Golf / 123rd Open: Rhythm doctor on call: Three days in the life of a golfing guru, ironing out the fluctuations in the game of a former champion - Robert Green talks to the teacher who is close to his students but keeps his distance

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The Independent Online
HE SIGNS his tenth autograph in five minutes. 'I get more requests in Britain than in America,' he says. It may not sound many for a tour professional, but it is a lot more than most teaching professionals are accustomed to receiving.

David Leadbetter, golf's most celebrated tutor, reckons he has seen at least a part of perhaps a hundred rounds that Nick Faldo has played in the past five years. In that respect, The Open at Turnberry is just another week at the office, and when a client has an early tee-off time, it means an early start for Leadbetter, too. 'When I'm watching a player on the course, I'm looking for a pattern,' Leadbetter says. 'In competition, they tend to repeat the same mistakes. For example, when he's playing into the wind, Nick tends to get a little narrow in his swing.'

First notorious as the villain who allegedly ruined Faldo's game, and latterly famous as the savant who helped construct the most repetitive golf swing since Ben Hogan's, Leadbetter may not know Faldo's game better than the man himself, but Faldo frequently - and generously - acknowledges that he could not have achieved what he has without Leadbetter. That includes five major championships between 1987 and 1992. It also comprises only three victories since the start of 1993. Faldo's main problem lately has been his putting. 'The rhythm of his stroke has been getting too short, a bit jabby,' Leadbetter says. 'Because the greens here are on the slow side, that means he has to hit at the ball rather than stroke it.

'The rest of his game is in good shape,' Leadbetter continues. 'At the moment, he is probably swinging better than when he won the majority of his five majors. But he isn't putting as well as he can and he hasn't got the momentum.

'On Thursday he made no more than a handful of poor swings, but they were into the wind and he was punished for them. He was swinging far better than Ernie Els (with whom he played), but Ernie shot 69 and Nick had 75. That can happen when things aren't going for you. On the other hand, Nick Price has won three times this year and he isn't swinging anything like his best.' Price and Els, like Bernhard Langer and many more of the combatants at Turnberry, are also Leadbetter men.

Faldo arrived at the course on Friday in unpropitious circumstances. On Thursday he had shot 75, courtesy of playing the wrong ball and running up an eight at the 17th. After that, he and Leadbetter had retired to the range until 7.30.

By 7.50 on Friday morning, he was back hitting balls, an exercise he pursued with his customary diligence for 40 minutes. Some days he hits the odd-numbered irons, the next day the evens. Friday was an odd day. He finished off with a few three-woods and drivers and then a few minutes on the practice green. Sometimes he plays the first couple of holes on the range, hitting the clubs he expects to hit there, in order. He did not do that on Friday, but the way he played the first hole did not suggest it was a serious omission. A tee shot into the centre of the fairway was followed by an approach to five feet. 'This is an important putt for Nick,' Leadbetter says. Like a lot of important putts recently, it missed, catching the edge of the cup and staying out.

The putter remained a problem yesterday as Faldo returned a par 70. 'You just have to keep plugging away,' he says. The 'breakthrough' on Friday came at the sixth, where he saved par from 18 feet. At the eighth, he holed from eight feet for his first birdie of the championship. Three more followed, including consecutive ones to complete a bogey-free round of 66. His goal had been a 65. Leadbetter's target for him had been 64, 'but he's a mean bugger,' Faldo says. Either way, the lesson had been learned.

'Once the player is out on the course,' Leadbetter says, 'you don't want him to be thinking about technique. You want him to have a feeling for his swing, a sensation of what he is trying to do, rather than being preoccupied with the details.'

Under the Rules of Golf, a player in competition is prohibited from seeking advice or assistance from anyone other than his caddie, but that does not prevent a teacher suggesting a word or phrase to the caddie that might usefully be uttered as a reminder if there is a danger of things going wrong.

'Nick Price sometimes fails to make a full backswing, and since his swing is a quick one anyway, that can be damaging,' Leadbetter says. If that error creeps into Price's swing, his caddie, Squeeky, will just say the word 'Complete'. Faldo has no such word key at present, but it has been known.

On the other hand, sometimes it's best if his clients do not know he is in the offing. 'Often I will watch David Frost from a distance,' he says. 'If he sees me, he sometimes gets too conscious of his swing, wondering what I'm thinking about it.'

Despite that aversion of one pupil, Leadbetter feels that if the rules permitted it, an astute teacher could help an empathetic player during the round. 'A good coach might be able to knock a shot or two off his player's score by identifying a fault, but he would have to be careful not to clutter his mind with technical thoughts.'

Faldo has been maligned for meddling with his action when it has looked enviable and the results it has generated been excellent. But he treats the mechanics of the swing as almost an intellectual pursuit, even though he thoroughly appreciates that perfection in golf is not so much an elusive dream as a tantalising ambition that will inevitably be thwarted.

'He's always looking to improve,' Leadbetter says. 'That's why he's always tinkering with his game. He has been in a down mode lately but he's such a good player that he won't be down for long.' Two more autograph hunters come into his office, and Leadbetter flourishes his pen again. Team Faldo remains a compelling attraction.

(Photograph omitted)

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