The greatest golf improvement story ever told

It’s just a guess, but I’d wager that on your list of things you’d like to accomplish this season there’s a line about sending your index down a few floors.

To help you make it a reality, I’m going to give you the story behind the most famous feat of improvement in modern professional golf history.

Along with Howard Glassman, my partner in our Swing Thoughts podcast, we were fortunate to recently chat with legendary coach David Leadbetter, who guided Nick Faldo through a rebuild that led the Englishman to winning six major championships.

Click here to listen to our chat with David Leadbetter.

As an aspiring tour player from South Africa who turned to coaching, Leadbetter said he first saw Faldo in Sun City, South Africa in late 1984. He thought Faldo had wonderful rhythm, but he finished with his hands high and his body in a “reverse C. He hit it high, spinny and he got no roll,” Leadbetter said.

At the time, Faldo was considered a superstar in the making. At the age of 27, Faldo had already played on four Ryder Cup teams, making his first team at 20. In 1983, he won five events on the European Tour and won the Order of Merit, and he had one victory on the PGA Tour.

But Faldo said his swing had weaknesses that would reveal themselves in majors. He needed to tear his swing down and rebuild it. Faldo had met Leadbetter and heard that he’d done great work with Nick Price.

“His major goal was to win the Open (Championship), and that he had to learn to flight the ball better and control the ball better. We worked to round off his swing so he could use his body more than his hands and arms,” Leadbetter said.

“Nick said. ‘Throw the book at me.’  I was nervous. He was putting his life in my hands. There was a lot of responsibility there.”

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They settled on a two-year plan. As the rebuilding project was under way, Faldo’s scores naturally went up and he failed to contend in tournaments. The UK media criticized Leadbetter, asking, “‘Who is this unknown coach who is ruining our boy?’”

Leadbetter said any golfer seeking to improve must remain committed to the program and resist the temptation to battle-test things that haven’t been solidly learned. It’s very easy to seek wins, instant solutions, or to be dissuaded from the improvement process by critics and even friends.

Leadbetter says a coach is a huge asset in helping a player stay committed and to provide perspective and accountability. “I said there would be a certain amount of trial and effort, and it would be a team effort. The coach can build his belief system up and allow him to see light at the end of the tunnel, but the responsibility is on the player.”

Despite howls of outrage that Leadbetter was messing with a player who could be exciting like Seve Ballesteros, they remained true to their project.

“It was a great learning experience for me. He would go out and not play well, but he kept on it. He was the ideal student. He was bound and determined. Nothing would get in his way of achieving his goals, his dreams, his desires. All credit to him. He was such a perfectionist.”

For weeks in the tournament season, Faldo would remain on the range doing his drills. “But he’d also play tournaments where he took his technical thoughts on the course, which we know is not ideal. He was confident and I was confident.”

After two years and one month of working together, Faldo made 18 straight pars in the final round to win the Open Championship in July 1987. British commentator Peter Allis said Faldo became so consistent that he was boring. “He had cut out the excitement, but he had also eradicated the mistakes,” Allis said.

Leadbetter and Faldo continued to work together.  As the major victories piled up, Leadbetter became the first celebrity golf coach and the era of the golf guru was born. Along with golf academies around the world, Leadbetter has produced a series of books and training devices, including his latest The StraightAway.

Howard asked if it was realistic for the average amateur golfer to try to change his or her swing. Considering we were talking with the world’s most famous golf instructor—we called him Mr. Leadbetter on our podcast—we found his answer surprising.

“I have a theory that when you get to your mid to late 20s, you’ve formed a DNA with your technique. You see players in their 30s, 40s and 50s and they try to make big swing changes. It might work on the range, but when you get on the course old habits re-appear,” he said.

Rather than try to change your swing, Leadbetter suggested that you study pictures and videos of older players such as Faldo. “Look at the commonalities of great players. There are certain basics you can follow.”

He added: “There are certain things amateurs can do: keep flexible as you get older, lose a bit of weight to keep your energy levels up, get a solid set-up position, work on your grip, and work on drills that have worked in the past.”

He said that golfers tend to get lost by trying “this and that.”

Asked if he contributed to that with his all of instruction content, he said, “Am I bringing out anything new? No, it’s probably just in a different wrapping. Have I changed my philosophy? I’d say it’s evolved,” he said, adding he’s amazed by what he’s learned from studying biomechanics.

Although he was at the forefront of using video as a teaching tool in the 80s, Leadbetter said he now focuses more on how “the internal works rather than what it looks like.

“It’s desirable to improve, but you need someone to oversee you,” he said. “Get a coach to devise a plan for you. (Consider) your goals, your talent level, how much time do you have to practice. All these things go into the mix.”

If you’re hoping to send your index to the basement this season, that’s some pretty solid advice to take with you.

If you are interested in how you can apply mindfulness to your golf game to develop a better mental game, check out my new live online course—Quiet Mind Golf: Lower Your Score With Less Noise in Your Head. Register today by sending an email to tim@oconnorgolf.ca.

Tim O'Connor
Tim O'Connor is a golf coach, an award-winning writer, and speaker. Tim takes a holistic approach, coaching golfers in the physical and mental aspects of golf. He co-hosts the Swing Thoughts podcast, and is the author of The Feeling of Greatness: The Moe Norman Story. He plays bass in CID — a Guelph punk band!

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