In Bradenton the Leadbetter name takes second billing to that of Nick Bollettieri, the fiery tennis coach who molded the games of Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Monica Seles. The Bollettieri Tennis Academy was purchased by International Management Group in the '80s, and now the IMG Academies include the Leadbetter school (90 full-time students), a soccer division (60), a fledgling baseball school (12) and the Bollettieri Academy's 160 tennis players. The organization chart looks like a New York City subway map. The sports-representation division of IMG, which guides the careers of many star athletes, represents Leadbetter, the thin Englishman in the trademark straw hat. Another division of IMG operates 15 Leadbetter golf academies on three continents.
"It has been a positive marriage," says Ted Meekma, who started 27 years ago with Bollettieri and now serves IMG as director of its sports academies. Meekma approached Leadbetter six years ago—before Tigermania and Sergio Garcia—with the idea for a junior golf division. Leadbetter was keen, but there was skepticism among the tennis and golf pros. Golfers, they said, didn't develop in their teens. They learned slowly, went to college and began to win pro tournaments in their late 20s.
Still, there seemed to be little risk in starting a golf academy. Meekma rented and upgraded a commercial driving range in Bradenton. He then bought afternoon tee times at the Legacy Golf Club and the Sara Bay Country Club. "We were basically in business without too much capital expense," he says. The junior golf academy opened in September 1994 with one instructor, one assistant and four full-time students, including a boy from the Czech Republic who had never played the game.
The challenge was figuring out what to do with all the available teaching time. The kids attended school from 7:45 a.m. until 12:30 p.m., either at the private Bradenton Academy or the church-affiliated St. Stephen's School. That left a three-hour window between lunch and fitness sessions. "The Leadbetter guys were great teachers, fabulous technicians," says Meekma, "but they normally worked with adults for two or three hours. What were they going to do with kids for nine months?"
Wear more hats, that's what. At Bradenton the golf teachers are called coaches, and woe to the person who calls them swing gurus. Each coach handles seven or eight girls and boys and performs the multiple roles of teacher, parent, big brother, entertainer and pal. The only role they refuse to play is babysitter. "Kids need to be responsible for their games and their lives," says Gilchrist, the director of golf.
The Leadbetter Academy is not what the tennis academy used to be—a boot camp for athletic kids. Neither is it an Olympic-style development program that produces a hundred teenage burnouts for every gold medalist. "They're kids," says Meekma. "It has to be fun."
It looks like fun. At one practice green Gilchrist arrives with three hula hoops over his shoulder. At another, the kids try to make 50 consecutive three-foot putts. On the range, coach Jonathan Yarwood has Naree Wongluekiet hitting balls with a director's chair leaning against her backside. A few stations down, a half dozen kids watch in astonishment as range assistant Jeff Simpson crushes balls 350 yards with a borrowed driver. "I love it," says Ty Tryon, 15, the nation's fourth-ranked junior boy. "They push you, but you're around a lot of kids so you never get tired of it."
As further protection against burnout, the Academy has golf-free weeks. The kids go to the beach, to the movies, deep-sea fishing, camping, bowling ("I don't bowl," says Naree. "I'd go farther than the ball."), to Busch Gardens, to Disney World. Says Chan Wongluekiet, "It's important we don't get into that trap where it's like a job every day."
Sometimes the kids and the Leadbetter staff sound like conspirators against a common enemy—parents. "The parents are pushy," Leadbetter concedes. "The kids want to be kids, but the parents say, 'We're paying all this money, we want to see results.' " Some parents panic when their darling slips in the rankings; others get alarmed when a swing change temporarily turns their Tiger into a 15 handicapper.
The kids can be tough on themselves. Even though O'Brien's handicap was 12 less than two years ago, he has spent much of his time battling doubts. "I had all these expectations," he says, "but the way you improve here is, you get worse before you get better. I started shooting upper 80s, really struggling. It wasn't until I lowered my expectations that I improved."