If the game of golf handed out some sort of longevity award, David Leadbetter would be among only a handful of instructors meriting the honor. Although technically considered a modern teaching professional, Leadbetter has been analyzing golf swings for nearly 40 years. I’d venture to guess he’s conducted tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of lessons during that timespan.
His most famous pupil, of course, was golf legend Nick Faldo. He and Leadbetter wrote the book, figuratively and literally, on swing reconstructions. It’s a substantive story that’s been told and re-told over the years, and the effect of Faldo’s post swing-change success made Leadbetter one of the most sought-after instructors in the game. Perhaps one disadvantage gained from all that publicity is that every subsequent relationship naturally ended up being compared to the work he did with the six-time major winner. If you only listen to his most vocal critics, you would come away thinking that Leadbetter never coached another successful pro golfer. But in actuality, his students have combined to win hundreds of professional tournaments, including 19 major championships, while four separate players took turns holding the top spot in the Official World Golf Ranking.
Over time, Leadbetter successfully leveraged his brand recognition as a world-class teaching professional into a multi-faceted business model that includes 24 full-time golf academies around the world, Leadbetter-branded golf training aids and instructional videos. He’s also authored seven golf books, including a brand new one called, The A Swing: the Alternative Approach to Great Golf.
In the new book, Leadbetter offers up some unconventional ideas about the golf swing. Mainly, that the “model” backswing we tend to see day in and day out on the Pro tours is too difficult to master for most amateur players. In the A Swing, Leadbetter shows golfers how to take the club back on a steeper plane, in unison with the turning of their core. It’s a shorter, more compact backswing that puts the player in a position to engage their natural athletic ability to deliver the club at impact to hit solid shots. The goal is to simplify the requirements of the golf swing, and one of the main tenants that gets repeated often is synchronization. We see it in all good players, as Leadbetter points out, and we see a total lack of it in players who struggle.
From a scientific standpoint, the A Swing is said to adhere to solid fundamental principles. Together with J.J. Rivet, a leading biomechanics expert, Leadbetter measured the efficiency of the A Swing against more traditional models and found that the hands traveled 20 percent less in distance than they did in a traditional swing while shoulder rotation increased by 10 percent. At the same time, the more compact method of the A Swing led to better synchronization between the body and the movement of the arms and club, creating better impact conditions and higher ball speeds.
When I spoke to Leadbetter recently, I asked him to summarize the reaction to the A Swing. As you would expect, he was pretty upbeat about the way in which it’s been received by most golfers and swing analysts. At the same time, he didn’t shy away from acknowledging the small, but vocal minority that haven’t endorsed the A Swing philosophy.
“Overall I’m really pleased with it. Obviously it’s different and it’s caused a little bit of controversy shall we say in certain circles because we know golf is very traditionalist,” he says. “But the biggest thing is that it’s created a platform where people can talk about things that are different from the norm.”
In our conversation, which spanned nearly an hour over the phone, Leadbetter discussed how the main elements of the A Swing work, offered his opinion on why so many recreational players struggle with the full swing and reflected back on his career as a golf instructor.
J.J. Rivet mentions that the origins of what would become the A Swing took shape during a visit with you in 1998. Obvious question, but what took so long to document the components of the A Swing and release a book?
It certainly wasn’t finalized back in 1998. This was my first instruction book in 10 years essentially and I really wanted to make sure that when I was finally ready to bring another book out it would have a bit more of scientific background attached to it. J.J. and I did a lot of research about the swing with the facility he has down in France which is a designated European Tour facility. He gets a lot of European tour players coming down just to sort of have an analysis of where they are [in terms of their game]. So we then figured out where these guys are stronger and weaker. And we were able to get together with their swing coaches and workout people and pretty much devise a plan.
Once I really felt like I had a handle on it and was able to express my thoughts in a really simple fashion I would give it a go. So we started the actual book about 18 months or so ago. In the meantime obviously, I had a lot of thoughts which coincided with my beliefs about the golf swing. J.J. very kindly said that I was very lucky from an analysis standpoint because he said I have biomechanical eyes. Some of the things that I saw or instinctively felt he was able to prove scientifically.
