Golf: Life after Faldo is fruitful for `Lead'

Richard Edmondson takes a lesson from the coach who moulded a six-time major winner but learned of his sacking by post
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The Independent Online
A TERRIBLE thought washes over you as David Leadbetter approaches to start his golf lesson. You know this is it. The last chance saloon. If "Lead", the King of the Swing, the maker of champions, cannot improve your golf then the time has come to admit defeat. The time has come to include your clubs in the car boot sale. This exercise may not have been a 10-foot putt for a Major, but it was real golfing pressure.

"A bit of a mixed bag there," was David's initial assessment as my first few shots were thrashed on their way. Some cheek, I thought, I hold the course record at Muswell Hill (187). It started getting a bit much to take. "Move your right foot here," Leadbetter said rather cruelly from behind his Ray-Bans. "Your head needs to be a bit over. Your right leg is locked. The backswing is too extravagant. And you're not making a V." No, but I felt like it.

There was comfort to be taken in the fact that I was hitting the ball almost as far as the player on an adjacent practice tee. Carlton Television were filming the golfer I now know to be George Bender from Sidcup and I asked why. They said it was because he was six years old. I thought he looked at least eight.

Wee George had better start saving his pocket-money if he wants to stay ahead of me. Tuition at the new David Leadbetter Golf Academy at the East Sussex National, near Uckfield, does not come cheap. There are now 17 DLGAs spanning the globe. The East Sussex, which offers two courses, the East and West, carved out of 500 acres of Sussex downland, is the headquarters for seven European centres. Then there are sites in the United States, the Caribbean and Asia.

Each is adjoined to a course of some beauty. Each benefits from the latest technology in computer analysis. And each, of course, bears the magical David Leadbetter name. And he is not about to give his secrets away.

The great man is available himself to sheikhs, rajahs and captains of industry, but at the East Sussex you can secure the services of one of his lieutenants for pounds 60 an hour. For pounds 465 he is yours for the day.

Alternatively, there are three-night residential courses, during which you get your B&B at the neighbouring Horsted Place Hotel. Before its conversion to an admittedly marvellous hotel, house guests at the Horsted included the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh. Even they may have blanched at the course's pounds 885 tariff.

This is not to say that affiliation to Leadbetter is without benefit. When Ernie Els, Greg Norman and Nick Price are among his disciples you almost feel duty-bound to improve yourself. And golf, after all, is played principally in the mind.

"Lead" himself has an easy, languid manner and, above all, a great gift for suppressing laughter. When I sieved through his kind words later the sentiment seemed to suggest starting all over again, but at least I managed to get round the West course with my new swing.

There was this awful feeling, though, that the ball was actually landing in the same place it would have done anyway, but at least I was arriving in nests, bogs and car parks differently. At least it was failure with panache. Perhaps I won't send him that curt letter after all.

This, however, was not a temptation which eluded Nick Faldo last autumn. After almost a decade and a half together, and six Majors, Faldo dropped his celebrated tutor by post. Leadbetter likes to pride himself on technique, and still smarts at the manner of the parting. "I was disappointed with the way it ended," he says. "I understand that relationships come to an end, and we had a great run over a long time. He was certainly great for my career and I like to think I was good for his. But to just get a letter through the post at the end of it upset me more than anything else. I thought we were pretty good friends."

And while Leadbetter may have been sacked, his career paradoxically continues to flourish as his former employer is struggling to arrest freefall. While the Golf Academies sprout around the globe, Faldo's influence on the golfing planet becomes incrementally smaller. There are no more tournament victories, no more Ryder Cups.

It is certainly true that Faldo has enriched Leadbetter. It was largely his validation which led club golfers to the books, videos and courses of the teacher. And there seems no personal animosity from Leadbetter, rather a feeling that his sacred tenets have been the subject of treachery. "The amazing thing for me was that Nick put his golf swing in the hands of someone who I felt knew very little about it," Leadbetters says. "That fella from this Institute in Orlando, Chip Koehlke. For the last year he has played horribly and almost abandoned everything we've worked on over the years. Let's face it, that was good enough to win him six Majors and made him the most feared player in the world.

"The first comment I heard when he started working with this other fella was: "Oh, Chip and I have changed everything". How can you change everything? That's like a high handicapper talking. We started when he was still relatively young and remodelled his swing and technique and developed patterns. He had one of the most sound techniques in the world. People would just come and watch him practising to see how he did it."

Leadbetter picked up his P45 at the same time as Brenna Cepelak, Faldo's former girlfriend. The coach believes the two events are not unconnected. "He had a lot going on in his life and I'm sure there was a lot more to it than golf that lead to him to playing poorly," he says. "You've got to have your mind in the right area and be able to focus.

"He seems to have regained his intensity now, but he lost that for quite a while. Before Augusta last year I had a tour player down, Brandel Chamblee, and he was amazed by Nick because he's heard all these stories about him practising. In the week prior to Augusta Nick had his kids out there and he came out for just two one-hour sessions in the whole week prior to the tournament. That's not like Nick. Normally you'd find him out there hitting balls for three or four hours a day. But the intensity just wasn't there. You could see that something had changed with him.

"Nick has always thrived on hard work and perfecting shots that other players couldn't hit. But if you lose just a little bit of that intensity and you don't put the time in you start slipping. And maybe going to America [permanently] was not the best thing for him anyway. When he first went over to play there it was in spurts, the Majors and a couple of tournaments around them. He went over there with an incredible aura about him. But when he was in the States full time he lost that mystique. People got used to beating him.

"If you look at his regular tour record in the United States it's not that good. He certainly didn't dominate like Nick Price, Greg Norman or David Duval have done. He was kingpin here in Europe for so long but he went over there and became just one of the boys."

Faldo, though, is no longer one of Leadbetter's boys. Their split has not been the slightest bit detrimental to the guru's fortunes and he can afford to be magnanimous about his old charge. "I hope he does regain some of his former glories," the tutor says. "He's been great for golf and the best British golfer ever. A lot of people would like to see him get back but it does get tougher as you get older. I'd like to see him get back."

I'm younger than Faldo and I don't find golf any tougher than it has ever been. But I could tell that David Leadbetter was less confident about getting me back. In fact, he did not seem that hopeful about getting me anywhere in the first place.

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