Profile: The Mr Masterclass of golf

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The Independent Online
IF YOU watch Nick Faldo in practice prior to a major golf championship, you will soon notice David Leadbetter, a tall man with a clipped voice and a quiet yet authoritative manner who appears to be exerting considerable influence on the proceedings. He is dressed like a professional golfer: short-sleeved shirt, plain trousers and golf shoes. When it's hot, as it was in St Louis for last weekend's US PGA Championship, Leadbetter will be wearing a wide- brimmed straw hat and dark glasses secured around his neck by a string.

While Faldo prepares to hit a golf ball, Leadbetter takes up station a few feet away. He stands with his legs wide apart, as if bracing himself to withstand some sudden burst of wind, and folds his arms. For a moment his face is impassive. He could be an art lover looking at a Picasso or a painter standing back from his easel to assess his work.

Every so often he will step forward and say something quietly. He might touch Faldo's right elbow, adjust the position of Faldo's right hip, move Faldo's left shoulder almost imperceptibly. Then he will step back and watch as Faldo strikes another ball towards its target.

Leadbetter had a serious conversation with Faldo for the first time when they met at a tournament in South Africa in December 1984. Leadbetter was a relatively unheralded teaching professional in Florida. Faldo, despite being the leading player in Europe the previous year, wanted to become the world's best.

The eight years since this meeting have been good to them. Using techniques developed and taught to him by Leadbetter, Faldo is now No 1 in the world, winning five major victories starting in July 1987. No other player has won more than two in this time.

With Faldo as his client and best possible advertisement, Leadbetter has become the pre- eminent golf teacher. From Seve Ballesteros to Tom Watson there is hardly a leading golfer who has not asked Leadbetter for help at one time or another. One of his first pupils was Nick Price, who won the US PGA championship in last Sunday. Faldo finished second.

It is a fact of life that teachers are made by their pupils, despite the opposite appearing to be the case. Who would have heard of Jack Grout if it were not for Jack Nicklaus, his prodigiously gifted pupil at the Scioto Country Club in Columbus, Ohio? In time, Jack Nicklaus became the greatest golfer ever, and he never forgot the debt he owed to Grout. When Grout died in 1989, Nicklaus said: 'Jack was a friend to everybody. I don't think he had an enemy in the world. He was part of the family. We all loved him. Farewell, my teacher and my guide.'

Similarly, the name of Stewart Maiden only rang around the world 70 years ago because it was he who first taught a six-year-old, tousle- headed boy at the East Lake golf club in suburban Atlanta, in Georgia. In 1930, that boy, by now 28, set a record that will never be equalled when he won the Amateur and Open championships of Britain and the US in one dizzy summer. Bobby Jones's feat became known as the Impregnable Quadrilateral and was the forerunner of the modern-day Grand Slam.

In the matter of fame, however, Leadbetter is giving Faldo a run for his money. At championships in the United States, Leadbetter receives almost as much recognition as Faldo. Spectators thrust their programmes at him as he hurries between green and tee. 'Leadbetter, sign this,' they demand. He does as he is told.

Walking behind the ropes while following one of his players, Leadbetter was startled when a man leapt in front of him, assumed the position of a golfer addressing the ball, and said: 'David, how does this look?' 'Great,' Leadbetter replied. 'You should be on the tour.'

He recently graced the covers of Golf Digest in the US and Golf World in Britain, the leading golf magazines, certainly the first teacher ever to do that. At the US PGA championship he was commentating for the Turner Broadcasting System television network. Last week he flew to Japan to give clinics, part of a contract he has with Dunlop in Japan. He has teaching schools bearing his name around the world. His two instructional videos are among the all-time best-sellers, and his first book, The Golf Swing, which has been printed in six languages, has sold more than 250,000 copies world-wide.

These days Leadbetter can't lose, seemingly. His life is a helter-skelter round of travelling. In return, everything he touches turns to gold, though at the the cost of some home life. He and his wife Kelly, a competitor on the women's tour in the US, have one son, Andrew, and are expecting a second child in two months.

If this suggests a man who is stretched to the tension of piano wire, drawn in one direction by the need to attend to Faldo's errant iron play or Watson's flinches on the putting green, and the other by his television or book demands, then that is wrong. Leadbetter remains the same purveyor of slightly chauvinist stories and practical jokes he always was. He is easy to talk to, apparently unaffected by his recent success. Perhaps it is because he is a rotten time-keeper. 'There's Eastern, Central, Pacific, Rocky Mountain and God knows how many other time zones in the US,' John Huggan, Leadbetter's collaborator on The Golf Swing, says. 'And then there's Leadbetter time. He's always late.'