Let’s talk about the A Swing. The A stands for alternative. What are the fundamental elements that make it so different from other forms of instruction?
It’s different but it’s not radical. Coaches, teachers and physiologists will agree generally speaking that once you get yourself to the top of the backswing, the actual sequence of motion starting down – your lower body then your upper body then your arms and your hands – in that sort of order is the same. The thing is – how do you get to that point? To me, in all the years I’ve been in the game the thing that has been the most complex for most golfers is the backswing – trying to get the club head into a position where you can achieve the proper downswing. Most players never get there.
If you think in terms of baseball you really don’t have much of a backswing. You’re pretty much in position and you make a minimal movement and you’re into the hitting position. But in golf we get so tied up with trying to make this perfect backswing and for many golfers trying to achieve that motion on a consistent basis is extremely difficult. The essence of this A Swing is really all about synchronizing. To me that’s sort of a huge aspect of the swing. Once you synchronize your arms with the body you then have a chance to create a lot of consistency. The way I look at it, ideally, once you complete your body rotation going back, the club should pretty much complete its swinging motion to the top. As you start down, the club should be in sync with the body.
You mention synchronization. Why do so many recreational players struggle with it?
I don’t think many people have a clue what synchronization even means. When it happens, it just happens for them and they hit the ball well. The problem when people think of “turning” they basically finish their backswing with their body before the club has even gotten half-way back. From that point on they now lift their arms to the top so there’s not that sort of “synced-up” look where by (as I like to say) the rotation of the body or coiling of the body finishes the backswing. In most people’s cases, their arms zip to the top and as soon as that happens you’ve now created a whole host of problems. From then on, how do get the club back to the ball? Most amateurs will start their downswing with the arms because the club has to somehow catch up to the body. So they throw the club from the top.
The essence of the A Swing is to get the person in sync. Once they feel coiled and wound up to whatever extent they can, they can start forward and the arms and club just follow.
There’s a chapter in your book that introduces this concept of the prayer grip. Can you clarify what it is, and why it’s an important element of the A Swing?
First of all one of the biggest faults in golf for most amateurs is the grip. If they only took half the prayer grip they’d be better off. Most players (right handed golfers) – the way they grip the club with their left hand, they grip it up in the palm. When you do that it creates a tremendous amount of tension and it doesn’t create the ability to move the club freely. What these players generally do is take the club back with their right hand or they roll their forearms to get some sort of motion, to get the club away.
Ben Hogan’s book, as great as it is, did a disservice to golf by suggesting that people put the club up in the palm, creating a whole nation of slicers. Bare in mind that he had unbelievable flexibility and he was trying to cure a hook.
Getting the club towards the fingers which is what this prayer grip does with the left hand is really important. Now with the right hand, we suggested that you move it on top, so you have the left hand in the strong position and the right hand in the weak position. What we’re suggesting here is that you eliminate any sort of face or shaft rotation going back. it almost feels like it’s going back in a closed position. This right hand position on top really discourages the fanning and opening of the club. When you have your right hand in a parallel position as is the case in a more conventional approach, the hand works almost behind you and hinges back on its self which tends to get the club too far behind the hands. What we’re always stressing in the book is – hands in and the club head out. The hands move on one track, and the club head moves on another.
So it’s different, but it really aids what we’re trying to do. Is it impossible to do with a normal grip? No, but most players grip the club in their hands as if they were holding a putter. Do you have any idea how many lines I’ve drawn on gloves in my career in order to place the club in the right position? We’re trying to encourage proper wrist action. The feedback we’ve had from people is that they get quite comfortable with it once they’ve tried it for a while.
You’ve coached a lot of great golfers and you’ve observed a lot of great golf swings, directly and indirectly. What kind of effect have these players had on you as a teacher and in developing the A Swing?
