David Leadbetter is the Godfather of modern golf instruction. Now 63 and still going strong, it seems he’s been improving golfers’ skills and games – from hackers to superstars – for a lifetime.
Between them his students have celebrated 20 major titles, 100-plus individual worldwide tournament victories and there are now 23 full-time Leadbetter golf academies in 12 countries.
“I was one of the pioneers in teaching Tour players back in the day, the mid 80s. John Jacobs did a little bit but otherwise there was nobody else out there. I made an industry out of it!” he told us as we talked on the range at the US Women’s Open – where he’d just been working with one of his brightest pupils, Lydia Ko.
Born in England, ‘Lead’ has come a long way since moving to Rhodesia (which developed into Zimbabwe) at the age of seven and his days as a talented young golfer who turned pro. But he didn’t quite make it and, virtually by accident, stumbled on to the teaching path.
He clearly has no regrets, though: “My hope is that when you look at golf instruction through the ages, not a whole lot has changed with the way we analyse the game. I started with just my eyes and instinct, but with all the gadgets and gizmos, video, Trackman and launch monitors and so on, I’ve now got the tools to prove how bad the swings really are!”
By his own admission, Leadbetter “was slowing down and under the radar a little bit”. But today he has a whole raft of Tour players – including Ko and BMW PGA Championship winner Byeong-hun An – in his stable. And following the publication of a new instruction book, The A Swing, Leadbetter is back in the spotlight and happy to share his opinions on a range of subjects – from the state of the game worldwide to the state of Tiger’s swing…
How did it all start for you?
I turned pro when I was 18 and became an assistant – I did it the old-fashioned way. I played pretty well in tournaments in South Africa and the European Tour. But I always loved coaching and because of my perfectionist attitude I found that playing was more difficult than it should have been.
So you were a failed Tour player then?
It was very difficult for me to obtain consistency and I got frustrated, but teaching came easy to me. I always had good eye and can relate to people. The defining moment came at European Tour Q school at Foxhills. It was cold and windy, but I started birdie, eagle. I knew I was close and at the critical par-5 last I perfectly laid up with a pitch shot, finishing just eight feet from the hole. It couldn’t have been a more straightforward putt, but I left it an inch short and I missed my card by a shot!
That must have been a kick in the teeth?
I couldn’t decide what I was going to do and got a club job at Staverton Park near Northampton, a nice new club and I was able to create my own rules. In the early 1980s I made contact with Phil Ritson, a well known South African teacher back in the day who was teaching at Disney World in the US. I hooked up with him again and he got me a teaching job in Chicago and I was there for a couple of summers.
By now, the teaching bug had bitten you?
I then went to Florida and started the academy business and players like Nick Price and Denis Watson came over – they both won the World Series, which was huge at the time, so my coaching career took off… then I hooked up with Nick Faldo.
And the rest is history…
I had no plan – it just kind of happened. I started coaching when I was about 18 but to be honest with you I didn’t know what the hell I was doing!
Were you born to teach?
I really enjoy helping people and working things out. I have an analytical mind, but am also very creative too, so can come up with all sorts of drills and exercises. Faldo was considered too technical, but he was a very creative person who used technique to help him be creative. Working with him allowed me to be creative, whether using a beach ball between your legs or whatever. It sort of established me as a different kind of teacher who was mechanical to a point but also with a lot of feel and instinct in what I did.
What’s the key to teaching success?
It’s enabled me to work with a load of different players – technical or feel players. I can go in both directions. You can’t teach everybody the same way. It’s all about how you communicate the information and that’s the thing I’ve got better at.
Are you still enjoying it?
I love it. I travel all over the world and yes I do get a bit bombarded with people calling me for advice and sending me videos. But it doesn’t stress me out. If I responded to all the texts and e-mails I get I wouldn’t have time to do anything else.
What were the Faldo years like?
We went through a couple of years where everybody was mud slinging, questioning what the hell we were doing with his swing. But we stuck to our guns and it worked out great. It was just a shame the way it ended because we really had 13 years where we were pretty good friends and didn’t have a harsh word. He took to everything and you couldn’t wish for a better, more hardworking student. His personality when was playing wasn’t enjoyed by all, but he was a totally different person away from the course. He was so single-minded and had a very tight circle of people around him... he was the Tiger of his time. He did what he had to do and was so driven. I know I helped his career, but he more than helped mine, too.
How do you see the future of the game?
At the pro and top player level it’s very healthy, and golf in the Olympics next year has added to that. Tiger made a huge difference and I just hope Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth step up and take over his mantle. The problem is the masses – and if the masses aren’t interested in the game it will affect the elite level. We’ve got to find ways of getting more people into the game.
How do we achieve that?
