The best-kept secret on Team McIlroy is his lifelong swing coach, Michael Bannon
Michael Bannon, Rory McIlroy's first and only swing coach, has a video archive of McIlroy's swings that spans 15 years and numbers well into the thousands. Each swing is digitized, catalogued by date, and stored on a hard drive -- and, says Bannon, "they all tell a different story." It is a remarkable, perhaps unprecedented, database of one player's development, a swing-umentary that traces McIlroy's progress from a pint-size prodigy at Holywood Golf Club, in the suburbs east of Belfast, to a globe-trotting superstar striping balls on plush ranges in places like Dubai and Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. The first film in the collection, shot by Bannon on a sunny morning at Holywood, is a gem. It stars Rory, age 8, taking practice swings in a baggy yellow sweatshirt and a black Nike cap tugged low over his brow. The youngster struggles to control the weight of the clubhead, but his swing, long and full of torque, is instantly recognizable.
"Did you play today, Rors?" Bannon asks from off camera. He speaks quickly, one word crashing into the next, but his Ulster lilt is warm and encouraging.
"Yeah," Rors squeals.
"What'dya go 'round in?"
"Very good. When's your birthday? About another month? Good man. Let's see you swing the club, then."
"Okay, put the club back down. We'll start from scratch. Okay, bend your knees. A tiny bit -- just a tiny bit. Now away you go. Swing... that's it. Now turn through. Hold your balance at the finish. Great. That's very good."
That's it! Ya see that?" Bannon says, edging forward on his seat. "Hold the balance."
It's a drizzly September morning at Bangor Golf Club, just up the road from Holywood, where Bannon, 54, has presided as head professional for the last 13 years. Bannon is playing the video of little Rory on a flat-panel monitor in a training studio adorned with a hitting net, shelves of instruction books, and poster-size photos of McIlroy. "You see, they talk about Rory's flexibility and how he turns his right shoulder to the target," he says. "But he was doing it back then."
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Bannon stops the video and starts another, this one of Rory, age 10 or 11, hitting wedges on the practice tee at Bangor, and featuring a brief cameo by Rory's father, Gerry -- "before he was able to afford a good coat," Bannon says, laughing. Rory's consistency is mesmerizing; it's like watching a metronome.
Bannon studies the film as if he's absorbing McIlroy's boundless potential again for the first time. "You see the control he has over the ball for such a young fella," Bannon says. "I didn't teach him to play golf, I just taught him how to swing the club."
When you watch these old movies, two things become clear. One, McIlroy has always had that nest of curls. And two, Bannon hasn't received his due. He's revered in teaching circles -- he was named the European PGA Golf Coach of the Year in 2011 -- but despite mentoring the game's biggest talent, he lacks the Q-rating of a Butch Harmon, or even a Bill Harmon. That may change when Bannon hits the road with McIlroy full-time in 2013, but don't count on it. "The thing I like about Michael," McIlroy says, "is he's quiet, he's humble, he doesn't like the spotlight. He just wants me to swing my best and play my best. He's not really looking for anything out of it."
Bangor members pay just £40, or about $65, for a lesson with Bannon (compare that to the $5,000 Butch Harmon commands for his three-day schools). "It's embarrassingly cheap," says Jack McCluskey, a longtime member and past captain of Bangor. "Without a doubt, he could get 10 times more if he wanted to."
Bannon has wavy reddish-brown hair and resembles the actor Bradley Whitford of West Wing fame. He is soft-spoken but likes to connect with his students through a chat or a joke. Years ago, when he was an assistant pro at Holywood, Bannon informed one woeful member that he held the answer to all his swing flaws. Grinning, Bannon unclenched his fist to reveal three darts. Says Stephen Gordon, who is succeeding Bannon at Bangor, "Michael knows how to teach people, not just golf."
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Between trips to the States during this year's FedEx Cup playoffs, Bannon hit the range at Bangor with Roy Bailie, a 32-year-old carpenter and 12-handicap who was taken by Bannon's accessiblity. ("I wouldn't be out here getting a lesson from Tiger's coach," he said.) After watching Bailie beat balls, Bannon showed him his swing on video next to McIlroy's, a sobering yet instructive experience. The takeaway: Bailie was releasing the club too early. Bannon prescribed a couple of drills and then said, "As I always say to Rory, 'The rest is up to you.' "
As his stock has quietly risen, Bannon has fielded calls from all over from golfers seeking his services. One mother in Florida wanted to fly her son to Bangor for some one-on-one time. For the moment, though, Bannon is content with keeping an eye on McIlroy, then coming home to mow his lawn and spend time with his wife, Fionnuala, and their four children, Ellen, 23; Luke, 21; Monica, 20; and Feargus, 15.
