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The Man Behind The Men
Jaime Diaz
April 21, 1997
The top players in the game put their trust in David Leadbetter
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April 21, 1997

The Man Behind The Men

The top players in the game put their trust in David Leadbetter

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A serious case of childhood asthma also had an effect on Leadbetter's character. His condition played an important role in his father's decision to move the family of five from England to Zimbabwe when David was six. By that time the stress of wheezing for air had caused the boy's sternum to protrude, a deformity that left a psychological scar. "That was a bit of a trauma," Leadbetter admits. "Kids are cruel, so I went into my shell for a while there. It probably made me a little bit of the outsider, always watching, always thinking, trying to figure out what made people tick."

Leadbetter was drawn to all sports and excelled in cricket, field hockey and track. But it was golf that really captured the introspective loner. By 16, he was a two handicap, with aspirations to play professionally. "David was a good player," remembers Price, "but what I remember about him was every time I went in the pro shop, he had his nose in a golf book or magazine. He has always loved the dynamics and the mystery of the swing."

After turning pro at 17, Leadbetter struggled. "I had a great short game and a lot of imagination, but I was always obsessed with technique, always searching for perfect," he says. "What I didn't realize until much later is that the reason you work so hard on your swing is so that when you play, you can forget about it. I remember being very nervous, very uncomfortable in competition. I had a violent temper. I broke some clubs. I needed a sports psychologist before there were any. I'm glad I went through it, because it gave me an understanding of what the guys I coach go through. So I don't take it personally when they're difficult."

All the while Leadbetter was foundering with his game, he was having success teaching at a local club. "In the end, becoming a teacher was an easy decision," he says. It quickly became Leadbetter's goal to come to the U.S., and by 1980 he had landed a position as assistant pro at Oak Park Country Club in Chicago. Two years later he took a full-time teaching position at Grenelefe Resort near Haines City, Fla. It was there that Leadbetter established the headquarters where players like Price, Denis Watson and, in early 1985, Faldo would build their games. Since 1989 the Lake Nona Club has been home base for the Leadbetters and their three children, Andy, 12, Hally, 4, and James, 2.

Leadbetter was one of the first instructors to make extensive use of videotape, with which he debunked many of the swing theories that were prevalent in the 1970s. "David studied what the best players were doing and made some breakthroughs," says Gary Smith, an instructor and a commentator for the Golf Channel who used to work with Leadbetter. "He also looked at film of players like Sam Snead and Ben Hogan and decided that what they did was sounder than what the players of the '70s and early '80s were doing. The essential concept is that power comes from the rotation of the trunk, not from driving the legs toward the target. The swings of players such as Steve Elkington and Tiger Woods—today's model swings—have been influenced by David."

Because their hands are less active, golfers coached by Leadbetter tend to be medium to short hitters who sacrifice distance for accuracy. "It's a trade-off," says Leadbetter, "but control of the ball is the ultimate goal. That's how the Nicks have won their majors." (Faldo has won six, Price three.) With Els and Norman, both long hitters, Leadbetter has worked to quiet their legs and hands in the interest of control and consistency.

The rap on Leadbetter is that his so-called method is too complicated. Critics point to the demise of Ian Baker-Finch and Bob Tway as evidence that Leadbetter's teaching can lead to paralysis by analysis. Leadbetter answers that while he hasn't always had success, calling him inflexible or complex is inaccurate. "A lot of people have labeled me a method teacher, but working with the group of players I have, that are so different, I can't be," he says. "You can't try to make a master race of players. They may be cloning sheep, but you can't clone golfers."

Unlike other teachers, who feel they haven't received enough credit from the players they've helped, Leadbetter has always been given his due, particularly by Faldo. There was potential for strain in Leadbetter's decision last October to take on Norman, as well as in Faldo's recent foray into the golf school business. "I don't feel diminished that David has been instrumental in my development, because I'm still the one who has to pull the club back," says Faldo. "When you stand out there on the 18th fairway with an Open championship on the line, nothing, nobody, helps you there. It's just you. That's my satisfaction. David helped me to get there. I suppose that's his satisfaction. He's always been that sort of person."

X-ray eyes or not, he is rare.

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