David Leadbetter has been at the forefront of the golf coaching psyche for as long as we can probably remember. Or around the mid-80s depending on how old you are.
His work in carving out a place in history for England’s greatest golfer, Sir Nick Faldo, has helped him build a reputation around the world for being at the forefront of coaching some of the greatest players to play the modern game.
He could also arguably be credited with the development, if not creation, of the ‘tour coach’. A coach that isn’t just with a player for sporadic swing check-ups, but one that forms a key part of the athlete’s team and spends significant time with them both away and at tournaments.
At the 144th Open Championship at St Andrews, the PGAs of Europe caught up with David in his natural habitat – strolling the golfer-dense driving range of a major championship, checking in on his myriad of athletes’ competing that week. Where better to pick his brains about the past 30 years…
“Just the time flies by and you see a whole host of different players now and a new generation of young players…”
Leadbetter’s viewpoint has been one that is only shared with a handful of names in the coaching world – a behind-the-scenes look at what was once one of the sport’s best-kept secrets – the inner workings of a tour professional. A perspective that has enabled him to see the game evolve first hand:
“It’s gone by in a flash really…1990 was when obviously Nick Faldo won here and that was 25 year ago and obviously he had his little swansong here at St Andrews this week and it’s incredible really.
“Just the time flies by and you see a whole host of different players now and a new generation of young players. If you think just this week there’s five amateurs making the cut…it just shows the gap between the professionals and the amateurs is getting closer – we’ve got an amateur leading the tournament…it’s amazing really where the game’s come from and where…it’s going to go to.
“I guess it’s progress – you’ve got better athletes, better equipment – these players are looking like it’s a real job now, it’s a business – there’s always been somebody with a lot of talent to show up and play well and it was almost by happenstance that they were successful.
“But now it’s sort of a plan from a very young age where you know you’ve got junior academies all over the world, you’ve got players from a multitude of countries.”
“It’s really interesting to see how well trained these young players are and how focused they are…”
Leadbetter was very much a trailblazer and was not afraid of adopting new methods and technology in his work, regardless of how it might have looked to his contemporaries:
“It was rather the exception than the rule back in the day when players had coaches – I was sort of a phenomenon from the standpoint of I had a video camera and people were looking saying wow. Nick Faldo lead the way as far as creating better work habits shall we say and having a coach, looking at workouts and looking at nutrition, sports psychologists. Now you have teams of people around, like Jordan Spieth always refer to it as ‘we’ – ‘we are doing this and that’. A swing coach, sports psychologist, the fella that works with him on his physical training.
“Obviously when you’re talking about the amount of money that they’re playing for – Tiger Woods has been a big factor in this – it’s no wonder that you’re seeing people with talent that are pushed to the limit.
“It’s going to be interesting in years to come – one of the things that we’re seeing, especially in the women’s game, is how long careers last. There’s a lot more emphasis on how really putting the reps in at a young age – you’re seeing injuries with these young players that we haven’t seen in the past so that is a factor.
“Just look at Jordan Spieth who’s 21 and a whole host of young players stateside and also in Europe now and in the far east too, who are exceptional players at a much younger age through better coaching and all the rest of it. From things in the past it really is progress in many ways.
“It’s really interesting, looking at it from my perspective, to see how well trained these young players are and how focused they are. Golf is a game where there’s no team aspect, apart form the Ryder or Presidents Cups, but it really is a one-on-one situation and so there’s a tremendous amount of pressure on them to perform at the highest level.”
Whilst the elite and tour golfers have kept him busy for much of his career, Leadbetter is no stranger to teaching a range of golfers. He continues to coach all types of players himself, and, together with his small army of Leadbetter coaches and Academies, has many touch points with the sport across its many and varied ability levels.
This permeation across the sport and his inclusion of many PGA Professionals into his fold has again given him a perspective that few others can have really seen on the ground…
“I think the standard of coaches has definitely improved through the PGAs worldwide getting together with seminars and experts in their field talking to individuals.
“It’s interesting – we do live in an age of technology and all the aspects there are that we’re able to ascertain what’s going wrong with peoples’ swings. We can analyse to the nth degree – as I like to say in the old days when we didn’t have video cameras and it was just our eye and our instincts as teachers and coaches, it was just our opinion which was the main factor. These days we can actually prove how bad people are when we look at Trackman and we look at biomechanics and we can see all these numbers.
So the secret is still how to transmit that information to the average player in a simple fashion where they can out and play. Because we also have to remember that the issue here really is that although we have all this technology which in some ways makes things more complex, people have less time to play and practice than they ever have in the past so if anything you’ve actually got to get the message across in a more simpler fashion so people can have immediate improvement.
