Most Interesting Pro-Teacher Pairings
July 09, 2007
Phil Mickelson & Butch Harmon
Divorces and brand-new love affairs happen all the time in the world of player-teacher relationships, but rarely are they as intriguing as the Mickelson-Harmon-Rick Smith saga, which would qualify as its own Telemundo soap opera if those guys were better looking. Mickelson got a well-publicized "check-up" from Harmon at the Match Play early in the year, then finally threw long-time swing consigliere Smith over for Harmon just before the Players Championship. Mickelson promptly won at Sawgrass with a textbook final round, but hurt his wrist before he and Harmon could be validated as the best pairing since, well, Harmon and Tiger Woods. Harmon has always said he has no bad feelings about his own divorce from Woods in 2002, but does anybody seriously think Harmon isn't fantasizing about helping Mickelson dethrone Woods as the No. 1 player in the world? And is Harmon's brand of tough love going to work with Mickelson? This is fun to watch on so many levels.
Michelle Wie and David Leadbetter
Leadbetter probably thought his dealings with surly teenagers would be limited to making sure his son had the car back before curfew. However, he certainly has his hands full with college-freshman-to-be Wie, who in six months has gone from a can't-miss superstar to can't-finish-a-round-without-making-four-doubles-and- withdrawing head case. Wie still has the most raw talent of any woman in the game, but she's fighting injuries, annoying sponsors, and aggravating the LPGA rank and file with her, um, less-than-deferential comments. Leadbetter says he's happy with the work in progress on Wie's swing, but will she mature enough to collect the pile of trophies we set aside for her? Or will she be the only full-time Stanford junior with vestigial shoe and watch endorsement deals? For Leadbetter, when does the aggravation of dealing with Wie -- and all the questions about the squirrelly shots she's been hitting -- outweigh the tantalizing lure of shaping what could be the most dominant female player in history?
Tiger Woods and Hank Haney
When John McEnroe retired, long-time doubles partner Peter Fleming graciously -- and too self-deprecatingly -- said that the two best doubles players in the history of tennis were McEnroe and whomever he happened to be paired with. And therein lies the great promise (and downside) that comes with coaching the best player on the planet. Every teacher dreams of getting the chance to help a once-in-a-generation player like Woods, who not only has off-the-charts ability but the drive to work at his game relentlessly. But to the outside observer (or a catty member of the teaching fraternity), when Woods plays fantastic golf he's doing what he's supposed to do. When he hits stray shots, it must be the teacher's fault. So it's easy to see why Haney has chosen to let Woods' results -- and continued enthusiasm for spending four hours a day on the range hitting balls with his teacher -- speak for themselves. That might not make for much entertainment value when it comes to juicy quotes or controversy (which is why these guys are only third on the list), but the principals seem to be enjoying the arrangement.
Aaron Baddeley and Plummer/Bennett
Call it a cult. Call it a movement. Whatever you call it, Andy Plummer and Mike Bennett have assembled a band of about a dozen PGA Tour followers for their "stack and tilt" swing concept. The most prominent proponent is Baddeley, who has won twice since adopting the style last year. On a tour full of carbon copy golf swings, the Plummer/Bennett boys certainly stand out, with their short backswings and virtual reverse pivots. Players like Mike Weir are swearing by the improved ball-striking, while teachers critical of the method are just waiting for the first ruptured disk and extended medical exemption. Regardless, it's refreshing to have some controversy that doesn't have anything to do with something insomnia-curing, such as moments of inertia or box grooves.
Justin Leonard and Randy Smith
Boy has early success. Boy leaves childhood teacher for famous prominent teacher. Boy struggles and returns to the teacher who knows him best. Wasn't that one of Aesop's fables? Leonard learned to play as a kid from Smith at Royal Oaks in Dallas, and went on to win a British Open (in 1997) and a Players Championship (in 1998) with Smith's help. But by 2000, Leonard felt he had stalled, and abruptly left Smith to work with Butch Harmon. Aside from a late-Sunday challenge at the 2002 PGA Championship that Vijay Singh eventually won in a playoff, Leonard didn't get the major championship results he was looking for. So at the beginning of this season, he asked the legendarily good-natured Smith if he could come back. It's not exactly The Boy Who Cried Wolf, but they got back to work as if Leonard never left. A second-place finish at the Buick Open two weeks ago hints that Leonard is back on track -- and restores my faith in the idea that the good guys in the game (and Smith is one of the best) eventually get what they deserve.