Michael Bannon always knew talent when he saw it. When he played Ronan Rafferty in the final of the 1980 Irish Amateur Close at Royal County Down, he was so nervous he walked onto the first tee in his street shoes. Needless to say the first child golf star to emerge from Co Down hammered him 8 and 7.
In 1998 he made a play-off for the Irish Professional Championship at Powerscourt with Des Smyth, Francis Howley and Pádraig Harrington. Harrington holed a long bomb to win the first of his six Irish PGA crowns at the first extra hole.
Bannon still won more than 20 events on the PGA Irish Region’s pro-am circuit and teed it up in more than a few Irish Opens. But his strengths lay elsewhere and since 1997 he’s coached the kid with the potential to be possible the greatest player who’s ever lived.
After all, when he won his fourth major and second US PGA at Valhalla last year, Jack Nicklaus said: “Rory has an opportunity to win 15 or 20 majors or whatever he wants to do.”
The partnership with Bannon was a marriage made in heaven — a hardworking and gifted pro who knew what to touch and what to leave well alone coupled with a once in a lifetime talent.
Bannon always had McIlroy’s ear because he could hit shots and get the youngster to try them himself.
“I always had an easy going way with the kids,” he told a group of fellow professionals during a seminar on his coaching philosophy at this year’s PGA in Ireland AGM.
“I got them into groups, chatted to them and made it fun for them. I am a fan of showing them how to play. Take them up beside you and show them how to hit a shot.
“You are all professionals and you can all do it. You should never teach a child a shot unless you can do it yourself. You should be able to play that chip or that flop shot because they are going to love that as well. I always taught juniors to play the game backwards, beginning with the pitch shot and then working backwards from that.
“I always taught them simple methods to strike the ball but then you have to sort of keep at them, but not in a critical way. Stay positive, have a bit of fun and have competitions. There will only be a small percentage who will go on to be really good anyway but it is a great thing to introduce children to the game and give them skills they have for life.
“At times, you have to keep the parents away. People mean well and they want to be there to look after their children but you have to say: ‘I’m well qualified here and I have volunteers helping me, you are better actually leaving them alone’. Many times I’ve had parents interfering and it is only having a negative effect on the children and their golf. Never shout at them. Try not to get frustrated and take it nice and easy. They will not all be good at the same time, some of them will develop later but if you have put the good stuff in on the baseline then there is a chance they will get better.”
Needless to say, Bannon’s methods worked brilliantly with McIlroy.
“By the time Rory was eight, he was a golfer,” Bannon said. “He could hit the ball low, high, left to right, right to left, and he loved to tell people, ‘Look, watch this shot.’ Or if somebody was playing a shot, he’d join in and say, ‘I can do it better than you, watch me.’ ”
It was a quality that was obvious in those early wins in the Irish Amateur Close at Westport and the West of Ireland at Rosses Point, but especially in the 2005 Irish Amateur Open on the O’Meara Course at Carton House, where he was sixth behind Richie Ramsay.
Playing the par-five 17th with yours truly and Karl MacGinty from The Irish Independent in tow, he faced a tricky third shot to a back pin and fearlessly fired a wedge over the stick and as he twirled the club in his fingers, watched it zip it back to a few feet.
As the ball caressed the edge of the hole and finished a foot or two away, he cast a quick glance across to his small gallery as if to say, ‘Did you see that lads?’
Most observers with an eye for a golf swing could see that McIlroy was special and Bannon admitted earlier this year it was around this time that he could see that Rory was the real deal.
“I knew Rory was going to be very good when he was 15,” Bannon explained. “He came back for a lesson after a couple of months playing and he had put on 50 yards with his drives. I played in the Irish PGA Championship a few times so I had a chance to play with our better players and I remember saying that, ‘at the minute you are as good as any player I have every played with except maybe Darren Clarke’.
“That was in the period before Pádraig Harrington got really good. So I knew he was going to be really good then. I always knew that he could win from a very early age, but to be world number one? I don’t know if I every thought that. I always felt he was a Top-10 player and I think mentally he got so used to what he was doing that he was able to take on the mantle of being world No 1 himself. Mind you, getting there was one thing, the hardest thing was getting back there again.”
That Irish Close defeat put competitive golf in perspective for Bannon who initially worked in a bank before starting his career at Ardglass as an assistant to Hugh Duggan. From there he moved to Holywood Golf Club to work for Sam Bacon and when Sam passed away, Michael took over the reins at the club as Head Professional.
He eventually moved to Bangor and McIlroy followed him. And when the Holywood kid became world No 1, Bannon repaid the compliment, giving up his day job to follow McIlroy around the world as part of the inner sanctum formed by caddie JP Fitzgerald, fitness coach Steve McGregor and tour manager Sean O’Flaherty.
McIlroy’s dedication is key but while feel and the naked eye are important to his coach, they still use new technology to reaffirm their hunches.
“We look for some basic things with Trackman,” Bannon explained. “Rory still wants to see how far he is hitting it. At the minute, his ball speed is up around the 180-182mph while his swing speed is 123mph for driving.
“We look at path, plane and face angle and we also look at spin axis. We don’t look at it as a means of coaching. We look at it in terms of back-up. The best time to get the Trackman out is when your player is playing well. You can then measure what he is doing so that if he’s gone off a bit, you can get the Trackman out again and see what differences there might be.
“I like to take a broad view of everything. For a start I always like to be there. Some coaches say ‘send me the video and I can analyse that’ but I like to be there and talk to the player, ask him how they are feeling, whether they hit it off the middle and watch the ball flight and the strike. You have to get that information and then you put the video on and use Trackman so for me, it is just another accessory, just like everything else.”
The strike is as special now as it was when he beat Cavan’s Eddie McCormack in the Irish Close final at Westport a decade ago.
“I held true to my plan and did not look at his play until it was nearly over,” McCormack said in a biography on McIlroy penned by Justin Doyle. But I could hear his ball striking, and I had never heard, and have still never heard to this day, anything like it. I’ll put it this way: The sound of his ball striking is amazing. It’s the sound of the whack that he makes. It’s crisp, clean and it is perfect. It is the same on every single shot he makes. If there were 20 players striking the ball, and you were blindfolded, you would unquestionably know the sound of Rory’s strike.”
Within three years McIlroy had won his European Tour card in just a handful of events, finishing as the leading amateur behind Harrington in The Open before coming third in the Dunhill Links at St Andrew’s.
“He is in the same mould as Seve and Sergio Garcia,” Bannon said at the time. “He really has it all. He’s got a great feel for moving the ball about. He can hit it any way he wishes, but above all he’s incredibly confident. ”
McIlroy might be a Formula One machine and a genius, but without Bannon’s expert hand in the pit lane, the car could have come a cropper on the hairpins on more than one occasion.