NORTON, Mass. – Sometimes, improvement can be sparked in a number of ways. If you’re hitting it left and left and left, maybe you watch a little tennis, or maybe you even push the panic button …
Wait a minute. That wasn’t quite the panic button, was it?
Michael Bannon smiled and shook his head. It was not. Better to classify it as a casual phone call that he was happy to answer while back at his home in Northern Ireland.
“I was going to come over for Chicago (next week’s BMW Championship), anyway,” Bannon said. “We just decided to come over this week instead.”
The call from J.P. Fitzgerald, the caddie for Rory McIlroy, to Bannon was made Sunday night. The next day, Bannon was on a flight to Boston. Tuesday, he was on the range at TPC Boston, a testament to the relationship between Bannon and McIlroy.
“He knows my swing inside and out,” McIlroy said of the only instructor he has known since he was 7.
“His father (Gerry) brought him to me (at Holywood Golf Club in Northern Ireland) and said, ‘You look after him now.’ ”
He has, too, for nearly 15 years, and it remains a special relationship, one that Chubby Chandler thinks works beautifully.
“A lot of young players get caught up and think they have to change things when they turn pro,” said Chandler, the man who runs ISM, which manages McIlroy and a host of other players. “Rory wondered about that, too. So I asked him a few years ago, ‘How long have you worked with Michael?’ Rory said, ‘Since I was 7.’ I looked at him and smiled. ‘You’ve done pretty good with him, haven’t you? I think you so.’ ”
All of this serves as an introduction to McIlroy’s near-flawless opening round at the Deutsche Bank Championship. Though he doesn’t have the lead – instead, his 7-under 64 trails Jason Day and Zach Johnson by one – McIlroy does seem to have regained that twinkle in his eye.
And if you were to compile a list of the most impressive things to watch in pro golf, McIlroy with a jump in his step is right near the top.
“Rory really goes at it and when he’s on, he’s really on,” Bannon said.
The numbers will support that statement, as McIlroy hit 10 of 14 fairways and 15 greens, but even more impressive is the way in which he finished. Not so much the 5-wood from 245 yards that set up a 25-foot eagle putt at the par-5 18th, but instead the par save at 15 when McIlroy drove into a fairway bunker left, pitched out to 97 yards, then drilled a wedge to 5 feet and made the putt.
“It maintained the momentum,” McIlroy said. “That’s huge. My caddie and I saw that when we went to the U.S. Open tennis in New York (after The Barclays).
“When they get a bit of momentum, it was unbelievable how much they started to play better. No one really can put it into words . . . you just know it.”
Building on that save at 15, McIlroy remained bogey-free through 16 and 17, then closed with the dramatic eagle to rekindle memories of the closing 62 that won at Quail Hollow back in May.
Now it’s easy to suggest we have been missing the McIlroy magic for a while, but that would be grossly misleading. We’re talking about a 21-year-old, after all, who went T-3 in the British Open, T-9 at Bridgestone, and T-3 in the PGA Championship during a five-week stretch.
We should all struggle like that, but the point is, the young man is mature beyond his years and here is why he’s truly in the top echelon of world-class players: He was getting it done without a ball flight that pleased him.
“I was struggling with hitting the ball left last week (at Barclays),” McIlroy said. “It actually started at the PGA, but I managed to play with it (there).”
The following week, McIlroy went on holiday to Spain, didn’t pick up a club, and when he returned to Ridgewood CC and the first FedEx Cup playoff, the lefts were still there.
“I knew I needed a couple of days of hitting a lot of shots and just getting back on track,” McIlroy said.
Thus Fitzgerald called Bannon, who didn’t mind in the least. He’d take Boston over Chicago if that’s what his prize student wanted.
“He’s a joy to work with,” Bannon said.
When he completed his brilliant 64, McIlroy entered the scoring area and smiled. “It’s amazing what you can do when you practice,” he said to Chandler with a laugh, but both the manager and the swing coach knew the young man was kidding.
“He works hard,” Bannon said. “But at this level, on this Tour, if you don’t work hard, you’ll get lost.”
Most of their work focused on McIlroy’s iron play. Having put the new Titleist 910 D2 driver in his bag, McIlroy is thrilled with that, but from there things have been crooked.
“I’m trying to start hitting the ball on line again,” he said.
Bannon didn’t think the pair got enough work done Tuesday, so they went at it again Wednesday. By Thursday, which was pro-am day, “We were hopeful,” Bannon said.
Hopeful turned into utter delight, “because it was a very, very good game of golf,” Bannon said. “The ball was going toward the flag.”
Translation: McIlroy was taking dead aim, more than likely with a twinkle in his eye.
Later, there was praise in his words.
“Every time we get together,” McIlroy said, “he gets me straightened out.”