Rory McIlroy’s sweet swing has him leading the U.S. Open

Sally Jenkins
Columnist June 17, 2011

The best thing about Rory McIlroy is that he never talks about his golf swing. What the kid really likes to talk about is hot cars. He doesn’t get geeky with technique or complex jargon, he just steps up to the ball and moves the club so sweetly, with such easy action, it makes you want to throw your teaching pro into a lake.

Other players make golf look contorted and highly taught. You can see every moving part in the twist-and-lean motion of Bubba Watson, and practically hear the grinding of gears in the mechanics of Tiger Woods. But McIlroy’s body language says, “What’s so hard about this?”

Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

It’s tempting to think that such physical ease must be a gift unfairly dispensed by God, and to wonder why it was bestowed on a pudding-faced young Ulsterman who trots across the golf course like a shaggy puppy. Surely it can’t be learned. Actually, it can. True story. McIlroy was 4 years old when his father Gerry took him to the Holywood golf club in the suburbs of Belfast and turned him over to an assistant club pro named Michael Bannon, who, unlike some video-toting, nonsense-spouting charlatans, believes that when it comes to golf simpler is better. Bannon gave McIlroy a lesson in the proper grip, and told him to practice by holding it the right way for several minutes every day. McIlroy was such an earnest student he took the club to bed with him, and slept with it gripped correctly in his sticky little hands.

We don’t know yet whether McIlroy is going to fulfill his immense promise in the U.S. Open at Congressional, whether he can endure the spine-caving pressure of trying to win his first major championship at the age of only 22. What we do know, what can be said with absolute certainty, is that he has the best swing anyone has seen in generations, a pure and effortless dynamic that has made mincemeat out of Congressional and the record book for two rounds, and which should change the way the game is taught. “It’s the best swing in golf,” says NBC’s tough critic, Johnny Miller.

Try to unpack McIlroy’s swing, technically. You can’t. That’s because it’s all one piece. The secret to it is simplicity: He doesn’t indulge in the continual tedious breakdowns of his motion that other players do, second-guessing his swing planes and accelerations and points of contacts and ball flights. McIlroy has only had one teacher, Bannon, and they finished working on his swing when he was 14. “His mind isn’t cluttered up with technical garbage and psychological babble,” observes the Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee.

Not long ago, McIlroy deconstructed his process for Golf Digest. “I like to swing with no fear,” he said. “I’m a grip it and rip it guy. . . . Over the ball, I think about nothing other than the target. I don’t focus on technique. But, under pressure, I do use one simple swing thought: I pick a spot a foot in front of the ball and hit over it — hard. That takes my mind off the outcome of the shot and keeps me in the process.”

Bannon taught McIlroy with a six-step method — available online in DVD form — that emphasized an impeccable grip, setup and posture. They haven’t tampered with him since. That simplicity gave McIlroy control and confidence. “It became just like automatic to him, like eating your dinner with a knife and fork,” Bannon told the Belfast Telegraph. “Rory’s club in his hand was just like that.”

Expert analysts admire two things about McIlroy’s swing, how cleanly and purely he strikes the ball on a consistent basis, and how smooth and unvarying his timing is. His distance and his accuracy are just the natural results of how correctly he starts, with the way he grasps the club and stands over the ball. There is no extreme club-head speed or range of motion, just a fluid follow-through, until the club rests almost on the nape of his neck. “His setup and grip are textbook and his tempo is sort of one speed, back and through, one-two,” Miller says. “Even though there is acceleration, it’s from gravity, and then you look at his beautiful release, and you’d like Michaelangelo to sculpt it in marble.”

The Golf Channel’s Chamblee notices something else about McIlroy’s swing: how relaxed his hands seem on the club and how stress-free his movements seem. “He puts his hands on the club in a perfect manner with very little tension, sets up in a good spot with an athletic posture, and he literally makes the swing as simple as anyone in the history of the game has made it,” Chamblee says. “It’s a simple, athletic-related move, and as pretty a move as you’ll see.”

The result is one of the longest hitters in the world — though he is just 5 feet 9 and 161 pounds — yet also one of the most accurate, a golfer who manages to be strong and pretty and technically sound, all at the same time. The statistics tell the story: He went 35 straight holes in the first two rounds of the Open without so much as a bogey and he hit 32 of 36 greens. His playing partners, Phil Mickelson, who called McIlroy’s play “flawless,” and Dustin Johnson, have pretty good swings of their own, but they seemed to thrash and struggle by comparison.

But McIlroy possesses more than just an easy swing. He also has huge ambition. There is no more convincing statistic than the fact that he has now led in the last four majors. The signs and the numbers suggest that he may be no more than 48 hours from becoming the game’s next great player. Should he make his breakthrough and win his first, there may be a lot more to follow.

“He could be the next Woods, let’s put it that way,” says Miller. “Some guys win by accident, okay? They hang around and everyone chokes. This guy has the ability to separate himself from the field and just beat the pants off people, and that’s a rare, rare talent that not many players have, and he has it. Other guys they just hang in there and contend, and then say, ‘Oh wow, I won one.’ This guy is like, ‘Move over folks. I’m coming through.’ ”

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