David Leadbetter, 57, has evolved into a brand. He has published several books and produced numerous instructional videos. He endorses a multitude of golf-related products and supervises a chain of renowned golf academies that bear his name.
“Lead,” as his friends call him, is based in central Florida. And at his core, he is still a teacher. He can go deep into any conversation on the subject of swing technique or, if you prefer, game psychology. He can be outspoken without being outlandish. And he will keep your attention by what he says not necessarily by the way he says it.
Global Golf Post Editor-In-Chief Brian Hewitt recently spent the
better part of a morning interviewing Leadbetter at his ChampionsGate headquarters near Orlando. What follows is revealing look at the swings and personalities of a number of the game’s most intriguing names.
GGP Let’s get to the heart of what you do. You’ve studied the great players and worked with a lot of them. Do you have a favorite swing?
DL Watching (Canadian) George Knudson swing – what a great ball-striker this guy was. You still look at guys like Al Geiberger and the
Ernie Elses and the Gene Littlers because what do they all do? They have beautiful rhythm. That’s always appealing to the eye. You look at a Tiger and it’s explosive. It’s ballistic. Nick Price’s is efficient and snappy. Then there are the Julius Boroses, flowing and syrupy, and Sam Snead comes to mind. It’s like looking at paintings; each has its own beauty.
GGP Anybody else?
DL The greatest iron-striker I’ve ever heard was Trevino in his heyday. There was a different sound – just like a bullet. Price had a similar sound. But Trevino, oh my goodness, the man hit short irons it was just like, “pssheww.” It made a sound just totally different from anybody else.
GGP Most famously, you spent a great deal of time working on the swing of Nick Faldo. He’s been reviled and revered. How did you find him?
DL He certainly wasn’t Mr. Popular amongst his peers, that’s for sure. But that was just the way he had to operate in order to function, in order to get the best out. Away from the golf course, he was a very pleasant companion.
GGP More recently, Faldo has revealed himself as something of a wit.
DL He’s very funny. Certainly some of that has come out now on TV commentaries. He has a very dry sense of humor. He’s also very knowledgeable about what he was and is
trying to do.
GGP Ben Hogan wasn’t popular with everybody, either. You’ve studied his golf swing and written about him extensively. Was there really a “secret?”
DL Hogan’s secret was that it was his secret. His secret might not be your secret or my secret. He found a way basically to stop hooking it. There’s all sorts of thoughts about what the secret was. Every Tom, Dick and Harry had a thought on what it was.
GGP What do you mean Hogan’s secret was his secret?
DL He was able to find a way, with the amount of speed that he had, to get the clubface in a really open position. Probably the most pronounced aspect to Hogan’s swing was the supination where his left wrist would bow. If people try to do that, they hook the crap out of it.
GGP So why did Hogan do this?
DL Because he had the face so open that he actually went from an open position to a square position. But then he didn’t actually keep that going. What he did, he went from neutral to shut, which allowed him to flight the ball beautifully. And the next thing – which no one actually ever saw – was his wrist went this way (rolling under and up; not over and down). I used to look at him and say, “Wow, that’s weird,” because when he finished he was like this (under and open and up), and that doesn’t indicate that he did this through the ball at impact (square bowed) and, yes, his wrist was flat and bowed.
GGP And so part of the secret was that he was able to keep it over time? Jim Colbert once said, “No matter how it’s going, it will change.”
DL We all find secrets, don’t we? How long they last is something else. Hogan certainly kept the theory, although I’ve always maintained you might have the theme but you’ve got to check that theme and have certain little keys because our minds get bored. You get on one track and you say, “I’ve got it.” You can even write it down, you can do whatever the heck you like, but I’m afraid at some stage you lose it. Jim Colbert was dead right.
GGP Hogan had an aura that still exists today. What will happen to Tiger’ s aura?
DL When you look at Tiger, one of his greatest attributes is his intimidation factor. And I think back to the early ’90s when Faldo came over from Europe while he was still based in Britain. It looked like he was gonna win every major. People would just stop practicing and watch him hit balls. There was such an aura about him and he felt that. The interesting thing was that when he came over here full-time, he lost that aura almost immediately.
GGP How so?
DL He’d be playing at the Bob Hope or whatever early in the year and players would look at him. He wasn’t ultra-long; he was just one
of those players who didn’t have many weaknesses and had his game tailored for majors. And playing in regular Tour events was more like just smash it out there and putt well. So he lost that (aura) and you could sense he felt that.
GGP And Tiger could lose his aura?
DL It’s going to be interesting now to see if other players are going to look at Tiger in the same light, from the standpoint of, “Well, this guy’s not as perfect as we thought,” and whether Tiger’s level of play goes down or whether the other players, who are obviously seriously talented, their level of play goes up. Sure, you can say the game needs Tiger badly, and I suppose every tournament you win without Tiger there’s a bit of an asterisk next to it. But there’s certainly going to be some intrigue to see how he handles it.
