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Legends

Life Lessons: David Leadbetter is here to help your game

The world-renowned instructor on the Faldo years, the magic of Seve, illegal drivers for amateurs, why a World Tour is overdue, the curse of a dodgy grip and the opening of his latest academy at JA The Resort Golf Course.

with Kent Gray
My grandfather was an osteopath and he was blind. He had a really good feel for what he did and I don’t know whether some of that has been handed down to me but my instincts are really good. Even back in the day before biomechanics was fashionable, I had an instinct about how the body should work so I was lucky in that respect. I do things that are very much off the cuff, it’s not a strict technique from a purist standpoint. It’s instinct with me.

• • •

I’ve learned an awful lot about how the body works and how the mind works but in a sense, it hasn’t changed a tremendous amount [his coaching philosophy]. I wrote a book called ‘The Golf Swing’ in 1989 and if I look at that book, 95 per cent if it is what we do today. The wrapping may be a little different, and I can get the message across quicker.

• • •

When I started working with Faldo, he said ‘how long do you think this is going to take’ and I said, ‘well, you want to put your trust in me and you really want to do what you’re going to do, it’s going to take a couple of years’ and we probably weren’t too far off that, it was probably a month off two years. You couldn’t do that today. Today there’s too much riding on it, whether it be top 50, sponsors or whatever.

• • •

Nick was my greatest student because of the fact, he and I went at it together, he had a goal, I had a goal, we were driven and the energy levels were such that we knew that he was going to get it somehow, in same shape or form. We had no doubt and he stuck at it through hell and high water.

• • •

Peter Dazeley/Getty Images
Nick Faldo working with Leadbetter during the Suntory World Match Play Championship on the West Course at The Wentworth Club in October, 1989.

It was very special. It gave me a lot of credibilities. My career took off from that point because for the longest period of time, it was who is this idiot messing up our golden boy, especially from the U.K. and then we started winning and it was like, well maybe he knows something, And Nick was very generous in his praise and it was like we were a team, it was Faldo and Leds type of thing. You never know, it’s a bit of a mystery this game and who knows, if he hadn’t of one his first major at Muirfield in ’87, he mightn’t have won any. But that gave him the impetus to go on and really be a dominant player of his era.

• • •

A lot of it with amateurs is a pure, poor strategy. Not realising they’re limited to a certain extent, they’re not tour players. If you’re an 18 handicapper, your par is really 90, it’s not 72 and people play it as if they’re a scratch player. I’ve got to hit the fairway here and I’ve got to hit the green there and it’s like, no you don’t. Par-3s are par-4s, par-4s are par-5s and par-5s are par-6s if you look at it in simple terms. So I think it is playing within yourself, playing smart, not doing things that you are probably incapable of even if you might have done it on occasions. Playing the odds and learning to relax and realising golf is fun, it’s not meant to be that serious.

• • •

Some amateurs take it so seriously and they get frustrated and as soon as you get frustrated you get tight and as soon as you get tight tension creeps in there, you can’t swing anyway. How many times do you go ‘this is hopeless, now I’m just going to hit the ball’ and they just start playing well because they’ve actually let go.

• • •

Let your instincts come out. Most people have played other sports and have good instincts but they don’t let their instincts come into play because they’re trying so hard to control the situation. You can’t be a control freak playing golf.

• • •

Fortunately, that’s what keeps us in business, all the mistakes amateurs make. For starters, 90 per cent of amateur golfers grips the club incorrectly. Any golfer that wears a hole out in their glove, you can be certain that is their issue. And from there, steams a whole host of errors. One of my favourite sayings, which Ben Hogan coined the phrase many a year ago, is ‘good golf begins with a good grip”.

Photograph by Naveed Suraj

• • •

A clubs weights a pound or a half a kilo, whatever measurement you want to use. It’s not like a sledgehammer but you look at most people and they’re over-hitting it. You can see their veins are popping. Whose swing do people love? It’s Ernie Els. Why? Because it looks free, it looks flowing. Another one of my pet sayings…swing easy, hit hard instead of gripping it like you are strangling a snake.

• • •

We’ve always wanted to have an academy in Dubai and my association with Rafa Cabrera Bello, with his attachment here, it seemed to make sense. It’s a lovely little facility this [JA The Resort]. Obviously, there are a lot of top-notch courses here but this is …I like the practice area, the management is great, the hotels are close and it’s a little away from the maddening crowds so to speak so when you’re here, you’re here. They had an up and functioning academy with Stuart Fee here and we’ve just added something to what they already offer. It’s an amenity really that we’re offering the hotel guests and we’ve got some big plans for starting the Leadbetter kids program.

• • •

I’ve been doing this for a long time now and we’ve got certain protocols that we follow that enable us to get to the root cause of the problem in a very short space of time. Golf is a game where if you do follow some basics, get your technique down, no matter your age, you can improve. As I like to say, the golf ball doesn’t know how old you are.

• • •

I think if you are going to play golf, you should do it to the best of your ability and so there is a distinct lack of understanding about how you can play this game at a higher level and fulfil your potential. Our goal is to help people really understand their own game and give them a plan to improve as well. It’s an all-encompassing look. We’re not going to guarantee you in a week you’re going to be ready for the tour but they will certainly have a really good understanding. Not to belittle any other golf academy, there’s a lot of good coaches around, but I’ve been doing this for a long time and this is our 41st  academy that we’re opening and we’ve got proven success.