The old theories back in the day where you’ve got to work at it for six or nine months with a grip change and this and that and just be patient. But people aren’t patient these days they want it now and if they don’t get it from one source they’ll get it from another.
“I’m glad in many respects that I grew up in the era where we didn’t have the mod cons because you have to use your eyes, instincts and intuition to teach…”
“You can go on the Internet and there’s a million and one ways to fix things so that is a danger. I think it’s important from the teacher’s standpoint…I’m glad in many respects that I grew up in the era where we didn’t have the mod cons because you have to use your eyes, instincts and intuition to teach.
“Where I think a lot of young teachers unfortunately because of the advent of all this technology they tend to rely on that purely so that is a danger.
“But I think it’s nice to know that if you have this detailed knowledge as a teacher, to be able to put it across in a simpler fashion and having the knowledge of maybe not being a sports psychologist as such, but having a psychology approach where you can get people to clear their mind. Those are the things that need to be taught as well to players if they are going to fulfil their potential.
Leadbetter has also been known for his role in developing the golf coach into more of a commercial entity and could arguably be termed the first ‘branded’ golf coach having developed the Leadbetter brand around the globe with over 20 academies and selling millions of books and videos.
But he has also produced a number of theories or swing systems for golfers – most recently his ‘A Swing’ has been the focus of his attention and the development of this approach with his players.
“I’ve written a number of books through the years and instructional videos, and I thought about this for a long while and I really wanted to bring out something that was a little bit different and something that was hopefully a bit simpler.
So this book, ‘The A Swing’, which stands for ‘alternative’, is really an alternative way to swing the club from the standpoint of making a simpler backswing because that’s the area that I think most amateurs get confused by.
They spend so much time and energy trying to create a nice backswing they never really get into the issue of trying to make contact. If you think of cricket or tennis and everything’s about going forward, making contact, hitting the ball towards a target. And yet in golf it’s almost an after-thought – ‘oh yeah look, the ball went down the middle of the fairway.’
I wanted to bring this out and it’s a fairly simple approach and really it’s been out in the States for five weeks now and the feedback has been really good, from people at all levels from beginner to tour level. I’ve got 20 test students and it’s been a couple of years in the making shall we say.
“The essence of this ‘A Swing’ is really helping people to synchronise their body parts – essentially synchronising your arm swing with the body rotation because I think that’s where people really have an issue. If you got someone to do a mini pivot drill without a club, just fold their arms and put the club behind their shoulders or hips or one of the many variations of a pivot drill, you could get them to make a pretty reasonable movement in a very short space of time. But yet you put a club in their hand and that looks nothing like it – it’s almost as if the body is reacting to where the club is – so out of sync with the swing.
‘Synchronisation to me is a big word, regardless of whether you use the ‘A Swing’ or whatever you use. To me when players are really on song, and even amateurs, it’s as if the timing of the swing if you will, where the clubhead is relative to where the body is, you know they really match up well.
“I think Tiger Woods was a perfect example of being out of sync, especially when he gets on the first tee and the first tee shot is inevitably a push shot, and it’s a little bit nervous and the synchronisation is an issue.
“This book’s been well received as I say, there’s some simple drills, and the thing about it is it’s not really a method, I would like to call it an organic approach because it doesn’t have to be perfect – there is a model that you can work towards, but as we all know what you work towards and what you achieve can be two different things.”
“That’s the great thing about this game, you continue learning…and if you’re not learning then you’re going backwards instead of forwards…”
“I could keep doing what I’ve done, which has been fine and some of the stuff I taught back in the nineties is still a factor in my philosophy shall we say. But if you remember the old mobile telephones, those big clunking things, compared now to the iPhone, there’s a big difference.
“It would be strange to say you haven’t gone forward or had any sort of progress in your philosophy or your outlook. So I would say essentially a lot of it is very much based on my original thoughts of the dog wagging the tail syndrome where I really believe the bigger parts, certainly you’ve got to understand how the hands and arms work, but your power, your balance comes very much from how your torso moves and so I haven’t really changed in that so I haven’t really had an epiphany and said ‘ok, whatever I’ve taught the last 40-odd years has been wrong’, because it’s a continual learning process.”
So with this experience and knowledge constantly building up, where does Leadbetter think coaching is going in the future…?
“I think that in many respects golf instruction needs a little bit of a shake-up, the instructional business shall we say.
“The thing I think we’re really got to be careful of in this day and age is that we don’t over complicate things for the masses. When talking with tour players, they can get into it to a certain extent so far as ground force pressure and how exactly what is taking place with the angle of attack and the track, the flush squareness of contact. But the average amateur really probably couldn’t give a hoot, it’s like ‘hey just show me how to hit the ball more consistently, I want to lose fewer balls, have more fun,’ and if we can do that to people there’s an excellent chance of people staying in the game and more people getting into the game.”