During a film shoot, I had the opportunity to sit down with David Leadbetter. In this interview, David shares his insights on teaching, his passions outside of golf, a focus on club fitting and stories about Nick Faldo, Nick Price and Michelle Wie.
Finkel: You’re one of the top golf instructors in the world. Why do you think you’re so successful?
Leadbetter: There are a couple reasons. I started coaching when I was 18. When I left college after about six months, I got into teaching as a young assistant professional and I always loved it. I happened to be at the right place at the right time. I’m here with Hank Haney today and he would be the first to admit that Mark O’Meara really helped his career. And I’m the first to admit I’ve had Nick Price and Nick Faldo, Sir Nick Faldo they call him now, who helped me along the way. There weren’t really any celebrity golf instructors in the past. We had people like Jack Grout who was Jack Nicklaus’s teacher. He never got the recognition he should have. Today or even back in the eighties and nineties, we got a lot of notoriety and a lot of press in the fact that people like Nick Faldo win majors and his coach, David Leadbetter, helped him. This really set you apart. Not that I would say I was better than anybody else, but with the right player, at the right time. It’s all about timing and from there I started writing books, doing videos, opening golf academies and creating teaching aids. In many ways, you make your own luck. Some skill, some luck and good people that you associate with along the way and all of sudden you’ve created a reputation.
Finkel: A few years ago I had a chance to interview Nick, and we talked about his total focus and determination to be the number one player in the world. Why do you think he was so successful?
Leadbetter: He was very determined. We always got along fabulously well. In his mindset, it was like nobody else existed. I always remember the story working with Ian Baker Finch back in 1990 at St. Andrews when Faldo won it. He was playing with Finch in the last round. I said Ian, don’t expect him to acknowledge the shot, or say good shot, or even talk to you during the round of golf. Sure enough, he came up and said, boy, you were dead right. He said he was so single-minded. He focused on what he was doing. I think he had the talent; he had the work ethic, he had the golf swing, he had control over the ball and put all those factors together. And he had a very good short game back in the day with a really good putter. He had a lot of great attributes, and when you have the strength of mind that he had, nothing was going to deter him from reaching his goals. That’s what happened. He won six majors.
Finkel: How were you able to help him achieve his goals?
Leadbetter: When we first started, he was definitely lacking from a technique standpoint. I think I gave him confidence. He was able to flight the ball better. His major goal initially was to win the British Open. In the wind, he was not a very good player because he puts so much spin on the ball. Then he started to get confidence with his ball striking. I was able to help him understand his own swing, understand his own technique and help him with understanding the formula for success. He relied on me a lot and together we came up with a master plan. It took a couple years to get there, but he was able to achieve it. As much as I did for his career, he certainly did the same for mine. It was a win-win situation. I helped him from the standpoint of being a sounding board, giving him a better basic understanding of his own swing. Because that’s a big part of confidence with these great players. Having the confidence in your own swing and technique and the fact that you’ve got control of the ball.
Finkel: What was your favorite win for a student on Tour?
Leadbetter: I think because of my personal relationship with him, it was Nick Price when he won the open at Turnberry in 1994. I sort of grew up with him in Africa and that was a very special moment. He really wanted to win an Open. He won a couple of PGAs, but he never won the Open. He was going head to head with Jesper Parnevik and Nick holed a long putt on 17 for eagle and that changed everything. It was very exciting to be there to see him win it and pick up the Claret Jug.
Finkel: You also worked with Michelle Wie when she was young – what do you think about her career?
Leadbetter: Unfortunately, there’s no rule book there, how to guide a prodigy, and that’s what she was when she was young. She was a prodigy. When you’re a 13-year-old girl and can hit over 300 yards, that’s a little different. How do you handle it? There was so much thrown at her. In the end, and I’m sure her parents and management group will probably agree, she may not have been handled quite correctly. But there was nothing to go by. Who else has there been like that, at that age? A lot of things happened. She went to college. She didn’t go the normal route where she just said I’m going to play every week. Then she’s had a lot of injuries. Her confidence got hit off the injuries and all the negativity that was thrown around. She wasn’t quite the same player afterwards, just from a confidence standpoint. She’s had bursts and when you’re 14 or 15 you think you could beat the world. Some people said she should have played more small tournaments and became more of a winner, which in my mind is nonsense. She was based in Hawaii. She couldn’t travel all over like some of these other kids could, so she beat up on everybody over there and played in the men’s Pub Links Championship and got to the semifinals of that.