It's a good life -- "Some days you have to pinch yourself and think, 'Rory's the best player in the world,' Bannon says -- though not stress-free. Bannon may remember three-year-old Rory zipping around Holywood on his tricycle, but McIlroy's no kid anymore; he's the world's top-ranked golfer. "Lord knows what would have happened if I'd given Rory a bit of the wrong stuff early on," Bannon says. "Or if he'd gone to someone else, who knows what would have happened. Would he have been as good?" It's hard to imagine he could have been much better.
Bannon is a fine player himself. He picked up the game at seven and became an accomplished amateur at Kirkistown Castle Golf Club, a links 20 miles south of Bangor, hard against the Irish Sea. He turned pro in 1981 and went on to win more than 20 titles on the Irish Region Tour, a club-pro circuit. His biggest win would have been the 1998 Irish PGA Championship had he not lost in a playoff to 27-year-old Padraig Harrington. "Three-putted the 17th green to lose it," Bannon says.
Teaching was Bannon's other love, and in the early days he plied his trade as an assistant at Holywood, where he became friendly with Gerry and Rosie McIlroy. Gerry was a scratch player, but the buzz surrounded the McIlroy's only child, Rory, who by the age of nine was performing trick shots on national television. It was around this time, McIlroy says, that "Michael took charge of my golf swing."
Young Rors loved the process. Bannon would video his swing on an analog camera, and then they'd deconstruct it together, with Bannon marking up his small TV screen with an erasable marker. "Even in the wintertime, Rory would come down once a month, or once every two weeks," Bannon says. "He always pushed himself. He would have said, 'I think I need to go see Michael. I think I need to do this.' It wasn't like he had to come. He didn't need to do that. And even today it's the same way." Working toward a common goal bonded teacher and student; Bannon became like family. "He knows Rory's whole personality, his golf game, inside out," Gerry says. "I would even say Michael knows Rory as well as I do."
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Rory was a sponge. "If I told him something, he'd come back in a week or two, and he'd have it fixed," Bannon says. Rory also possessed the ability to self-correct, a skill he still calls upon. Through two rounds at the BMW Championship in Indiana last September, McIlroy was blocking everything. So he hunkered down on the range for 30 minutes and hit nothing but draws to reacquire the feeling of moving the ball right to left. On the weekend, McIlroy conducted a driving clinic and won by two. "You can get coached all you want," McIlroy says, "but you have to make your golf swing your own, and Michael has let me do that."
Through good times and bad. During a lull earlier this year, McIlroy weathered allegations that he was focusing too much on his tennis-star girlfriend, Caroline Wozniacki, and not enough on his game. "It had nothing to do with Caroline," Bannon says, laughing; it was more a case of McIlroy taking the club too far inside on his takeaway -- and Bannon has the video to prove it.
"You see what I mean?" he says back in his office. On the monitor is a split-screen image that shows McIlroy on the range at Royal Lytham next to McIlroy two months later at TPC Boston. "You see the club is more in behind the hands slightly, whereas at the minute it's more in line. The difference now is very marked in terms of how he's coming into the ball. It's still a wee bit inside, but that's okay. It's a very strong attack."
Bannon loves his videos, but he's not an overly technical teacher. He's more concerned about how McIlroy "feels" when the club is in certain positions. "He'll always write that down," McIlroy says. "Like, 'Okay, in January 2010, this is how you felt like you got it into that position. So try to feel that again.' It's all about reference points and keeping track and keeping a log on everything. That's what we've done throughout my career."
Only time will tell if their system will continue to work and if McIlroy will continue to buy into it. Tiger Woods is on his third coach. Padraig Harrington blew up his swing after winning three majors. Which leads one to wonder if McIlroy ever feels tempted to try something new.
"Not at all," he says firmly. "I don't think there are any secrets out there. I know when I play my best golf, I'm going to have a chance to win tournaments. And I think I'm getting better because when I'm not playing my best golf, I still have chances to win. I think that's just growing up and knowing my swing a bit more and knowing my tendencies."
And knowing not to mess with a good thing. As Bannon says, "Rory had a great swing at 14, 15, 16. We don't actually change that swing, we just check to see if it's in the right position."
As he says this, his monitor displays his star pupil frozen in midswing. Bannon looks up at the screen and smiles.
"You know you don't go changin' that there," he says. "What would you want to be changin'?"
This article originally appeared in the December 2012 issue of Golf Magazine, on newstands now. Click here to subscribe to Golf Magazine and to learn about Golf Magazine All Access.