The most low-profile, high-profile swing coach in golf

September 12, 2019
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Look closely and you’ll spot him. Not front and center. But Denis Pugh will be there on the range at a professional golf tournament, most likely standing quietly nearby as Francesco Molinari hits shots. Pugh might step forward now and then and offer a few words to the 2018 Open champion he calls “my best work.” But there will be no preening or posturing for any watching cameras. It will be all business—quiet and efficient.

That has forever been the way of things for Pugh, who is perhaps the most low-profile, high-profile swing coach in the world of golf today. Which is odd. A glance at Pugh’s history reveals a number of well-known names and, even more significant, a variety of swings and personalities that have graced the international game during the past three decades. In addition to Molinari, Pugh, 64, has at various times guided the likes of Frank Nobilo, Colin Montgomerie, Ross Fisher, Peter O’Malley, Greg Turner, Wayne Riley, Mike Harwood and Peter Fowler to success around the globe.

Surprisingly, as far as Pugh’s coaching is concerned, O’Malley’s is the name that is perhaps the most significant on that list. In a more than 30-year professional career, the Australian is most famous for three things: playing the last five holes on the King’s Course at Gleneagles in seven under par to win the 1992 Scottish Open, defeating Tiger Woods in the first round at the 2002 World Match Play Championship, and ball-striking that is legendary for its quality and consistency. “No one in the history of golf has missed more 10-foot birdie putts than Pom [O’Malley’s nickname],” his friend and compatriot Mike Clayton once said, simultaneously paying tribute to O’Malley’s tee-to-green play and revealing the fatal flaw in his game.

More glibly, Molinari has been labeled “Pom with a putter.” The pair share strikingly similar stocky builds and a propensity for full-swing consistency. Did O’Malley help prepare Pugh for the work he has done with the first Italian to win a major championship?

Yes and no. Times have changed, as, by necessity, has Pugh’s teaching, something that leaves the native of Essex, England, more than a little ambivalent. “Pro golfers who don’t hit the ball 300 yards or so through the air are not competitive today,” he says. “Part of Francesco’s pre-round warm-up is to blast three balls as hard as he can. Is that good for his game? Yes, for the game as it is now. But it isn’t the game I grew up with.

“It was different before. No one has ever hit the center of the clubface more often than Pom. Or found the middle of more fairways. If Pom was playing the regular tour now, he would have gone for power more than accuracy. He would have had to do that to survive. And that’s the difference. Francesco was prepared to risk all in the search for more power. Because that’s all that counts these days.”

Pugh then expands on Molinari’s routine.

“Francesco actually hits three to five shots at full speed with a variety of clubs. He starts each warm-up with five 8-irons to get his swing underway. At that point, he’ll hit five more 8-irons, each one at a different speed. He has three: training speed, level two and level three. I ask him to hit each shot at those different tempos. Then he moves up to a 6-iron. Same drill. And after that, based on the shots he has just hit, we proceed depending on what we think he needs to work on. That’s where the TrackMan comes in. Then he goes to his driver. Same thing with the five shots. He’ll hit most of those at level two, which is what he uses on the course. Level three is used to see what speed he can get to. Next up is his 7-iron. He hits five shots with that club. Never more than five. He’s basically winding down. Then he goes into targets, all pre-measured by his caddie. He’ll hit one shot to each target, or a group of three to one target, each time measuring how close he is. So the first part of the warm-up is to create speed. The second part is to test accuracy.”

Struggling As A Player, Thriving As A Coach

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As a player, Pugh never reached such heights—or lengths. His career highlight was winning a mini-tour event in the United States against “a good field.” A self-confessed short-hitting, wild driver who hit too many iron shots fat, he was tour standard with a wedge and occasionally had enough gumption to hole the odd putt.

“But I couldn’t hit the ball at all,” he says. “I was able to pre-qualify regularly—maybe 50 percent of the time. And when I did that, I would make the cut maybe 50 percent of the time. That might be good enough to make a living these days, but it wasn’t back then. I wasn’t good enough to do well, but I wasn’t bad enough to stop.”

Pugh did stop in 1979, when legendary coach Phil Ritson bluntly told him he didn’t have what it takes to be a great player, but he did have what it takes to be a good coach. A few years later, Pugh was working with David Leadbetter as his fellow Englishman was making Nick Faldo great rather than good.

