Interview: Legendary golf coach David Leadbetter
Leadbetter’s legendary nous still can’t fathom why sexes have different strengths
He hasn’t changed much over the years. A few grey hairs might now peek out from under the hat, but the long legs and dark glasses remain intact. So, at least from a wee distance, the David Leadbetter working this past week on the range at Turnberry looks pretty much the same man who, three decades ago now, built the swing that made Nick Faldo the best golfer in the world.
These days the Florida-based Englishman is best known for his work with a couple of the leading players on the LPGA Tour, Michelle Wie and world No.2 Lydia Ko. The former has won a major championship – last year’s US Women’s Open – and the latter, at the remarkably tender age of 17, was ranked the best female golfer on the planet. Clearly, Leadbetter’s teaching has no boundaries in terms of gender.
Which is not to say coaching the best men and women golfers does not involve at least some adjustments.
“They are the same in as much as they are all competitive,” says Leadbetter. “But, in general, the girls do need more ‘TLC’. In my experience they are more emotional and require more geeing-up. They tend to need constant care and reinforcement. Male golfers are mostly able to go off and work away by themselves. The girls – again generally – need to be told more often that they are doing something correctly, or not. So the psychological aspect is different. But, technically speaking, the coaching is essentially the same.”
Still, the gap between the two sexes is narrowing. Even a quick glance along the practice ground at an LPGA event reveals more and more impressive ball striking. Gone are the days when a powerful hitter such as Laura Davies would easily stand out. Yes, there are still plenty of those for whom lack of yardage is a problem, but an increasing number of shots now zip into the middle distance with the same sort of sound and trajectory one might see at a man’s event.
“The best girls are longer now,” confirms Leadbetter. “And that won’t stop. I watched a couple of Danish girls earlier this week. They were hitting their drives 20 yards past Michelle.
“Plus, the non-Asian fraternity works harder because of the influence of the best Asian players. There is more depth to the women’s game. The standard used to drop off quite quickly but there are a lot of really good players now. Six weeks ago in Korea I was told they have over 2,000 girls between the ages of 14 and 19 playing off handicaps of scratch or better.
“Think of that. They have a place there called ‘Sky-72’. There are four courses. And 14 golf academies on the huge range. So you can pick and choose. And they are all packed with strong, young players with great swings.”
Ah, but as Zach Johnson illustrated so well in the recent Open Championship at St Andrews, we all know there is more to success on the golf course than strength and power. The short game is a huge part of what separates winners from losers, especially at the professional level. And, strangely, it is on and around the greens where golf’s gender gap is most noticeable. For whatever reason, male professionals are generally markedly superior to their female equivalents when it comes to the game’s shorter shots.
Even Leadbetter struggles to come up with a definitive reason for this, but he does have a couple of theories.
“Strength in the fingers, hands and wrists that allows you to grip the club ‘softer’ has to be part of it,” he says. “To me, that brings greater control of the club. Plus, guys tend to experiment with shots more from a young age, which is when someone’s short game really develops. But that’s as far as my thinking goes really. It’s a bit of a mystery.”
As is, for many people, the golf swing itself. Having devoted most of his working life to what has to be the most over-analysed move in any sport, Leadbetter has recently published a book, The A-Swing, that hopes to simplify what can be endlessly complicated.
“Golf is difficult because there is a lot of motion involved in getting the club back to the ball,” he says. “And it has to be a controlled motion. It’s not like reacting to a moving object. So a lot can go wrong – and does. Plus, the club is swung on an inclined plane that is neither horizontal nor vertical. That’s a difficult concept to grasp or picture. It’s a confusing topic.
“The key is getting the club on the right plane coming down. How you get there is immaterial. The book is based on a different backswing that creates a better downswing, which is what people should be focusing on anyway. I’ve always been a fan of a backswing that is a little more upright in order to produce a shallower downswing. This is just a little more extreme version of that philosophy.”
There is a certain irony in this. Back when he was guiding Faldo to the top, Leadbetter was regularly accused of being “overly technical”. Now, he is more and more viewed as something of a “feel” teacher, one who sees the swing as more art than science at a time when the latter is threatening to submerge the former.
“The game has become very scientific, perhaps too much so,” says Leadbetter. “Even putting. I spoke with Brad Faxon the other day. He is one of the best putters in the game. He told me that when he coaches someone now he has to put aside all his thoughts on feel and imagery. People want him to talk about technology. If he doesn’t, they think he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Which is crazy.
“Golf is never going to be an exact science. And I do think that is at least partly where Tiger Woods has gone wrong. Ideally, it should be a blend. It’s nice to have tools like Trackman, but no machine should be followed religiously. It’s funny though. Back in the day, people would come to me for lessons and it was only my opinion that their swings were bad. Now we can actually prove they are bad. On the other hand, when someone is swinging really well, you have the exact numbers to look at. So it should be easier to get back there.”
Amid all of this, however, Leadbetter does have one big concern regarding the women’s game as a whole.
“I think we are going to see girls having much shorter careers as bodies break down,” he says. “Look at Michelle. The injuries she has now are absolutely related to the fact that she beat balls for five hours a day off mats when she was a kid. We better get used to the idea that players are not going to be out there for three decades. There are only so many balls in anyone’s tank. Lydia was number one when she was 17. And she says she will retire at 30. By that measure, the senior tour might have to start at 35.”