She’s one of my favorite people. She’s had a very successful career. She won I think five tournaments, including the U.S. Open and she’s not done yet. I still think she’s got some really good golf left ahead of her. Now she’s got a degree from Stanford. She’s a very wealthy young woman. How do you determine success? That’s the thing and so maybe she hasn’t lived up to everybody’s expectations; in the beginning it looked like she was going to win every tournament and blow everybody away every time she teed it up. But that wasn’t the case. We know golf is a great equalizer and a it doesn’t always pan out the way that you think it should. She really enjoys playing golf. She’s one of those people that will probably play for quite a while, into her thirties. She does love the game.
Finkel: Is there anything you can do through instruction to help golfers gain back some of their distance that they’ve lost as a result of getting older?
Leadbetter: It’s a combination, not just instruction. You have to make sure the equipment fits the individual, and make sure that if somebody is having a hard time making any sort of rotation in the swing, maybe have some sort of physical work done. Some soft tissue work, some chiropractic work. From an instructional standpoint, you can do things like get them to take the ball more right to left. They’re going to get more distance that way. You create more of a draw, and you can see that on your launch monitor. You can determine if the club is coming a little more from the inside, if somebody is swinging it two degrees from the outside, then see if we can get three or four from the inside. Technically you can look at a player and in order to complete their rotation, they have to lift the left heel off the ground. Going back to Jack Nicklaus’s days, compared to the modern swing, there’s not a lot of foot movement yet. For a lot of older golfers, especially males, raising the left heel can really increase their rotation and actually help their rhythm. Those are little things. I’d strengthen the grip a little bit. I think there are a couple things you can tweak to help a player get back the distance they’ve lost.
Finkel: Can you recommend anything else?
Leadbetter: Maybe go on a fitness program as an anti-aging approach. Looking at your golf equipment, coming to Club Champion, and making sure that the equipment fits you. If you’re using a driver that’s 10 years old, you may want to upgrade considering the technology and the equipment we’ve got today. At Callaway, I know what they bring out every year and the fascinating thing is, it is a little better than the previous equipment they brought out.
Finkel: What kind of player benefits most from club fitting?
Leadbetter: I don’t think there’s any player that wouldn’t benefit from club fitting. In fact, the top players, Tour players, obviously are very much into fitting, but they can adjust. They can make anything work. The average player would probably benefit far more than even the Tour player would. Because to get a club fitted and have a club that suits their length, lie, shaft, flex, material, grip…those factors make a huge difference for the average golfer to be able to reach their potential.
Finkel: A lot of golfers think they’re not good enough to be fitted. What do you think?
Leadbetter: If you’re playing once every six months, there’s no reason to even think about club fitting. If you’re somewhat serious about the game, everybody wants to improve. People can say I’m just out there for the exercise. Baloney! That’s just not true. When people play good golf, they’re in a good mood. It’s a feel-good fact of golf. You play lousy golf and you don’t walk off with the best of attitudes. You play good golf and it’s like everything is right with the world. For the average golfer, it’s like going to the shoe store and saying give me a pair of shoes please. You might be a size 12 and they give you a size 9. Just walk. Limp a little bit but you’ll be okay. It’s the same thing with golf clubs. What’s the point of going to the store, paying a lot of money and just picking a set of clubs up off the shelf? This is what it was like in the past. There was no sort of fitting expertise. But now you have people like Club Champion in particular who are experts in their field and will know within a relatively short space of time what club is going to actually suit you. They’re going to maximize your distance and your accuracy, which is really what it’s all about. If you can do that, you can feel very comfortable and very confident when you go to the golf course. That’s one element you can take out of the equation. It’s not the clubs. You take a few lessons and put the two together, and you’re going to play some good golf that you can enjoy and get what everybody is looking for, consistency.
