McIlroy magic is the X-Factor
Rory’s coach, Michael Bannon, traces the Holywood star’s epic journey from Boy Wonder to the top of the golfing world
Few are better placed than Michael Bannon to understand the magic of Rory McIlroy ‘the X-factor’ which has turned a tousle-haired 22-year-old from Northern Ireland into golf’s newest megastar.
For nearly 15 years, Bannon has helped McIlroy hone his silky swing and nurtured the talent which thrust this remarkable youngster into the history books at the US Open in Congressional.
And as the world awaits McIlroy’s arrival today in Royal St Georges for this week’s Open Championship, Bannon explains why he believes the Holywood prodigy can eventually take pride of place on a pedestal once reserved for Tiger Woods.
After joining McIlroy on last week’s reconnaissance of Royal St Georges, the coach enthuses: “I watched him for a couple of days there and I’ve never seen anything as impressive as the way Rory can strike a golf ball.
“It’s the purity of the strike. He hits it different. Maybe Tiger Woods or some other great players were similar but I haven’t seen it.
“I understand why people want to watch him play because he’s so different. Like Georgie Best or Joey Dunlop or Alex Higgins, there’s something in there you can’t quantify, you can’t quite put your finger on.
“It’s the X-factor. It’s not definable. It’s a combination of everything. Like how Georgie Best could take a ball around people and never lose his balance. It’s Joey Dunlop looking like he’s part of the bike going around a corner.
“Rory’s swing looks great. It flows great and there’s great rhythm, stability and balance. But the way the ball is going off the clubface is just fantastic.
“Once I’d watched him play, I wouldn’t want to watch anybody else hit the ball, it’s so good. Maybe I’m biased, I don’t know.”
For much of his 50-something years, Bannon has been besotted with golf, so working with a player as gifted as McIlroy is as close as he can get to sporting Nirvana.
“To play a lot of golf is very satisfying but I feel very honoured to be able to coach this guy from eight years of age to where he is now. I also feel very humble about it.
“Rory owns his own swing. He hits the shots. It’s not Michael Bannon’s golf. I’d say my part as a coach is very much guiding it into the right direction. I’m not just a technical officer. I also coach him in the positive side of golf and talk about course management, that sort of stuff.
“It’s just hard to believe you’re working with potentially the best player in the world.”
As a boy, Bannon played hurling but from the moment his dad Sean, a recreational player at the local Kirkistown Golf Club, introduced his young son to the game, there was only one direction life would take him.
Bannon was his own teacher, turning for guidance only to a well-thumbed edition of ‘Jack Nicklaus: The Best Way to Better Golf’ and by watching better players. Clearly, he taught himself well, reaching the final of the 1980 Irish Close Championship before losing to the gifted teenager Ronan Rafferty.
Back then, he held down a job in a Belfast bank but Bannon was so intense about his game, he famously forgot to don his golf shoes for that final with Rafferty, turning up on the first tee in everyday footwear.
How times have changed. To his parents’ dismay, Bannon gave up his day job in his early twenties to assist former Kirkiston pro and good friend Hugh Duggan at Ardglass and 30 years later, this father-of-four is universally acknowledged as one of the most polished, cerebral and thorough professionals in the business. Destiny would bring him from Ardglass to Holywood, where little Rory McIlroy crossed his path.
While Bannon remained a good player, actually making a playoff with Padraig Harrington at the 1988 Irish Professional Championship, his reputation as a coach was flourishing at that time. So Gerry McIlroy asked him to teach his gifted son.
That process started formally 12 years ago, shortly after Bannon moved on to Bangor Golf Club and the busy pro shop, where he instructs mere mortals at £75 for a 45-minute class and plots with McIlroy to rule the world.