Getting a kick out of coaching
He did the business with Jonny Wilkinson, helping the England fly-half become the most reliable kicker in world rugby. He did the business with Luke Donald, his advice contributing to the Englishman becoming the No. 1 golfer in the world, the man who won the money lists on both sides of the Atlantic in 2011. Can Dave Alred do the business again, this time with Padraig Harrington?
Alred, 60, is a stocky man with black hair and boundless enthusiasm who played rugby union and rugby league and had a spell as a kicker in American football.
His forte is kicking. He was with the England team when they won the Rugby World Cup in 2003 with Wilkinson dropping the winning goal in extra time and also when they performed less successfully in last year’s World Cup.
Alred became involved in golf when Luke Donald’s brother- in-law suggested that the sort of advice that Alred dispensed might help Luke. The two met and started working together late in 2010. “Why golf?” Alred asks on his website. “It’s 95% mental, can be very frustrating, unpredictable, has destroyed confidence and is not dependent on levels of fitness or age.”
Certainly Harrington was finding the game frustrating and unpredictable and at last year's Irish Open he thought of turning to Alred. The man who had won three major championships in 13 months starting in July 2007 had tumbled down the world rankings. Everyone had theories as to the reasons for Harrington’s fall. Most, if not all, were wrong, according to the man himself.
“I was screaming all last year. I know I’ve tailed off since winning the majors. But I thought I had the answer and knew how to get back there [to playing well again] but I couldn’t do it. When you know what the answer is, it really, really bugs you when you don’t deliver it.”
Late last year a frustrated Harrington contacted Alred and the two men began a trial last month. “Let me put it like this,” Harrington said. “I am asking myself a different question even though the answers would be the same at the end of the day.”
When Aldred worked with Wilkinson he was able to demonstrate what he wanted. Even at twice Wilkinson’s age he is a longer kicker – and he may be a better one, too. There is a passage in Wilkinson's recently published book that is relevant.
He and Alred were practising in a park in Brisbane, Australia, and after kicking to one another over some palm trees they started aiming at an electrical pylon with six hexagonal panels round it, 20 metres away. “He’s [Alred] got a ball in his hands and is talking body position and bodyweight shift and he is halfway through his sentence when he kicks the ball,” Wilkinson wrote. “The ball flies smack into one of these panels and rebounds along the same trajectory... he traps the ball with his right foot and continues his sentence without pausing for breath. As if I needed any further affirmation that this is a guy I need to listen to!"
But would that sort of advice work at golf? Although a 3-handicapper, Alred does not have the same level of skill with a golf club. “I can best describe him as my practice coach,” Harrington said. “He’s brought a renewed focus to my practice, and everything about my practice now has a department.
He says to me: ‘We are going to spend ‘x’ amount of time on this, ‘x’ amount of time on that,’ and so on.” Partnerships in golf come and go. For a while Nick Faldo swore by the coaching of David Leadbetter. Stewart Maiden was the one and only coach of the great amateur, Bobby Jones. Jack Nicklaus famously worked all his life with Jack Grout, seeing him for a tune-up at the start of each season, and little else. But Tiger Woods has worked with three coaches since turning professional – Butch Harmon for ten years and Hank Haney for six before moving to Sean Foley in 2011.
By comparison, Alred’s role is short-term.
Initially, it was only one week. It remains to be seen how long it will last. Suffice to say that Harrington, who had fallen to 88th in the world rankings the week he started working with Alred, was pleased with the Bristolian’s work and approach.
“The big thing for me is that he hasn’t said anything to me that is going to change my world that I thought should have been done another way. I agree with everything. It’s all a question of having somebody manage me more. It’s just diligence, hard work and discipline.”