Finkel: So why do you think custom club fitting so important today?
Leadbetter: With all the technology we have, TrackMan, etc., we’re able to see how certain clubs fit certain people. In the old days, it was very much hit or miss, try this, try that. But now you’ve got the ability to actually fit a club to an individual to maximize their potential. That’s important. We’ve seen this time and time again with Tour players through the years and now it’s filtering down into the amateur game. And today, there’s far more technology involved and the ability for a player to have a golf club that suits their swing. I think the other key is that players don’t have a lot of time to work on their golf swing these days, so they can actually fit a club to their particular swing and get really great results from it. And it’s only going to help their game. Obviously, Club Champion fitters are the best at it, and all their stores around the country give people access to all this information.
Finkel: Do you see custom club fitting working hand-in-hand with golf instruction?
Leadbetter: It’s very important that you tie fitting in with instruction. Do we leave a player where he is and fit the swing to the club or do we get somebody swinging the way we want them to and then get the club to fit the swing? That’s always the challenge. So, in my opinion, obviously long-term progress is always going to be better off if somebody proves their technique and has the club to match the technique. We’re always working hand-in-hand with that. To me one has to work with the other.
Finkel: What are you working on these days besides teaching? Are there any projects we should be aware of?
Leadbetter: We’ve got 40 golf academies worldwide. We just opened a new one in Dubai in November of 2018. For the longest time I was involved with IMG, running the day to day of their junior golf academy and then we went our separate ways. I’ve now started my own Junior Academy which is down in Orlando, Florida. It’s a sort of boutique school for kids who come there and go to school, work on their games, mental, physical, technical, spiritual, you name it. It’s a lot of fun working with these kids from all over the world. That’s something we’re really looking at and we’re expanding the academies worldwide. We’ve just come to an arrangement with a company called GOLFZON out of Korea who’s the biggest simulator company in the world. They’ve become part of our business. We’re going to be involved in putting instructional programs into all their simulators around the world. We have some exciting things going on. At my advanced age now, I’m trying to slow down a little but it’s not always easy. I still work for a number of Tour players, which I still enjoy doing. And a couple players on the Web.com tour and also in Europe. I still keep my name out there, and I enjoy working for Golf Digest and writing the odd book and doing some corporate stuff. I keep pretty busy. As I always say, I’ve never worked a day in my life. It’s always nice to get up knowing that there’s probably something different today than there was yesterday.
Finkel: Where do you see instruction going in the future?
Leadbetter: I think when you look at instruction, there is so much today through the internet. It’s not always the easiest way to learn. I do think there are certain things, a program that people can get on, whether it be from a fitness standpoint or just a swing drill exercise. A taught program that people can do, like going back the old Jane Fonda workout tapes. You just do this you do that on a regular basis and there’s somebody there with you doing it. I think in the future you are you going to probably see things like holograms where you step into something and you can actually feel what your swing is all about. Because in the end, golf is all about feel. And if you can feel what your coach or instructor is trying and tell you to do, then you’re more than halfway there. You will be able to program the hologram to fit a particular individual and say, okay, here’s your swing. I think we’re going to see things like that in the years to come.
Finkel: What are your passions outside of golf?
Leadbetter: I’m sort of a self-confessed health nut, and I work out. I love the healthy side of life. I’m really into foods and vitamins. I extoll that virtue sometimes to my players. I like to ski; I like to fish. I love watching other sports. Actually, I love watching baseball. One of my favorite sports, which is unfamiliar to most Americans, is cricket. I’m a great tennis follower, too. I go to the U.S. Open and Wimbledon quite frequently. I’m going to the French Open next year. Tennis is a passion of mine. I enjoy other sports. When you have a family too, you do things with them. I enjoy sometimes just completely relaxing and doing stuff that maybe you don’t have time to do normally in this hectic world we live in.
Leonard: David, you have a pretty interesting life. Thanks for sharing.
Leadbetter: Thank you, Leonard.
By Leonard Finkel