July 8, 2008

A Whole New Ballgame

The relationship between teachers and pros has evolved as much as the swing itself

Leadbetter, who works with Wie now, started a revolution through his relationship with Faldo. Photo: Dom Furore

Leadbetter, who works with Wie now, started a revolution through his relationship with Faldo.

Photo: Dom Furore

Spend an hour with Bob Toski and it's clear after the first five minutes the legendary (and legendarily feisty) instructor wishes some things were the way they were in 1956, when he left the tour to teach full time. Or at least like they were in the mid-1970s, when he was renowned as the most famous teacher in the game for his work with Tom Kite, Judy Rankin and Pat Bradley, and for helping start the star-studded Golf Digest Schools with Davis Love Jr. and Jim Flick.

But one element of the modern business of golf instruction--especially as it relates to the celebrity that goes with teaching tour players--makes the 80-year-old Toski feel as if he was born 40 years too soon. "How much did you say David Leadbetter gets for a lesson, $10,000?" Toski asks, more than a bit wistfully. "I like to think I had something to do with that, bringing the profession to where it is now. Now, I don't think anybody's worth that as a teacher, but if you can get it, fine. I'd take it, but I'd feel like Jesse James."

The business model for the high-profile golf instructor changed forever in 1985, when Leadbetter started helping Nick Faldo make dramatic swing changes. And it happened because Faldo not only was determined to rip up his swing and start over--despite winning the money title in Europe two years before--but also was willing to give Leadbetter credit for helping. "Nick was a good player up to that time, but he just felt he wasn't getting any better," says Leadbetter, who had worked with Nick Price and Denis Watson before Faldo. "He wanted to win an Open, and he was prepared to go at it hammer and tongs--and get worse before he improved."

After more than two years of constant work, Faldo won the 1987 British Open at Muirfield and then collected two more, in 1990 and 1992, to go with three Masters titles. "There was so much publicity, given his move to redo everything in his swing," says Leadbetter, who now teaches Ernie Els, Michelle Wie and Ian Poulter, among other players. "It really chronicled a teacher-player relationship. I think a lot of players started to believe that if Nick Faldo could do it, they could, too. It became an established thing to have a teacher."

Teachers had always bumped into one immutable truth--there are only 14 or so hours of daylight at best. Aided by his new celebrity, Leadbetter changed the focus from volume--booking as many lessons as possible on his calendar, or getting more students to come through golf schools--to hourly rate. Instead of the $100 an hour top teachers were getting in the early 1980s, Leadbetter started charging multiples of that. As the potential for making money increased, better-trained and more-motivated teachers came into the business--often through demanding certification programs such as the one Leadbetter runs--and the average hourly rate steadily increased.

"I've seen so many more people around the game who are very knowledgeable--who understand biomechanics and physiology, along with the golf swing--in just the last 10 years," says Leadbetter, who has 12 assistants working with him at his base at ChampionsGate Golf Resort near Orlando. "I'm seeing people with that knowledge all over the world. It's great for the game, and for the average player, who has more access to good teaching than ever before."

Now, Leadbetter is at the hub of his own mini-industry. He works 200 days a year at ChampionsGate, teaching tour players and giving the occasional $10,000 morning lesson to celebrities, executives and retired dot.com billionaires. He spends the rest of his time on tour with his players, visiting the nearly two-dozen satellite academies he runs (or licenses to IMG) on three continents, hosting outings and giving speeches and promoting his line of videos and teaching aids. It is very safe to say that had Leadbetter's 2005 earnings been pegged to the PGA Tour money list, he would have kept his card, easily.

"I've never gone out to make a living on tour players. They're my PR," says Leadbetter, who tried unsuccessfully to play on the European and South African tours in the late 1970s before moving to Florida to start teaching in 1979. "Plus, teaching them is the next best thing to doing it yourself. That's certainly a part of it. The fact that I was able to associate with players like Nick Price and be involved in this kind of work, it's really just amazing. We basically started a whole industry--books, training aids and corporate outings to go along with the teaching. It's just remarkable to think how far this has come."

As competitive as the superstar teachers are for the attention that comes with working with tour players, they almost all concede that Leadbetter and his relationship with Faldo changed the way the instruction business was perceived, both by tour players and average golfers. "David's the one everybody needs to thank," says Butch Harmon, who helped Greg Norman become the No. 1 player in the world in the early 1990s, then spent 10 years as Tiger Woods' coach. "He made the public aware of the fact that you can charge good money for quality golf instruction."

Thanks to the attention--and increased lesson fees--he got for his time working with Norman and Woods, Harmon doesn't even teach individual lessons to non-tour players anymore. He hosts a series of three-day schools at his facility outside Las Vegas ($5,900, lodging included) when he isn't traveling to work with Fred Couples, Adam Scott, Natalie Gulbis or one of the other dozen or so tour players he teaches. "I look at my father, and when he was teaching tour players, there was no recognition at all," says Harmon, whose father, Claude, was the head professional at Winged Foot and won the 1948 Masters. "It was all by word of mouth back then. Golf instructors are so much more visible now. You've got The Golf Channel, magazines, all of that. Teachers are so much more high-profile."

