Leadbetter stays ahead of the game

Golf's No 1 guru reveals the secrets of his phenomenal success to Richard Edmondson
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Ian Baker-Finch is an exception. As he towed round a gallery with a liking for the macabre at St Andrews in July, the Australian's horrible deterioration picked away at the invincibility of David Leadbetter, the sport's foremost coach.

Baker-Finch is a rarity in golf, a man taught by Leadbetter and a man going backwards. His slide into the crevasse has coincided with a season of calm for the high-profile Leadbetter clients - Nick Faldo, Nick Price and Ernie Els - and put a confident note into the voices of those who like to criticise the guru.

One Ryder Cup-winning player has already suggested that Leadbetter will be no force within the game in a decade's time, while others are emerging from the foxholes with the practised line that his methods are too eccentric, his players too robotic.

Leadbetter himself hears these noises. "It's only human that people look at what you're doing and have their own ideas about it," he said on a recent visit to Britain to promote his new book. "But I don't let that worry me because I just enjoy what I do. You can't make everyone happy all the time, but I work with so many players that hopefully one of them is going to do well."

Els's success in last month's World Matchplay was a fillip for the camp and at Oakhill in September he should have carried a flag that was a reversible Stars and Stripes and EC pennant, such was his involvement with players on both sides during the Ryder Cup. But then the Sussex-born man with the tones of Ian Smith always has a good chance of a vicarious victory.

Leadbetter has made his name partly for the peculiarity of his system, for the little box of tricks he likes to carry around with him. He has made Faldo practise while wearing water wings, asked the great man to take his shoes off and play, and also employed a series of harnesses that appear to have come from a Spanish Inquisition catalogue. Further teaching aids look to have been scooped up after a quick dash into the garage.

"I've used footballs between people's arms and beach balls between their knees," he said. "I've had them swinging a mop or rubber tubing with a weight on the end to get a feeling of whip in the swing."

Sadly, nothing can help the bathetic Baker-Finch who, just four years after an Open victory at Birkdale, makes his part of the golf course a hard-hat area. "In basic terms, he has now got the yips with the driver," Leadbetter said. "He tells me that when he stands up there he has a mental image of disaster. Half-way down the swing a picture comes into his mind that he'll either hit it out of bounds or even miss it altogether."

Price's mind has been full of contracts and deals for much of this season, which is Leadbetter's reasoning for this protege's lack of impact in the majors, while the teacher believes his prize pupil, Faldo, will soon be on top of the rostrum again. "I don't know why he hasn't won more tournaments this year, but it is going to happen," Leadbetter said. "It's a bit like asking why didn't it rain very much this summer. We all know it's going to happen again one day and you can also sense Nick Faldo's drought will not continue for much longer."

Like Mark McCormack, who believes he can learn more from a man in a single round of golf than 100 business meetings, Leadbetter considers the golf course is a big, alfresco confessional, where each player gives himself away. "Swings match personalities to a large extent," he said. "Ernie has a long, flowing lazy swing, which is just like him; Nick Price has a twisted, compact swing, which is how he is, an aggressive, snappy fellow who thinks quickly and speaks quickly; and Nick Faldo has always been a grinder and he's an analytical person, though he is not as technical as some people seem to make out."

Leadbetter's golfing technique must therefore be fluent and well-practised. He has a communicator's fluidity with words, and also the neat conversational stratagem of dropping in people's christian names. "That's right, Sybil," he told listeners to Ruscoe On Five from Broadcasting House in London, and then, a quick walk across Portland Place to the Langham Hilton and a light snack later, he insisted "that's a very good question, Richard".

With his books, videos, schools and retreats - two-day courses which cost $3,500 (pounds 2,400) a man - all of which he calls "the marketing stuff", David Leadbetter, who once nearly became an accountant, probably needs a team from that profession to look after his affairs. He maintains, however, he does his job not principally for material gain but for the satisfaction of improving a golfer, be it the world No 1 or the chap who once startled him in an airport toilet with the suggestion that Leadbetter was the perfect man "to give him a hand".

"Analysing the golf swing is a bit like being a detective," he said. "You have the case in front of you and you have to solve the mystery." While Baker-Finch may now perform as though he has been programmed by Clouseau, there are still plenty of cases to support the belief that David Leadbetter is the best in his field.

n David Leadbetter's Lessons From The Golf Greats. Collins Willow pounds 16.99.