GGP Speaking of big names, Michelle Wie, with whom you work, appears to be handling things better now, for the most part.
DL No. 1, girls mature earlier than boys, and I still have to say that with all the great young players I’ve seen over the years, Charles Howell and others, Michelle, at 13 or 14, was a superior ball-striker and a better player at that stage than they were. And that’s saying something. She was a better player period at that point in time.
GGP And now?
DL When she’s happy, there’s no better sight in women’s golf than when Michelle’s in full flight. And we could see that last year at the Solheim Cup. It really stood out. She was excited and getting pumped up. That was like when she was 15 or 16. She’s really excited to play now. She’s healthy. She’s happy. She really has unlimited possibilities. She’s only limited by as far as she wants to go in the game.
GGP How far does she want to go?
DL I don’t think she’s a player that probably wants to play past the age of 30. She’s got other things in her life she wants to do. She wants to graduate. There’s talk about her graduating from Stanford in eight years. She wants to graduate in five years, which is going to be a tough task if she’s only going half the year and playing half the year.
GGP Global Golf Post reported that American Alexis Thompson, just 15, who certain people have labeled the next Michelle Wie, has plans to turn pro later this year. Good idea or bad?
DL I’ve watched her and her technique is a little different. She’s got quite a few moving parts. She’s a great competitor and she’s had some great results. But who’s to say how good she’s going to be? Sometimes you think, “Hey, I’ve got a superstar here and she’s gonna clean up.” Well, she’s not gonna clean up, I can tell you. It’s not gonna be a walk in the park.
GGP Let’s do short takes on a few other players that have been demanding our attention. First, Rory McIlroy.
DL The complete package. He’s grown up under the radar from the standpoint of the U.S. But over there (Northern Ireland) he was a fine young player at 14 playing the odd European Tour event. He’s got really good technique. He’s got a good attitude. He’s got a good support team. He’s got his feet on the ground. You see a lot of that in these foreign (non U.S.) kids. And their parents don’t hang onto them like they do over here, where parents are watching every single shot the kid’s ever hit. Rory McIlroy’s technique is way better than Rickie Fowler’s.
GGP Very well then, Rickie Fowler?
DL Very similar to Rory McIlroy. He doesn’t seem to have any fear. We’ll see how the rigors of Tour life affect a Rickie Fowler; whether he has to make a couple of changes. Sometimes, it’s tough because a player who’s really grown up with – by all accounts, doesn’t like to practice and just stands up there and hits it – I’ve always said even if you’re oblivious to technique, you need to know a little bit about your own swing
because if things break down, what are you gonna do to fix it?
GGP Tom Watson?
DL Here’s a guy who seems to have his priorities set correctly, doesn’t he? He’s got outside interests. He really paces himself. He looks after himself. He’s physically fit. He’s obviously got great talent. He still hits it long.
GGP Steve Stricker?
DL He was a very, very good player in his youth. His swing was a lot longer and a lot looser then. He has a beautiful rhythm now and he’s a wonderful wedge player. And it’s almost as if his swing now – there’s not a lot of wrist action to it – it’s very one-piecey. It’s short, on plane, and there’s very little to go wrong with it.
GGP Phil Mickelson?
DL He’s a supreme talent. The guy’s been talented forever. Unbelievable hands. He can do things with the golf ball that most people couldn’t. He’s one of those people who, even though he’s hit it crooked – always hits it flush. Phil has never been a mis-hitter of the ball. It’s just been a matter of timing things up a bit, which Butch (Harmon) has done. More flex in left knee and swing’s a little shorter and that’s it. There’s not a million things going on there (between Phil and Butch), I can tell you. Butch has just taken an amazing talent and tried to package it a little better.
GGP Last, but not least, you have strong views on how to grow the game of golf in America, especially at the junior level.
DL I say that junior golfers in America have a serious disadvantage. And the reason I say this is because golf is expensive and you don’t necessarily get the great young players who have the wherewithal to play tournaments. The First Tee has done great. It’s taken youth off the streets and gotten them into golf and teaches them social values, which is fantastic. My point is, though, with the First Tee, how long has this program been going on, what 10 years? How many of those kids have made it in the game of golf?
GGP So what should be done in the U.S.?
DL I always thought country clubs in the States could take kids in the area, who might not have the wherewithal to become members, and create a junior membership with a minimal joining fee where they have 30 kids from the area and the pro gets involved and have these kids play golf.
GGP So you think the First Tee, among others, needs to make an adjustment?
DL I think it’s high time that the golf fraternity get together and say, “Listen, how are we going to get young players involved in the game?” Because if I was a First Tee member I’d hate to be playing nine-hole courses three times a week the whole year. Where do I go from there? How do I get seen? How does this young talent come through? There’s not enough young minority golfers out there. That’s the proof in the pudding. Where are these young players who are great athletes and stuff? It’s a shame.