• • •

I wouldn’t say it’s a classic swing but I worked with him for a year and one of my favourites was Seve Ballesteros because you never knew what he was going to do. His ability to fashion a score from where he hit it was unbelievable. If you we just looking at a swing, you’d say ‘I love Adam Scott’s swing’, I love Rafa’s swing or I love Ernie’s swing’. But you look at a Seve…oh, this guy. Just his short game, the imagination. I got to see him when he was younger too and he’d hit it 320 into the next fairway and hit the next one to two feet, it was like…wow.

• • •

Greg Norman was another. Sure people would love to watch a Faldo because he was monotonously boring and just hit fairways and hit greens and he was like a machine. But with Greg Norman, he’d stand up there and he’d just smash it 300 with the old club down the middle, towering three irons. Those were the sort of charismatic players, they were definitely fun to watch.

• • •

I don’t think there was ever a finer player in his peak than Tiger. Look, there’s a case for everybody, Nicklaus, Watson, you name it, Johnny Miller hitting flags but obviously Tiger, for those 12 years, nobody could play this game better, that’s for sure.

• • •

I would get you hitting very few balls in the beginning if I had a blank canvas to teach an amateur. You want to learn the technique. Ultimately you learn the technique and then you make the swing and let the ball get in the way.

• • •

I see the game being very healthy in certain areas and unhealthy in others. It’s healthy at the top level and the junior level, it’s the middle area where it’s unhealthy where people are playing less golf. Golf’s time consuming and all these rules and regulations about equipment for amateurs are ridiculous. Hey, why not have illegal drivers that hit the ball further than normal? If they can hit one 280 yards if their longest drive ever is 250, how about it? That’s going to bring people back into the game.

Photograph by Naveed Suraj

• • •

They’ve got to bring in some innovations and make it exciting. Make it more of a World Tour too. There are too many tournaments out there that are…who cares. I mean the KLM Open or the Milwaukee Open…I mean who knows who won it? They need to have the top-notch players playing together more regularly. Just having the majors and four WGC events is not enough, there should be 20 events these guys are playing in and, hey, if you aspire to get into those events, the top 75 or whatever, then great.

• • •

My hero because I grew up in southern Africa was Gary Player and I still have a great relationship with him. Here’s a guy who didn’t have the physical skills of a Jack Nicklaus but just though self-determination and guts got to where he is. Yeah, he comes over a little strong at times but just the fact the guy is in his early 80s now and acts like he’s 25…still working out. He doesn’t only talk the talk, he walks the walk.

I don’t play that much now. I still enjoy playing but I’ve had a wrist injury and a foot injury and as you get older… My daughter works for Golf Digest in New York in the digital department and my eldest son teaches for us in China and my youngest just left university and he’s just turned pro and he’s going to give it a go and so we’ll see how he goes. So I enjoy playing with him and my wife, we play periodically, she was a very good player on tour for a number of years so it’s in the blood. I do miss playing but I’m pretty happy with my stock in life.   

• • •

The win that really stands out for me, because he’s such a good friend of mine, we grew up playing together, was Nick Price when he won the open at Turnberry in ‘94. He holed a tram liner across the green on 17 against Jesper Parnevik at the time, so that was great because he always wanted to win an Open. He didn’t actually have the ideal game for the Open but it was his week.

• • •

Nick’s one of those players we were constantly trying to get his stance wider so he had a better base. As the week went on his feet got narrower and narrower and I told him, geez if this tournament goes to Monday you’re going to be playing with your feet crossed. Get those damn feet wider, would you!

• • •

I’ve known Raf [Rafa Cabrera Bello] since he was 15. He used to play junior golf with my eldest son. It was probably six years ago now when he called me and he said ‘I don’t really think I reaching my potential’ even though I think he’s won the Austrian Open. He was really a good player, really determined and getting better in every area, whether it be his fitness, his nutrition or the mental side. It was quite interesting because in the start he was a little bit reluctant, he’s got a very strong mind and he’s only going to do what he wants to do so there was quite a bit of persuasion needed.

• • •

He’s always had this great rhythm but it covered up a lot of ills in his swing. It was fairly long, it was pretty loose and a lot relied on his timing. Over the years we’ve got his swing way more functional, efficient, shorter and he’s a really good ball striker now. His short game is getting better, that’s one thing we’ve worked on quite hard as well, a variety of shots around a green.

• • •

He’s a little bit of a perfectionist and that’s one thing that can hold a player back because this game, I always say the greats have two things in common, they handle adversity well and have short memories. You can’t let that stuff linger. He’s working at that, he knows he’s a little angry and his expectations are pretty high. Golf is so much between the ears so if you get that bit sorted out and tidy the rest and become a little more consistent with his putting…he’s got all the ingredients. • • •

I honestly feel his best golf is before him. He’s at a good age, 33-34, so for the next three, to four years I think it’s going to be his window where he really steps out and shows what he’s capable of.

 

Kent Gray

Editor of Golf Digest Middle East. Has written about golf since 1989 and owned a suspect short game even longer.

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