Well, Calvin Peete was always one of my favorite swingers. You talk about somebody who could hit the ball on a string, that guy did it! He had to be without a doubt, the most accurate player to have ever played the game.
I’ve been a big studier of swings through the years. I look at Jack Nicklaus and he had traits of the A Swing. If you look back at his heyday the club was very much up on its end, very vertical. Everybody has influenced my philosophy and understanding of the swing.
Unfortunately we get so involved with power these days, but I think most amateurs would settle with hitting it straighter, more consistently. And we have found with the A Swing, because golfers are more efficient with the way they swing the club, their ball speed increased and they hit the ball more often from the middle of the club face.
Why do so many golfers struggle making a fluid, athletic swing that allows them to play competent golf? Is it a case of too much tinkering? Practicing too little? Or just a general lack of understanding what works best for their physical abilities and limitations?
I probably think it’s a combination of all that. But I also think quite honestly that people have too many swing thoughts in their head and they really can’t create a fluid motion. [My recommendation] is to make a bunch of practice swings; do these little practice exercises in the book to make the motion that you want. I get a lot of players, including Lydia Ko, who spends a great deal of practice time hitting balls with her eyes closed in order to feel, sense and create a flow you need or maintain. The problem is the more you think the tighter you get, and that inhibits any sort of a natural flow.
How has advances in technology such as TrackMan influenced your approach to teaching the golf swing?
A lot has changed as far as how we analyze the game with launch monitors, 3D analysis, high-speed video and force plates. These things give us, as teachers, a lot of information. But, as I like to say, all it does is prove your swing – as in, “we got the numbers to prove it”. Look, it is useful from a standpoint of being able to quantify different changes. If you’re a slicer and you have the club swinging left 14 degrees and then you work on things and then the numbers say you’re only four degrees – that’s a huge improvement. It’s a great a tool for being able to suss out what we do [as teachers], but it’s a tool like anything else.
At times, I think it’s probably overused by certain people. I’m actually glad that I grew up in an era where I had to use my eyes and my instincts to teach.
I can’t help but ask you about Lydia Ko. Naturally, she was already an accomplished player and a great ball striker when you and Sean Hogan partnered with her. Why change her swing pattern, incorporating elements of the A Swing?
I wouldn’t say she’s a full A Swing. I would say she’s incorporating a mild, or medium version of it.
When she came to us she was already a very accomplished player and had won a number of tournaments. We were actually fairly reluctant to even work with her. But they insisted that they needed to work with a coach in America and have eyes on her, so to speak.
So when I looked at Lydia, having done this as a teacher for many years, the only thing I had an issue with is that she could not draw the ball. She could pull it, but she could not draw it. And when you looked at her build, let’s face it, power is a factor. I suppose you can make an argument that she’s a little bit stronger now, she’s got a new Callaway driver . . . But she’s 20 yards longer now and she can move it right to left without sacrificing any accuracy. So that’s a big, big factor.
Additionally, she had some things going with her swing which was pretty hard on her body. She had this sort of wide backswing and a big movement with the hips. Yeah, at 15 or 16 years of age you can make a lot of things work, so we made some subtle adjustments. She still has that beautiful rhythm, but the swing is a little bit shorter than it was and the club is coming from quite a different angle, from a positive direction.
When you look at her success rate at this point you’d say it hasn’t been too bad a job. She’s won five more tournaments since we’ve started working with her.
Lastly, I’d like you to go out on a limb and make a prediction. How will golf instruction evolve in the next decade?
Technology will definitely be more involved. We may get to the point where someone will be able to start to feel a swing through some sort of hologram effect. But in the end, let’s get back to the reason why I wrote the A Swing in the first place. When you factor in all the complexity in the world these days – whether it’s social media, or the use of iPads, or the bombardment of emails, the fact remains that if you’re going to be able to play decent golf – you have to keep it simple, stupid – as the saying goes. It’s great to have all this technology but if it’s making the game more complex we’ll have more people give up the game out of frustration.
Originally published on AmateurGolf.com.