| 5°C Belfast

Rory McIlroy says closer links with coach Michael Bannon will 'really help' end winless streak after taking lead at Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

 

Close

Rory McIlroy (right) is hoping that closer links with his lifelong coach Michael Bannon (left) can yield better results in 2021.

Rory McIlroy (right) is hoping that closer links with his lifelong coach Michael Bannon (left) can yield better results in 2021.

Getty Images

It's a fine first round of 2021 for Rory McIlroy.

It's a fine first round of 2021 for Rory McIlroy.

Getty Images

/

Rory McIlroy (right) is hoping that closer links with his lifelong coach Michael Bannon (left) can yield better results in 2021.

To any avid fan of the European Tour's social media output, Rory McIlroy's sparkling start to the 2021 calendar came as absolutely no surprise.

The Holywood star took the lead with an eight under par opening round 64 at the European Tour's Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, edging one ahead of Englishman Tyrrell Hatton.

The night before, a Tour video showcased McIlroy fully at ease with his swing, his surroundings and with the wide range of shot shapes he was pulling off. High draw, low draw, high fade, low fade; check, check, check, check.

"Everything's so neutral," he smiled after another sweetly-struck iron. "I feel like I can fully release it and there's just no chance of it going left."

Arguably most significant of all - certainly so according to the man himself - is the personnel in attendance. Watching on alongside caddie Harry Diamond, arms folded and throwing in the odd supportive 'very good' was McIlroy's lifelong coach Michael Bannon.

 

It's now over 14 months since the world number six - having risen one place this week - last won a tournament, at the WGC-HSBC Champions event in China in November 2019. For much of that time, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, he and his coach have been separated by the Atlantic. This week is McIlroy's first event outside America since just a couple of weeks after that WGC victory.

While legendary American coach Butch Harmon has been lending a hand in his stead, McIlroy knows there's no substitute for his childhood mentor.

"I haven't been able to see Michael over the last few months because of Covid and I thought I'd take advantage of being in Vegas by seeing Butch but Michael's here this week," McIlroy explained after carding eight birdies in a blemish-free round at Abu-Dhabi GC.

"He worked with me the week before Christmas and we've started to see a lot more of each other and that's been great. Michael knows my swing better than anyone, knows it inside out, and it's great to have him here.

"It's great that things are slowly getting back to normal and I'll be able to see him more regularly this year. I think that will really help."

It's just one of the reasons McIlroy looks and feels so relaxed even off the back of his winless streak.

Another is the impressive putting performance that saw McIlroy hole a combined total of over 130 feet worth of putts. Half of his successful birdie attempts dropped from outside 10 feet - two from over double that distance - all adding up to his best ever round at the course.

"A lot of (my game) was very good," he assessed. "I felt like I drove the ball well for the most part, although there were a couple of squirrelly ones in the middle of the round.

"My distance control was really good. I hit a lot of good iron shots.

"But it was probably the best I’ve putted on these greens in Abu Dhabi probably in my whole career.

“I’ve always struggled to read them here, but I sort of got my eye in early and kept it going. It was obviously a lovely way to start the year.”

Such is the life of a four-time major champion, especially one of McIlroy's almost unparalleled ilk for whom that tally is underwhelming if anything, one good round is meaningless if it isn't followed up by three more.

That was the issue last season, when seven under rounds, for example, at the Charles Schwab Challenge and the Travelers Championship ultimately yielded nothing but criticism for their uncommon arrivals.

"It started at the end of the summer," said McIlroy of what he feels has been gradual improvement in recent months. "One of the breakthroughs I made was in the second FedEx Cup play-off event, the BMW Championship at Olympia Fields. I played very well there and I felt like I sort of found something.

"I played well at the Tour Championship, pretty well at the US Open with a couple of not-so-good rounds and I played well at the Masters apart from a bad nine holes.

"It was getting better as the year went on and honestly it was sort of disappointing that it finished when it did because I felt like I was getting right back into it.

“I didn’t really take much time off after Augusta. I sat at home for maybe three or four days and then I needed to get out there and sort of keep this going.

“I played quite a bit over the Christmas break and practiced quite a bit. I felt maybe as sharp as I’ve ever done coming into the start of the season. It’s paid off early.”

Thanks to a delay early in the day, the afternoon starters will return on Friday to finish their opening rounds. Portrush man Graeme McDowell got through ten holes of his at one under par, with a birdie at the par five second.

Having slipped to 82nd in the world golf rankings, McDowell faces a race to get into this year's Masters, requiring a top 50 position the week before the year's opening major, which is scheduled to take place on April 8-11.

European Ryder Cup captain Padraig Harrington finished his opening round at two under par but 2019 Open champion Shane Lowry struggled to four over through 11 and will require a significant improvement to make the cut.

Belfast Telegraph


Privacy