On the practice range, where so much is revealed to those with the vision to see, David Leadbetter is the man with the X-ray eyes. An angular, Ichabod Crane-like figure in a wide-brimmed hat, Leadbetter customarily stands a few paces from one of the world's best players with his feet wide apart and his arms folded, filtering information through the circuitry behind his high-tech sunglasses. As Leadbetter watches in his unhurried way, other players sneak anxious looks at him, waiting for their turn to hear the words that might make a disjointed swing fall into place.
Leadbetter established his credibility a decade ago when his student Nick Faldo won his first major championship with a rebuilt swing, and Leadbetter's aura of authority has grown to the point where he is as recognizable to casual fans as many of the players who rely on him.
At the Masters, Leadbetter oversaw Ernie Els, Faldo, Greg Norman and Nick Price, an unprecedented fearsome foursome of pupils. Leadbetter also coaches about a dozen other touring pros, including Brad Faxon, David Frost, John Huston, Bernhard Langer and Mark McNulty. At one time or another he has worked with Seve Ballesteros, Sandy Lyle, Mark O'Meara, Scott Simpson, Tom Watson and Ian Woosnam. Leadbetter's videos, books, training products, corporate clinics and academies dominate the instructional market. At 44 he is Lord Lead, as Faldo calls him, the most respected teacher in the game. "David's success made people realize the value of golf instruction and how it can even help the best players in the world," says Butch Harmon, who coaches Tiger Woods, among others. "All the teachers in the game owe him a debt of gratitude. He gave us all credibility. He was the pioneer."
On the range Leadbetter never stands in one place for long. He's constantly shifting position. Is it to observe from a different angle? "No," says Price. "He's uncomfortable because he knows he's standing in the gallery's way. He's self-conscious that he's on a stage where he doesn't belong, so he's always dancing about. In a nutshell, that's David."
Characterizing any of today's self-promoting swing gurus as self-conscious is a tough sell, but portraying Leadbetter that way is harder still. He's in many golf magazines and TV commercials, and makes the Golf Channel seem like Late Night with David Leadbetter. To those who know him well, it is Leadbetter's ability to empathize that's not only at the heart of the man but also the key to his success. "David knows as much about the golf swing as anyone, and he has an absolutely incredible eye," says Price, who was nine when he first met the 14-year-old Leadbetter at a junior tournament in what was then Salisbury, Rhodesia. "But his real gift is a sense for people, what they are feeling, how they learn. He knows how to reach people."
Leadbetter's wife of 13 years, Kelly, a former player on the LPGA tour, says that when he gets a 3 a.m. call at their Lake Nona home outside Orlando from a desperate player in some far-flung corner of the world, Leadbetter's voice immediately becomes fully alert. "I think that kind of energy and attention is a product of doing something you love," she says. "It's like his brain always has this little golf department going on."
Recently at the Cooper Clinic in Dallas, where Leadbetter was indulging an obsession with exercise and proper diet that grew from being a sickly child, he was asked for a lesson just as he was about to enter an immersion tank to measure his body fat. "I'm standing there stark naked, and the attendant asks me to check his swing," says Leadbetter. "He's holding this pole with a screen at the end that they use to clean stuff out of the tank, so we used that as the club. I never really get away from it."
Leadbetter finds it almost impossible to turn away a top pro, and as his stable of players expands, his reputation for being late, and the suspicion that he's stretched too thin, also grow. But it is the challenge and process of helping a player get better that's his passion. "I'm like a doctor," he says. "If somebody's ill and I can make them better, I'm going to try."
He comes from a healing tradition. The story of Leadbetter's maternal grandparents, George and Dorothy Thomas, now deceased, make for a better tale than The English Patient. The pair were in love as teenagers when World War I broke out. George joined the British army and was sent to the Western front, where he was blinded by a bullet wound during the Battle of the Somme. When George returned from France he married Dorothy and went on to become a renowned osteopath, a sightless man with magic hands.
"My father had a gift for soothing people with massage, I suppose in part because his sense of touch was made more acute by having lost his sight," says Leadbetter's mother, Patricia, who lives with her husband, Douglas, in the coastal town of Rustington in Sussex, England. "At the same time, my mother and I had to be very conscious about helping my father, so I suppose some of these qualities were passed on to David."