Adaptability is often highlighted as a key attribute for players looking to win The Open, but the illustrious career of David Leadbetter shows the same characteristic is equally important for coaches seeking to guide their pupils to triumphs in golf’s original Championship.
Long renowned as one of his sport’s premier instructors, Leadbetter first rose to prominence in the 1980s courtesy of his spectacular success with Sir Nick Faldo. The English pair spent over two years working on a comprehensive swing rebuild, and their tireless efforts were rewarded handsomely as Faldo went on to claim six major titles, including victories at The Open in 1987, 1990 and 1992.
However, while Leadbetter and Faldo agreed significant changes to the latter’s action were required to achieve sustained success, a much lighter coaching touch has been required on other occasions.
Ernie Els, one of three further players to have won The Open under the guidance of Leadbetter along with Ian Baker-Finch and Nick Price, certainly presented a very different challenge for the esteemed coach.
From the moment Leadbetter set eyes on Els, he realised the importance of not tinkering too much with the natural action of the South African.
“I met Ernie for the first time in 1990. He was 20 years old and I’d heard about this South African star. You just watched this guy and man, he was a marvel,” Leadbetter told TheOpen.com.
“He just swung the club so easy and so simply, and yet he just pounded it. It was a joy to behold. And so I really went in with kid gloves, because the guy hit the ball beautifully.”
Over the years that followed, Leadbetter would focus on small technical adjustments to Els’ swing, with a desire to keep things as simple as possible.
“There’s nobody who’s foolproof, that’s for sure,” Leadbetter added. “There’s always little flaws and inconsistencies in the way you strike the ball, or maybe consistently hitting a type of shot under pressure.
“Ernie’s such a great natural athlete, so it’s not that he needed a huge swing overhaul. But because he swung the club with such beautiful rhythm, it sometimes covered over some of the little technical cracks that he had. He used to have the club somewhat laid off at the top of the backswing and the clubface a little bit shut, so we worked very hard on getting the club more on line at the top and really synchronising his arms with his body. That was a thing that we did over the years.
“I still work periodically with Ernie. We had a little break a few years ago, but whenever I’m at a tournament now and he’s there I always watch him hit balls. And it’s amazing, so much of the stuff that we work on when I see him today is stuff that we worked on 25 years ago.”
Regardless of the specifics he may work on with individuals, Leadbetter is always keen to ensure players gain a greater understanding of their own methods.
“My whole key with all these players is to make sure they understand their own swing, make sure they’re self-reliant,” he continued. “I would say: ‘Look, I’m trying to make you your own best coach.’
“It's a never-ending process. A golf swing's not like a computer chip.” David Leadbetter
“So you get in the mirror, you work at it, or especially in this day and age if you see your swing on film, check it out, because you can see tendencies. Every player has tendencies, which under pressure they revert back to. But leading players, they’re just like any other golfer, they forget.
“It’s little reminders more than anything else. Sometimes they get into a nice run of form and the technical stuff pretty much goes out of the window. And with the golf swing, sure as eggs are eggs, little things start to creep in again, maybe slowly but surely. You just put them back on track again. It’s a never-ending process. A golf swing’s not like a computer chip where you plug it in and you’ve got it for life.
“The way I’d go about it with somebody like Ernie is you make a couple of little suggestions. You can ask how something feels and then when they say it feels like this you say: ‘Well, that’s exactly right.’ So a lot of it comes from them rather than me telling them, which is an ideal way of doing it because that shows them they’re reading it correctly. Maybe then I go in with a hair more detail.”
Although his work with Els and Faldo was very different in its scope, Leadbetter found both players were able to benefit from the simplest of messaging.
A single tweak to the starting position of The Big Easy would often trigger a series of improvements in his swing, while two- and four-word phrases proved highly effective in helping Faldo to find the right rhythm.
“Ernie, for instance, one of the things he can do is he gets sloppy with his posture. He’s a tall guy, he’s had a couple of back issues and what have you, so he gets a little sloppy with his posture and then what happens is as he starts his backswing his hands move away from the body. So I’m always reminding him. Let’s get this posture sorted out so you feel sharp, you feel a little pressure on your quads, instead of back on your heels. And let’s just feel your hands a little closer to you going away.
“Literally that would be it and, all of a sudden, the backswing starts to look better, the change of direction looks better, the impact position looks better. So it’s finding that one little key really when you are at a tournament. Obviously you might be able to do a little bit more away (from an event), but at a tournament it’s more just trying to remind them, and trying to encourage them and more than anything trying to help them find the right feel.
“With Nick, we were always trying to find one or two little words. He was very much a rhythm player so I would always try and find things in pairs that would help Nick. For instance, his tendency at times was to sort of straighten the right leg, so we would say ‘sit and pull, sit and pull’. Pulling meant the left shoulder would move away from his chin, so you’d actually hear him miming that – ‘sit and pull, sit and pull, sit and pull’ – it was like a rhythm thing for him.
“At times when he was playing well, it would only be two words. If he wasn’t playing as well, we’d actually have four. It would be two or four, never one or three. It might be ‘sit, complete, pull, release’, it was like a little sing-song he had going.”
Anecdotes such as these illustrate the importance of a personal connection between coach and player, and Leadbetter insists this remains as crucial as ever.
Although coaches now have access to more technological aids than ever before, Leadbetter counts “instinct” as the most valuable tool at his disposal.
“It takes a while to know a player,” he added. “You can’t just charge in and say: ‘Do this, do that because it says this on Trackman.’ Technology is great, don’t get me wrong, but instinct from a coaching standpoint and saying the right things at the right time is really what separates good coaches from some coaches that haven’t got the experience.
“My grandfather was one of Britain’s leading osteopaths back in the day. He was blind. I don’t know if I had that intuitive feel (when I started coaching), but I could sense what went on. In the mid-90s I actually got together with a friend of mine named JJ Rivet who was a biomechanist and he said: ‘David, you’re really lucky, because you have biomechanical eyes. You can sense where power leaks are, you can sense what makes a swing more efficient.’ And it is a bit of a sixth sense that I have.
“I can’t put my finger on it exactly. I’ve learned a lot being able to quantify things now, with things like launch monitors and TrackMan and force plates that show how the weight actually moves and so on, but a lot of this stuff I actually knew. It’s not like it hit me now.
“And also you learn a lot. Through working with so many different players, you get so much different feedback. So you’re constantly building your knowledge base.”
Above all else, Leadbetter is aware it takes a special golfer to win The Open, as Faldo, Baker-Finch, Price and Els have all done under his tutelage.
“In the end, it’s down to the player,” he reflected. “I think sometimes coaches maybe get too much credit. I think we certainly deserve some of it, but you’ve got to have a very talented individual who can come out on top in a tournament such as The Open.
“I suppose we’re jockeys and as a jockey you’ve got to have good horses. I’ve had some really good horses, that’s for sure.”