Hank Haney found that out firsthand when he started working with Woods in 2004. Haney was already a high-profile instructor from his work with Mark O'Meara, but the spotlight got exponentially brighter when Woods acknowledged that he and Haney were working together that summer. Every time Woods struggled in a tournament or sprayed shots with his driver, his decision to change his swing--with Haney's help--got another dose of second-guessing. "The media tends to analyze and overanalyze everything Tiger does," says Haney, who has worked with O'Meara since 1982. "It's analysis from people who are not too informed about what he's trying to do. They all have an opinion. You know that's the way it is going in, but it still doesn't change the fact that it gets a little annoying at times. The answer to it is the same answer to a lot of things. I've got to teach better, and he's got to play better and everything will work out."

Harmon is certainly sympathetic. He got his own ration of second-guessing in 1998, when Woods was going through his previous round of swing changes and won only one tournament after a dominant performance at the 1997 Masters. "There was a lot of attention around Greg [Norman], but there's nothing like working with Tiger. That was an exception to every rule," says Harmon, who taught Woods from 1993 to 2003. "At least working with Greg prepared me for the circus around Tiger. You've got to have a thick skin about it. Hank got thrown into something he wasn't accustomed to, and I think he was sensitive about what people were saying. You can't take it personally, and I think he's learning to do that."

Aside from the constant attention, Harmon says scheduling was the biggest challenge in working with Woods. In addition to the dozen or so tour events Harmon would attend, there was the matter of Woods' relentless practice regimen--at least six hours a day during weeks when he was home. "After 10 years, I was happy to get my free time back," says Harmon, who now does most of his work with tour players in Nevada. "I was ready to move on with my life."

Haney worked 100 days with Woods in 2005 and another 40 for ESPN and ABC as an on-course television commentator. Add in 20 days of outings and appearances for Nike and his other sponsors and the days he spent teaching at his ranch outside Dallas and it's easy to see how the free time disappears. "You look at the effort that David Leadbetter or Butch Harmon put in, they kind of set the standard for this job," says Haney, who still teaches amateur players (at $400 per hour) when he is home. "You obviously want the player to do well, both for him and for you both. You're judged by the success of your students. You live and die by every shot, every round and every tournament. They're putting a lot of faith and a lot of trust in you."

Managing that faith and trust is a challenge for both teacher and player. For a teacher, helping a tour player win for the first time--or win a major--is a powerful career boost and validation of how and what he teaches. For players, it's long-term livelihood that's at stake. "Players are human and they're gullible, especially when they're at a loss with their game," says Leadbetter. "That can really be damaging, giving them something that doesn't help their game at that point. It happened to Ernie Els. He became a student of one of the guys who used to work for me, and it got to the point where he couldn't hit a shot without looking at the video. You've got to be sensitive to that and know when to just let him play. It's not some kind of contest to see if you can give him everything you know."

In 24 years on tour, eight-time winner Brad Faxon has worked with several teachers, most recently Jim McLean, who is based at Doral Golf Resort & Spa in Miami. Faxon describes the relationship between a teacher and player as a delicate balance between what the player actually needs to hit the ball better and what he needs to feel better about his game. "When I go bad, I lose my instinct, my innate feel. I'm trusting what somebody else says rather than what feels good or bad to me," says Faxon. "I've had success with a lot of different teachers. I've had failures with a lot of different teachers. But when I've played my best, I've totally believed what my guy is telling me, and I never vary from it."

Tiger Woods and Hank Haney

Haney and Woods are the marquee teacher-player pairing in the game now, but Phil Mickelson might be having the most current success with his unique arrangement. He employs two instructors, Rick Smith for the full swing and Dave Pelz for the short game, and has been effusive in his praise for their work with him--if reluctant about describing exactly what it is they do, for competitive reasons. "I certainly see the value," says Mickelson, who thanked Smith and Pelz during the presentation ceremony at Augusta in April. "I see the areas of improvement. I see how I feel differently on the course, and the confidence level I have. It's translated into lower scores."

Teacher-player relationships almost always end badly, for a lot of the same reasons love affairs do--lack of progress, lack of interest or somebody else. Woods reportedly was annoyed that Harmon was working with other tour players when he was at a tour event to see Woods. That might not have been the main reason for their split--Woods has said it was because he had learned enough from Harmon to move forward on his own--but it could have been a contributing factor.

Faldo famously "broke up" with Leadbetter in 1998 by letter, unhappy with the amount of time Leadbetter was devoting to him. "Players require a lot of nurturing and attention now," says Leadbetter. "Just recently, Charles Howell thought he wasn't getting enough attention from me, and I thought he was getting too much and he needed to just go out and play. It's all about scheduling now. There's going to be fallout if you can't spend as much time with a player as he would like. I just don't think being on call 24/7 is the best way to go--for me or for the player."

For his part, Toski is plainly scornful of modern players' increasing reliance on instructors. "When we played, we didn't have psychologists or teachers. We had club pros we saw every once in awhile, or players taught other players," says Toski, who still teaches in the white Hogan-style driving cap he wore as a player in the 1950s. "I think players are over-taught and over-controlled now. You've got to be a player, not a searcher, and there are a lot of searchers out there. They think if they get technical with it, it'll repeat. That's not it."

What is it? Toski will tell you. But it'll be $100 for the hour.