Golf: The sidekick as scapegoat

Faldo blames poor communication for the split from his coach. Leadbetter does not believe him. By Tim Glover
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The Independent Online
PERHAPS ONLY Nick Faldo could sack his coach with a brief note and then justify his decision by complaining of a "lack of communication". David Leadbetter is bemused by the reasons for his dismissal and saddened by the manner of its execution.

While Faldo was giving a press conference in Germany on Wednesday, Leadbetter was picking up the feedback at his base in Florida. "Things haven't been working out with David even though I've been busting my buns for a few months," Faldo explained. "David wasn't at the US PGA in Seattle, much to my surprise and I haven't spoken to him for weeks. He's been off doing his own thing."

This really hurt Leadbetter. "The reason I wasn't at the US PGA is that my father passed away. I had notified John Simpson [Faldo's manager] so there is no reason for Nick to be surprised. It's the only major I haven't attended in the last 13 years. What really sticks in my craw is the way it ended. Instead of a curt note he could have had a little chat. We've known each other long enough. I had no inkling this was going to happen."

In retrospect Leadbetter believes the split is based more on business reasons than the decline in Faldo's golfing fortunes. Backed by the Marriott Hotel Group, Faldo established a golf institute under his own name at the Grande Vista Hotel in Orlando, Florida, less than two years ago. The institute is only a short drive from Leadbetter's own golf centre at Lake Nona.

"Nick's in direct opposition to us," Leadbetter said, "yet I had no idea he was going into that line of business. He might have mentioned his plans to me. There was a lot of secretive stuff going on. Since the Faldo Institute opened it was noticeable that Nick hardly mentioned my name any more. I would imagine that Marriott would prefer he promoted their own establishment rather than give me publicity."

Faldo has replaced "fine tuning with Lead" with the unpronounceable Chip Koehlke, the head pro at his own academy, and they will spend more time in Europe. "Chip is a disciple of my methods and has read my books," Faldo said. "It was silly that I should be going elsewhere when I had my own tried and tested system all set up for me."

The highest profile partnership in golf began in 1985, when Faldo employed Leadbetter, once a struggling tour pro from Northampton, to rebuild his swing. Faldo was successful in Europe but felt he did not have the game to win a major. "When I first met him he had one of the prettiest swings in the game," Leadbetter said. "However, it concealed ugly faults that would never stand up under the ultimate pressure and Nick had to face the ultimate pressure because he wanted to be the best in the world. I warned him that he'd be risking the lot. It takes a brave man to come back and say 'throw the book at me'. He never doubted me despite umpteen unbelievers telling him he was making a big mistake."

They became so successful, winning three Open Championships and three Masters, that Faldo became the world No 1 and Leadbetter took on almost mystical status as a guru, spawning a huge industry in golf clinics, books and videos.

When Faldo won the last of his Masters titles in 1996, virtually destroying Greg Norman in the final round, Leadbetter was convinced he was on the verge of retirement. "He always swore to me that he would walk away from it all when he'd turned 40."

Faldo reached 40 last year and if he had won the Masters again he might have bowed out. Instead, paired with Tiger Woods at Augusta, he suffered the sort of indignity that Norman had experienced the year before. Woods spreadeagled the field and Faldo missed a tiny putt at the 18th in the second round to miss the cut by one.

By his own admission, Faldo can no longer putt, at least not with the sureness of touch, judgement and confidence that separates a champion from the also-rans. He has dropped 60 places in the world rankings, prompting the question, is Faldo finished?

"The swing thoughts on which David and I have been working have not helped," Faldo said. "I had to do something." Leadbetter's view is different. "It's not a technical thing. He's been putting like an idiot. He's got to get his putting back and he's got to get the ball into the hole. He's still got great golf in him. Mark O'Meara's no spring chicken and look what he's done. Then Hogan was at his best at 41. Nick has lost some of his focus and intensity. A lot of people have said to me that he's not the same."

Only 10 players, led by Jack Nicklaus, have won more majors than Faldo. After putting his trust in Leadbetter, there were other sea changes: his decision to leave his family, and the European tour, to settle in America and to sever his business relationship with IMG.

"It just hasn't happened for him on the US tour," Leadbetter said. "In Europe he was the king and when he visited America everybody looked up to him. Here was this god from overseas and he had an aura of invincibility. That is what made him favourite for the majors. When he came over here full-time he simply became one of the pack. He was never dominant.

"The other thing is that US tournaments are one big putting competition. Having lost his touch on the greens, it put more pressure on him. In Europe you can get lousy greens and use it as an excuse. In America you never get lousy greens. During the Open I mentioned that a return to Europe might be beneficial.

"In the past I had always managed to conjure something up for him and I have been racking my brains in an attempt to restore his confidence. He has a lot of things on his mind other than golf. People say he needs to relax to play well but that's never been his way. He's got to find something from inside."

Leadbetter thought Nick Price was the most talented player he had ever worked with and that Faldo was a model pupil. "Different things make players great. Nick [Faldo] didn't just work hard. He was driven. That's what made him. He is probably Britain's best golfer ever."

The most surprising thing is that the relationship lasted as long as it did. "At least it was longer than either of Nick's marriages," Leadbetter said. Most players employ coaches for a quick fix; some would not touch them with a barge pole. "I've never had a coach in my life," Lee Trevino remarked. "When I can find one who can beat me I'll listen."

Leadbetter said he had not "burned his bridges" with Faldo, but from the manner of their parting a reunion is out of the question. "I am on the dole queue now," Leadbetter joked. "Maybe I'll find another Nick Faldo."