We’ve got to make it more attractive and less time consuming. Get away from 18 holes if we have to and make do with six, nine or 12 holes or whatever so people can get out for a couple of hours and enjoy it. We’ve got to make it more family orientated and I believe the fastest area of growth in golf is TopGolf, which has really taken off in America – there are currently 12 up and running with another 15 on the drawing board. At the one in Tampa there is a three-hour wait at the weekends to get a game and 60 per cent of the players are non-golfers. But it’s a form of golf, a ten-pin bowling type approach to golf. It’s a couple of hours of great entertainment and you can play in jeans and tank tops.
So golf has to change with the times?
Monthly medals are not going to cut it with the younger generation. We need to create similar games to foursomes where you play with a partner, we need to make courses a little bit easier – you don’t want to be looking for balls all the time. Let’s have some fun golf: you don’t need rough and you don’t need bumpy greens where you’re three putting.
There’s no easy solutions though.
We just want golf to grow. Part of the allure of golf is that it still has a link to the old traditions where people were nice to each other and weren’t constantly on cell phones. On the other hand, when you’re talking about bringing the game into the 21st century, you’ve got to modernise.
How important is the role of golf coach?
The better the technique the better you play. That’s a given. If your technique is lousy, it’s too big a movement to have poor technique and expect to rectify it two inches before impact. It’s not going to happen. If you’re keen on playing better golf coaching is worthwhile – as long as it is simple. In my opinion, golfers should take an equal number of lessons on the long and short game as well as on-course playing lessons – strategy of the game is very important.
Which other coaches do you admire?
There are a lot of good coaches. One of my all-time favourites is John Jacobs, a genius in many respects: he went by what the ball was doing and was able to very quickly fix somebody from that. I learnt a lot from Phil Ritson, my original mentor. Butch Harmon does a great job. He works a bit on technique, but is more about the confidence he gives to players – I’d be hard pressed to see how Phil Mickelson’s swing has changed over the past 12 years. Pete Cowen is a fantastic coach and has done an amazing job over the years and then there’s younger coaches like Sean Foley in the US. To me, every coach has pluses and minuses and I’m no different. The goal has to be to learn as much as you can and teach it as simply as you can.
What’s your biggest achievement?
I’ve had a lot of successes, working with players who have won 20 majors while seven players have reached No. 1 in the world. But I’d have to say the work I did with Nick Faldo, because it was pioneering. It was tough but very rewarding in the end and set a precedent for what has happened since.
Do you think Tiger will win another major?
You may see flashes, but to be honest what we saw from Tiger for 12-13 years was amazing; nobody played to that level for that period of time. It was unbelievable, so to expect him to get back to that level... I don’t think there’s any hope. In fact, if he wins another major I think it would be a greater feat than what he’s already achieved. He’s been to the dark side in many respects. You’ve got to hand it to him though, because he’s still talking a good game. You never know with a guy like that. When at his best he probably had the best mind of anybody – ever – in the game and I think the problem is that bit has left him.
What advice would you give to Tiger?
Go and figure it out yourself. You have more than enough knowledge ‘to dig it out of the dirt yourself’, as Ben Hogan used to say. Forget cameras, launch monitors, biomechanics... Get back to your creative self and trust your innate ability.
How is your own game at the moment?
I’m playing a bit and still enjoy it, though I’ve been nursing a wrist injury for nine months. I’m due to have surgery on it but haven’t found the time to do it because it involves having my wrist in a cast for five months! Golf is a family affair: My wife Kelly plays on the LPGA Tour and of our three children, one is teaching in China and the other two are playing golf on University scholarships.
What are your hopes for the A Swing, your latest instruction book?
That it works its way into the fabric of golf instruction because I do think it needs a bit of a shake-up. It’s easy to pick up and I want to see people improve. It’s very easy to teach teachers to teach it in a short space of time: teachers can pick up on issues, why somebody isn’t synchronised, work on that and all of a sudden working on one or two things changes other stuff dramatically.
What does the ‘a’ mean?
Alternate. It’s not like it’s a radical departure from what I’ve always believed in – it’s an extension, an evolution of what I’ve done in the past. The A Swing advocates a much steeper backswing with the shaft and then getting on to a shallower downswing and if people can do that it would eliminate a lot of problems, particularly with golfers who slice, pull the ball and have an inconsistent angle of attack. It shallows up the angle of attack and gets the club releasing from the inside more, which helps to produce a draw.
Is it easy to understand?
Dead easy – the book is full of drills and little exercises. The one thing I wanted to do was incorporate a seven-minute practice plan. It’s all about repetition and creating a feel for what you’re doing when you go out and play… you’re not going to over-think it. It creates muscle memory; you will have a feel for what you’re doing and can do it in the back garden or in the lounge even. As long as you cover the basics, including good grip, and so long as you’re synchronised, you’ll create the A Swing… which is a lot better than the Z swing!