Leadbetter was born in England in June 1952 and brought up in Zimbabwe where the family moved when he was young. For a while he tried to compete as a professional on the European Tour. He couldn't cut it. His analytical mind, soon to become a source of strength, condemned him to endless analyses of his own swing and its multitude of moving parts instead of learning how to become a better player. Once other players started turning to him for advice his move to teaching was inevitable.

Leadbetter bases his teaching methods on the fact that no two players are identical. 'You can't just say there is only one way to do it' he says. 'You've got to blend. A guy like Scott Hoch has an idiosyncratic swing, whereas Nick Faldo came to me with a very complex swing. You tailor your instruction to the player.'

Nevertheless, he has his basic beliefs about the golf swing, and in this he is like many other teachers. John Jacobs declares that the flight of the ball reveals how it was struck. Sir Henry Cotton swore by the importance of the hands and encouraged his pupils to attack a car tyre with a club, rapping it firmly until their forearms screamed with pain. Bob Torrance, Sam's father, swears that the legs are the engine of the swing.

Leadbetter's litany is that golf is a game not of the hands but of muscles, and that big muscles are more important than than the smaller ones. 'He believes that the smaller muscles are less reliable under pressure,' Huggan, who is Golf Digest's instruction editor, says. 'A golfer who uses the small muscles of his hands a lot might look terrific on the practice ground but when it comes down to the closing holes of a championship it's a different matter.'

Faldo, pre- and post-Leadbetter, is a perfect example of his teacher's theories. The Englishman had a wonderfully rhythmical, if somewhat loose and sloppy swing when he first went to Leadbetter. It looked good but with it Faldo hit the ball high so he had less control than he wanted in a wind, and it was always liable to cave in under pressure, as it had done in two of the major tournaments in 1984. On a scale of one to 10 Leadbetter rated it no better than six.

Faldo was ordered to rebuild his swing, concentrating more on turning the big muscles of his torso. 'The first three or four feet of Faldo's back-swing these days are a combination of hand and body movements,' Huggan, a scratch golfer, notes. 'Thereafter the body alone takes the club to the top of the back-swing. This means there is a smaller margin for error than there was before, and this is why Faldo has become so consistent.'

Still, Leadbetter's greatest gift may be in communicating to a player what is required. 'David doesn't say 'do this, do that' ,' Bob Tway, US PGA champion in 1986, says. 'He explains as he goes along. That gives me a much clearer picture of both my swing and what I need to work on.

'David is a very introspective person, which may be to his detriment,' Price says. 'But if you disagree with something he encourages you to bring it up, to give him your opinion. He listens to you, tries to understand what you're saying and then guides you into an understanding of what he is talking about.'

Faldo cites Leadbetter's ingenuity in making practising more interesting. After his third round in the US PGA, a disastrous 76 that put him out of the running, he and Leadbetter repaired to the practice ground. Then they took it in turns to put a small blue dot on each ball. The purpose was to make Faldo concentrate on the dot as he hit each shot and forget about everything else.

'That round of Nick's was just one that happens sometimes,' explains Leadbetter. 'In essence he was hitting the ball beautifully. There was nothing wrong at all. The one thing I did not want was to spend time going over it shot by shot.'

Another Leadbetter technique requires him to stand alongside and to the left of Faldo and dangle a towel like a curtain. Unable to see where the ball is going, Faldo has to concentrate on the moment of impact.

'I try to make practising more interesting,' Leadbetter says. 'So now we are working on certain shots. For example, Nick can play a shot known as the chicken wing and another known as the bunt. That second shot to the 15th in the last round of the Open, a five-iron that rolled to within a few feet of the hole, that was a chicken wing.'

Leadbetter is endlessly inventive in finding devices to help his pupils understand what he is trying to get them to achieve. He was working with Faldo on the practice ground at Wentworth two years ago when a passer-by did a double take at what he saw - Faldo with a child's water wings on his arms.

'Nick was having trouble keeping his right arm in the correct place,' explains Leadbetter. 'They worked beautifully. Not only did they help him get his arms into the positions I wanted but they gave him the feeling I wanted him to have when his arms were in the right positions.'

'I try to help players by getting inside their mind to see what they're thinking,' Leadbetter says. 'Once you have established the ways in which you can help, the key is to explain them, give them concepts. But I always listen. I learn from these players. They are the greatest players in the world doing it under pressure. I want to know what works and what doesn't work.'

(Photograph omitted)