“When Faldo won the Open in 1987, David became the star name in coaching terms, and that helped me because I was best placed to explain what David was all about,” Pugh says. “I was one of the few people in the U.K. who knew how to analyze a swing on video. Anyway, David was hot, and I was associated with him. And I knew how to work a video camera. On those things, I built a career.”

In time, more and more tour players went to see Pugh, many of them from Down Under. One, Turner, was rescued, his game a mix of tops and shanks before Pugh entered his life. Nobilo, now a mainstay of Golf Channel’s coverage, was another.

“I went to Denis as part of a search for improvement,” Nobilo says. “I was questioning what causes what. And he was also a little anti-establishment, which suited me. We were contrarians together. And Denis was as hungry to make a name for himself as I was. He is the best coach I ever worked with. The things that changed my game the most and made me competitive, I did under his tutelage. I was with him from 1988-’89 to 1996. I played my best golf under him. My swing was technically sound. And a lot of people liked it. He made me believe in myself. He preached three things: posture, positioning and plane. That described my swing perfectly. It worked well under pressure, and I could fix it when it went wrong.”

That’s in complete contrast to Pugh’s most famous student, pre-Molinari. Montgomerie might be the last person in the world anyone would go to for an in-depth explanation of how the golf swing works. On the range at the K Club in Ireland, a journalist once had to explain to the eight-time European No. 1 why it was easier to fade the ball with a 3-iron rather than a 9-iron:

“Loft creates backspin, Colin, which negates sidespin.”

“Really? I never knew that.”

For Pugh, teaching such ignorance was a new challenge. This was no swing re-build for Turner, or a long-term fine-tuning with Nobilo. This was a unique experience with a unique golfer, but one that proved to be mutually beneficial.

“Monty made me better at what I do,” Pugh says. “Learning to coach in chaos was interesting. He taught me to be adaptable. Day to day, I never knew which Monty was going to appear. Or in what circumstances I would be teaching him. He fired me 19 times over 12 years. He rehired me 19 times, too. He made me more multidimensional. There is one way for every player, but no one way for every player.

“Working with Monty was always interesting, but over time he basically cost me the rest of my ‘stable,’ with one or two exceptions,” Pugh says. “The other players didn’t like that Monty was sucking up their time with me. He expected full-time attention.”


That was to prove even more impossible for Pugh, whose life changed forever on Saturday, Sept. 18, 1999. Arriving back from picking up pizzas for the family lunch—son Robert was 12, daughter Victoria, 10—Pugh saw an ambulance in his driveway. His wife, Lesley, had suffered a massive heart attack during his brief absence. Two days later, after being told there was no sign of brain activity, Pugh made the agonizing decision to turn off her life-support machine. She was 43.

“It took me about 18 months to get to the stage where I could talk about it without crying,” says Pugh, who married again in 2003 and commutes between London and Munich to be with Nettie, a Supreme Court judge in Germany. “Even now, at certain times, I get tearful if I think about it. I can still get upset. But I don’t like to look backward. I prefer to live in the present and look to the future. I was always a bit that way, but now I’m totally that way. I’m not comforted by my memories. I just feel an enormous sadness, thinking about what could have been.”

After Lesley’s passing, Pugh stopped traveling on tour, gave up his occasional appearances on Sky Sports television coverage and took a club professional job at The Wisley club near London. Apart from the occasional visit from Monty or Pom, that was his working life, the rest devoted to bringing up his two children.

“I look back now and know how much my mum’s death affected his life,” Robert says. “It was obviously a devastating blow for all of us, but a huge thing for my dad. As a kid, I didn’t see that as much as I do now. Before that, I had never had a cooked meal from my dad. But that became an everyday thing. He learned how to cook. He did all the washing and the ironing. He became both parents, even as he had a career, too. I’m amazed by how much he did, really.

“He was always there when my sister and I needed him,” Robert says. “We were always his first priority. I will always be grateful for all that he did for us. He’s been a great dad. And he still loves golf, even if he claims he doesn’t. He’s always talking about it. He’s always trying to get better. And he spends too much time on Twitter.”

Indeed, the elder Pugh—who refuses to give swing tips on social media—is a prolific Tweeter, his vehemently pro-remain views on the United Kingdom’s imminent exit from the European Union (Brexit) taking up much character space amid the golf stuff.

“Clichéd thinking is everywhere,” he says with a smile and a shake of the head. “And when it comes to politics and golf, many people don’t want to know, because they already think they know. It’s better to think the lie than be told the truth.”

