Michael Bannon has helped Rory McIlroy, his star pupil, reach World No. 1 by emboldening him with confidence

Tuesday September 23rd, 2014
Bannon, with 10-year old Rory at Holywood Golf Club outside Belfast.
Pacemaker BFST Archive

Whenever Rory McIlroy plays well in a major, there's an Irishman with a green-headed microphone waiting for Rory after his round. His name is Greg Allen, from Raidió Teilifís Éireann. Greg asks thoughtful questions in the lovely singsong of Irish English, and Rory fills up the man's tape, his brogue just a little more lively than when he speaks to the rest of us.

Far from the scrum, hanging with Gerry McIlroy (Rory's father) and J.P. Fitzgerald (Rory's caddie) is a man named Michael Bannon. He is Greg Allen's doppelgänger. Same curly hair. Same age, roughly (mid-50s). Same complexion protected by a generous application of sun cream. Same brogue and singsong cadence. Same mild manner. But Bannon has no need or desire to be part of the scene.

Bannon has taught golf to Rory since McIlroy was 7. Don't even try to book a lesson with him. He only wants one student.

"He's a lot like Butch Harmon," David Feherty said the other day. Feherty grew up playing at Bangor Golf Club, in the Belfast suburbs, where Bannon worked for years. "If they get on the range and there's nothing to say to the guy, they don't say a thing."

That last part is surely true. The first part, I don't know. Butch is more like a football coach, or a staff sergeant. Bannon's manner is just...mild.

"What would you say David Feherty was best at?" I asked Bannon recently. "Singing, playing or commentating?"

"Hmm," he said. "I heard him doing the opera on the radio once. Probably not the singing. In fairness, though, that was after a tournament."

Bannon's thing is the power of positive thinking. Maybe that wouldn't have worked for Tiger, in his Butch years. Tiger thrived on challenges. But TPOPT works for McIlroy. (See: Peale, Norman Vincent.) Some years ago, when he was scuffling around for a few tournaments in a row, Rory said to his parents, "You haven't told me how good I am lately." When Rory was just starting in the game, at a time when Bannon was head pro at Holywood Golf Club and Gerry McIlroy was a scratch-playing member, the two devised a special scorecard. The first hole was a par 8. The second was a par 6. The third was a par 7. Etc. On that basis, Rory was shooting 4-under for nine holes before he was 10.

"Yes, yes," Bannon told me, "always positive, always positive."

After his two long stints as a club pro, Bannon joined McIlroy last year as his full-time teacher. At tournaments, he's on the range with Rory, on the practice green, inside the ropes during practice rounds. He has not, as Rory has, moved to South Florida. God no. Bannon lives in the Emerald Isle countryside, with his wife and children, in an old house surrounded by fields.

After winning the PGA at Valhalla, McIlroy was asked how his relationship with his teacher has changed over the years. He didn't like the word change. "Evolved," McIlroy said. (You have to admire the dedication to verbal precision. Rare.) They used to talk more about the swing, McIlroy said. Now they talk more about course management.

When they do discuss the swing, it's not complicated. Bannon is no wet-wool Irish pro, channeling his inner Shivas Irons. He has a digitized catalog of Rory's swing through the years, and he's noted subtle changes in Rory's move as his student has grown physically stronger.

But his first and most fundamental message -- to Rory and, in theory, anyone else -- is to make a swing that lets you hit the ball squarely. His second message is to be realistic about the shots you are attempting. His third message, while noting the second, is to be positive.

"I could take five strokes off your game tomorrow," Bannon told me. He wasn't boasting. He was providing a summary from a lifetime in the game. His point is that the average duffer does not properly manage the skills he has. Or not as well as he could.

Today, the best players jump around from one swing coach to another. Tiger went from Butch to Hank to Sean, and isn't it telling that we're on a first-name basis with all of them? But McIlroy seems intent on following an older tradition. Tom Watson had one teacher, Stan Thirsk. Jack Nicklaus, Rory's career mentor, had one teacher, Jack Grout. Ben Hogan had one teacher, a guy called Dirt. And Rory has had only Michael.

I first met Bannon five years ago, in his crowded shop at Bangor. It was cold and windy, but Rory had played that morning.

Said Bannon that day, "His swing is him -- it has personality. It has flair."

Since then, nothing's changed. The kid knows who he is. He's not looking to reinvent himself. Why would he?

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