that Rory enters he wants to win it.
“He has put a lot of hard work in, his swing is in good shape and he's in good form and that is a good combination.
“If Rory went on, say, for another 20 years playing top level golf, there's nothing to stop him winning at least one major every two years and that would be the minimum I would see him winning.
“It's hard to put a number on it but he will win more majors.
“As for being the best of all time I don't know. You have Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods to beat — I certainly see the potential for it but it is hard to say.
“He's 24 in May — if you look at his past record and what he has already achieved and project that into the future, then what is certain is that there is a lot of good stuff to come.”
The day Michael met Jack is one he still can’t stop talking about
Michael Bannon smiles at the thought of it. He shakes his head and then starts to tell me the story of how he met his hero Jack Nicklaus earlier this year.
Nothing much fazes the easy going 54-year-old, married with four children, but coming face to face with the legendary Golden Bear is something he'll never forget.
“When I started playing golf Jack was the top player. I loved watching him,” explained Michael, coach to Rory McIlroy.
“I was lucky enough to meet him for the first time this year out at his club at the Memorial Tournament in Columbus and I had a chat with him. I didn't know what to say, it was unbelievable meeting him.
“Rory and myself were in the clubhouse and there was a big screen on showing the previous day's practice session.
“Jack got chatting to Rory and asked Rory who the man was with him on the screen. Rory told him it was the guy standing beside them which was me and that's how I met him. He was great to talk to. Very direct.”
Michael smiles again, admitting that when he thinks where his life has taken him he has a good old laugh about it.
Michael's early memories of that life relate to his love of sport and, in particular, hurling and golf, not surprising really given that as a kid his house was by the 17th hole of Kirkistown Castle Golf Club on the Ards Peninsula.
He says: “I played hurling for 10 years with Ballycran and mixed that with the golf. With the two sports I suppose I had a good eye for the ball.
“I found though that with hurling I got injured too many times, especially with the hands, fingers and elbows and then golf took over when I was about 18.”
Michael worked in a bank when he left school, but it wasn't for him. The golf course was.
He was a decent player, turning out for Junior Ulster, winning a few Scratch Cups and reaching the final of the Irish Close Championship in 1980 where he lost to a young Ronan Rafferty.
Eight years later he would make a play-off won by Padraig Harrington in the Irish Professional Championship.
By then he had caught the coaching bug. He flourished with the young, including Rory McIlroy, and old at Holywood Golf Club and later Bangor Golf Club benefited from his wisdom, expertise and professional nature.
“Coaching has always been in me, even in Holywood when I was playing more, I did a lot of coaching with juniors. It gives me a buzz when I see them improve during a session.
“It's great to see a child's face light up when they hit the ball in the air.”
Now a full time coach with McIlroy, Bannon's qualities are being recognised.
Last year he collected the PGA Coach of the Year prize, was recently crowned High-Performance Coach of the Year in the 2012 UK Coaching Awards and yesterday, at Bangor Golf Club, he was presented with the Phillips Manager of the Month prize for November.
Married to Fionnuala with children Ellen, Luke, Monica and Fergus ranging from 15 to 24 — “the two boys play golf and are pretty good” — Michael says his life revolves around his family and golf.
He couldn't be more content.