Pugh also explains another of his distinctions on Twitter: He frequently posts photos of place settings for his meals. The explanation?

“This started when I noticed how often people would tweet pictures of whatever they were about to eat,” he says. “Like anyone could ever care what they were having for dinner. I couldn’t care less. So, as a joke, I started posting pics of our table set for dinner. My wife and I always do that, even when we’re watching television. So it’s really just me offering up some of my patented sarcasm. I’ve had 60,000 impressions of my table settings. On average, I get 8,000 if I post Francesco’s swing in slow-motion. Amazingly, people take this stuff seriously. I get people tweeting to ask who is the left-hander who will be sitting at the table. There isn’t one. My wife is German and has her own way with cutlery. Other people ask why I’m drinking a 2018 vintage wine when 2017 is much better. They’re going as far as blowing up the picture to see what type of wine is there. So I’ve had others asking why we’re on the still water rather than the sparkling we had the night before. Amazing stuff, really. Ridiculous, and a commentary of what Twitter is really like.”

Back to business. Pugh has worked with Molinari since coaching Francesco and older brother Edoardo on the Italian amateur team. It has been an unusually long and uninterrupted relationship in a world where the inclination of the player is so often to look elsewhere when things are perhaps not going exactly to plan.

“I am obviously biased,” Francesco says, “but I think Denis has great knowledge. He has a great way of working—not too intense or invasive. For me, he always had a long-term picture in his head. Little by little, he has made me better. In the beginning, I didn’t realize what he was doing. But I matured enough to see where we were going. Our secret is that his message has never gotten old. Denis is always researching and updating his ideas. So the message has changed and evolved. Denis is a lot more driven and ambitious than people realize, just because he is generally happy and smiling. But he is similar to me—and this is why we get on so well—in that we both have a huge drive to get better. Without shouting about it. When it is time, we work very hard.” When that time comes, watch them carefully.

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Golf Digest senior editor of instruction, Ron Kaspriske talks with Denis Pugh for details on his teaching approach.

Golf Digest: You’ve credited Phil Ritson with getting you started as a teacher. Best advice he gave you?

He once said, “If you can’t help someone, don’t f--- them up.” That’s good advice for any teacher.

GD: What’s your primary goal when giving a lesson?

If you had a lesson with me right now, the things I would tell you, you could use on the course tomorrow. It wouldn’t be like, “Go to the range and hit 400 balls” to get it, because if it isn’t going to work inside of 10 balls, you’re probably not going to be able to do it.

GD: If I came to you and said I’m slicing the ball off the toe of the club, how would you fix me in 10 balls?

If you’re hitting it out on the toe, that’s a compensation for the fact you slice the ball. First thing I’d do is fix your path. It needs to be going farther right if you’re a right-handed player. In the old days, they’d tell you to swing so the clubface closed sooner—roll your wrists over. But the swing happens too fast to try to control the face with your hands. Better to get the path of your swing moving so it’s open in relation to the clubface at impact. If you’re out on the toe, you might snap-hook some to start, but I guarantee you won’t hit a slice.

GD: What was your first real coaching experience?

I got an offer of a job in 1983 at Wanstead Golf Club in London—running the pro shop, playing with the members and some coaching. But I started to realize that I loved teaching a lot more than trying to sell someone a shirt or a set of clubs. On Mondays, which was my day off, I used to hire some hitting bays at a local driving range and teach groups of four golfers at a time. I’d work with them for two hours and then cycle through three more groups each time. I was making more money in a day than I was making in a week as the club pro. I knew I was better off on the lesson tee.

GD: Any other teaching influences?

David Leadbetter. Everyone says he’s a great golf coach, but I think he’s just a great teacher. I always felt he could teach me Japanese if he wanted. That’s the type of teacher he is.

GD: How did your time with Colin Montgomerie help you as a teacher?

I learned that you don’t have to have a textbook swing to have great success in golf. If you have a player who can hit all the shots and play under pressure, what you have to do is figure out what makes his or her swing work and know how to put it back together when things are off. Some of the best sessions with Monty were when he was hitting it great. He’d say, “Remember what it looks like, Denis. You’re earning your money now. When it stops working, you need to tell me how to get this back.” Whether it’s dealing with the mind of a golfer going haywire, or it’s the last day of a major and your player’s swing is awful, you have to find something. The way I do it—I know this sounds crazy—is that I switch my brain off and just go with the first thing that pops into my mind that I think will help. Instead of thinking, I just react. And I don’t even question it.

