Supercoach Leadbetter opens up on his coaching career

Courses & Travel

The original "supercoach" opens up on his lifetime in the game - from Faldo and Seve to Ko and Wie

When I mentioned to a colleague that I would be speaking with David Leadbetter his eyes lit up which, if you knew my colleague, would astound you as much as it did me.

He went on to say that he could have shut his eyes and listened to the 62-year-old ‘all day’. He then added that it was possibly the favourite interview he’d ever done.

My knowledge of Leadbetter was similar to most. I had bought one of his videos in the late 1980s, watched him stand on countless ranges, with a high trouser and even wider stance, and heard the odd interview.

I meet Leadbetter on the range at Royal Birkdale – he is working with teenage prodigy Lydia Ko as she prepares for the Women’s British Open – to organise a time for a 20-minute chat. Ko is one of seven girls who is under Leadbetter’s charge, Michelle Wie being the best known.

The first thing I notice is the size of his hands, which are enormous.The second thing that strikes me is how friendly and enthusiastic he is.

We arrange to meet a couple of hours later and then sit down for a conversation which ends up lasting two minutes short of an hour; it turns out my colleague wasn’t wrong.

What’s been the key for Michelle this year?
The transformation happened at the Solheim Cup, where she really got energised. Even though they lost she played quite well; she lets things go in that matchplay situation and that suits her personality.

And then she took, for the first time in her life, let alone her career, six weeks off. We gave her some exercises to do in the gym but she didn’t hit a ball and she came out all guns blazing and she has played unbelievably.

We all knew how much talent she had but, with injuries, bad planning and lack of motivation, it didn’t happen. Now mentally she has the passion, she loves playing. If you asked me 18 months ago I would say she has the talent but she couldn’t care less about the game.

Do you also get involved in the non-technical side?
I have known her since I was 13 and it’s tough. There is a cultural aspect, a work ethic that has been drilled into her by her family and in golf that can lead to mental and physical burnout. There is no rulebook in learning how to handle a child prodigy. I am now working with Lydia Ko and getting her to talk to Michelle about any possible pitfalls. You have got to pace yourself and get balance in your life. You can’t go at it every day eight to 10 hours a day. You need a mental and physical break to recharge.

Given how much success Lydia Ko had before you joined forces and how young she is, how much will you change her swing?
I am always looking at the big picture, not just next week. We have made some subtle changes in the swing. She is fairly slightly built so length is a factor and will be more so in the years to come with better athletes so we’ve changed her ball flight from left-to-right flight to right-to-left to put on some yardage.
She is amazing, very humble but with a killer instinct inside and no real weaknesses. I look at her having an Annika-type career because of the steadiness of it all. She is pretty incredible – in what other sport is the World No 2 just 17?

How does their ball striking compare?
Lydia doesn’t overwhelm you straightaway, she does over a period of time. At 14 with Michelle I was like ‘how does a girl hit the ball like that?’ It is a different sound, jaw-dropping. She has now proved a lot of people wrong. She was a rich girl who gets all these contracts, doesn’t care, her parents and coach ruined her – now it is like, ‘we knew she was always going to come right’.

Pete Cowen said he wouldn’t work with a player who leaves him – what is your approach?
People come and go and it is like a merry-go-round. From my standpoint every player is trying to get better and if they think someone has the answer they will seek it out. As we all know the grass isn’t greener the other side of the hill – it might be temporarily. I was involved when coaching was beginning to get fashionable. Now it is a big deal. In the mid-80s if you had a coach it was an anomaly, now if you don’t it is an anomaly.

How much more than just a technical player was Faldo?
He was in many ways a genius as he was able to take the technical stuff and put it into the mental application. He was a technical player but was also an unbelievable feel player, he was always clicking his fingers or whistling or feeling things and hitting different shots. When a player is hitting it solidly and there is that energy flow there is something that spurs that sense that you are going to play well.

Was Seve good to work with?
We were at the Dunlop Open in 1991 and he asked if I could have a look. He was in his mid 30s and his back was giving him problems. We had dinner and I said he was still the best from 100 yards and in but we need to find a way to find the fairway.

We had to simplify his technique. He had a huge turn but was so narrow and, if I had known more about physiology, I would have given him some serious core exercises. He would produce two swings the same, one would be 100 yards right, the other snap hooking.

I said I was a big believer in a shorter swing – keeping the big turn but make it shorter. If we got more width we could get him hitting one shape, a bit left to right which wouldn’t be as long but more in play.

How did you go about it?
It was really simple stuff. I used to stand behind him and do this thing called ‘proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation’ which is, when someone is rehabbing, you resist while they push. So I would stand behind him and he would be pushing me wide. It was amazing, he was such a genius and within an hour he was hitting these great shots.

I said ‘that’s how you need to hit it mate, it might not look like the old Seve with the long swing but that’s the way to do it’.

He finished third that week, second the one after, then second in Spain. He got all excited and said ‘when can I see you?’ and I’m getting a little worried as this was the height of Faldoism and I’m thinking ‘jeez if I get this guy playing great Nick is going to have a cadenza’. But, anyway, we worked on the same thing and he won the PGA at Wentworth and the Match Play there as well. We did the same thing all the time, and he hit it 260-270 but in play and his middle irons improved and his short game was still great. So he called me to say thank you. He won the Money List, and asked to make a plan for the next year.

So then what happened?
We worked together at The Players, then he went to New Orleans where he was 12th the week before Augusta. Billy Foster was caddying and said he couldn’t believe how he was controlling his ball. I got there on Tuesday and Billy is walking over and cursing, saying he can’t believe how he is swinging it. His brother Manuel had arrived overnight and he now has this swing with elbows high and a big backswing.

Seve doesn’t look at me, I didn’t even exist and, if I was walking somewhere, he would walk in the opposite direction. He didn’t play well.

I saw him in Japan after the 1992 Dunlop and he came up and said ‘thank you, I played well last year but the swing was too mechanical, I have to be a feel player’. He won one more event but it was really sad as he still had it in him to play some great stuff.

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