GD: How surprised were you at Francesco Molinari’s improvement?

The change was amazing. He already had contended in majors and played on Ryder Cup teams, and I think he reached 14th in the World Golf Ranking. But he then went through a slump and was really struggling just to stay in the top 50. He didn’t want to be that sort of player. When he asked me what he needed to do, I said, “You’ve got to be 20 yards longer. You don’t hit the ball far enough, and your short game needs help.” So, what he did was get a physical trainer to get stronger, work with me to change his swing—to take the brakes off of it—and hire short-game coaches James Ridyard and Phil Kenyon. And a mental coach, too, Dave Alred.

GD: Elaborate on “taking the brakes off” Francesco’s swing.

What it means is eliminating any movement that is stopping the flow of power to the ball. It could be anywhere in the swing. Depends on the player. With Frankie, he was able to pick up 20 yards off the tee by making a better turn off the ball. His right leg straightens going back, and his right hip and shoulder get behind him way more than they used to. He’s definitely stretching out his body in the backswing, loading up. Then, in the downswing, we spent a lot of time getting him to make a move that I describe as a squat and jump. He’s pushing into the ground hard to generate power. There’s more to it than that, but the training focused on using his body to create power as effectively as possible knowing that it’s better to have a wedge in from the first cut of rough than a 5-iron from the middle of the fairway.

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GD: Some players never recover from major overhauls. Was that a concern?

It was risky, but Frankie knew he didn’t want to stay put with his game. Something had to be done, and I think his ambition really came through. He’s a quiet man but very driven. He takes advice better than any athlete I’ve ever seen. He can process coaching really well. Maybe he’ll end up a golf coach, but I hope for his sanity he doesn’t do that.

GD: Your twitter account says you’re “semi-retired.” I don’t get that impression.

Ever since I’ve become semi-retired, I’ve gotten busier. I put that on Twitter to let people know that I’m at the end of the game now; I’m not taking on new students. I’ve got Frankie, Ross Fisher, some college kids and the members at The Wisley club in England. And that’s it. That’s a lot. I have to tell you, recently I’ve turned down three or four well-known golfers who you would think I’m crazy to pass up a chance to work with. They’re good guys, but I’m too busy.

GD: How do you feel about technology reshaping golf instruction?

It’s a natural progression that mirrors technological advances in everything. It’s not the world I grew up in, but you’ve got to learn all these systems to stay relevant. I’m one of the old guys, and it’s easy to say we didn’t need that stuff back then. But nowadays, the whole field can win each week. You need every advantage you can get. You better know whether your player should have a banana on the fourth hole or the sixth hole, because if it helps, it helps. The terminology with all these tech systems is funny, though. It’s like learning a foreign language. A lot of it is things you should never say to a student. I wouldn’t even use some of these words with a tour pro. I just tell them what it should feel like. It’s for me to understand the technical stuff, but I want players to play.

GD: Is there anything out there in golf instruction that is hurting the average player?

Less now than perhaps in the past, when people were trying to concentrate on positions in the swing as being key positions. I think the guys who do good work on tour, and the guys who do good research on the swing, are learning that it’s not about a set of swing positions—it’s a flow.

GD: You have a reputation for being outspoken. Is that fair?

I tend to be a rebel, and I’ve upset a lot of people along the way. But it never worried me about being popular—I don’t give a s---. I really don’t. I don’t have intentions of leaving a legacy. My intention is to live my life and do what I do. The last time I got involved with talking technique on Twitter, about five or six years ago, was with the stack-and-tilt guys. They had so much good information, but they were telling everyone else they were wrong. They weren’t wrong. You look at those guys and say, “Some of your research is great, but don’t tell everyone they’ve got to get in these positions.” Monty didn’t need stack-and-tilt.

GD: What’s another example of a great coaching job?

It was with a lady member of Wanstead. We’re talking 30 years ago. She could not get the ball airborne. At the time in England, to play the course, you had to have a handicap of 36 or better. With my help, she got down to 29. From where she started to where she got, that’s the best coaching I ever did. She got it airborne and got it around the golf course with no talent for sports whatsoever. And my first lesson? It was a lady member, and I just thought, Let her still like me at the end of this lesson. That was back when I still cared.