Coaches becoming ever more high profile
They are scattered on the practice area at every major event, rangefinder in one hand, digital camera in the other. They all have important clients. Some of them even have agents.
In today's world of professional golf, the instructor has become a major part of the story --- sometimes even a major distraction. Look no further than the soap opera that has played out since Tiger Woods parted with teacher Butch Harmon two years ago.
When Woods was seen in May, prior to the Byron Nelson tournament, accompanied by teacher Hank Haney in a practice round in Dallas, it was treated more like a Britney Spears sighting.
When Harmon popped off at the U.S. Open about Woods being "in denial" in regard to his recent swing problems, NBC-TV dug in as though Colin Powell had roasted President Bush for faulty grammar.
Is it too much? Is there too much emphasis being placed on the teacher?
Maybe. Even with a high-profile instructor on call -- Woods used to send his jet to pick up Harmon whenever necessary -- sometimes the tour players, relatively speaking, struggle like the rest of us.
Look at Woods, who is still No. 1 in the world. He seems to be getting advice from anyone who has ever opened a copy of Golf Digest, but he hasn't contended in a major since last year's British Open.
"I've been to teachers where you say, 'This guy's got it,'" veteran Dan Forsman said. "You work so hard, you swallow it all, and for a week it works. Then it's like, 'Hey, what happened?' and you go to somebody else. It's just like switching putters."
Says Justin Leonard, whose swing was reworked by Harmon, "I think there are some instructors that are overrated. I wouldn't say they all are. But you don't need to read a baseball magazine about how to throw a curveball, do you?"
But when Phil Mickelson won the Masters in April to end his career-long major championship famine, instructors Rick Smith and Dave Pelz were given huge credit, even walking with the left-hander step-by-step through the preparation process at Augusta National. Following the same plan at the U.S. Open, Mickelson nearly won a second consecutive major at Shinnecock Hills two weeks ago.
Today's instructors have become so high-profile that management agencies issue press releases when they agree to represent them.
Harmon reportedly was getting $1 million a year from Woods in their peak years. With the fee came the understanding that Harmon was on 24-hour call and that Tiger always had first priority over Butch's other students.
David Leadbetter's fee for a four-hour lesson at his school in Orlando, Fla., is $8,000.
In some cases, teachers get a percentage of the player's earnings. More common are year-end bonuses. Jeff Sluman bought his longtime teacher, Craig Harmon, a Mercedes. Tom Lehman was said to have written teacher Jim Flick a $60,000 cheque after winning theOpen in 1996.
Instructors have gotten so much attention lately, golf fans can match up players with their teachers more easily than with their caddies. They will all be on the range next week at the British Open. Some parading, some remaining in the background.
Not at every bag, mind you. Players such as Chris DiMarco, Chad Campbell and Jonathan Kaye, for example, don't think instructors are so vital. They basically are self-taught and don't employ teachers.
What's up with that?
"Unfortunately," DiMarco said, "out here you see a lot of guys who teach a theory instead of teaching you how to be better with what you've got. They think that their theory applies to everyone. Obviously, I've proved that I can win tournaments. I don't need to change my swing to swing like Steve Elkington or Nick Price. I need to swing like Chris DiMarco."
That's one thing Mickelson likes about Rick Smith: he doesn't mold a buy-my-video swing to the player. That's evident with the contrasting styles of his clients. Nobody would confuse Mickelson's action with that of Jerry Kelly or Rocco Mediate.
"The best thing about Rick is that he doesn't try to apply one method to everybody," Mickelson said. "He looks at your swing and goes off of that. He doesn't try to do something that feels unnatural or doesn't feel comfortable."
Andrade, who might still be with Smith had he not "gotten so busy," works with Billy Harmon, who has a much lower profile than Butch. Communication, Andrade said, is everything.
"I went to a prominent teacher once and had a lesson for an hour or so, and I didn't understand anything he said," Andrade recalled. "The chemistry was awful. Nothing he said made any sense."
Says Smith, "Your object is not to become the No. 1 teacher, but to have your players become the No. 1 players. And the minute you can understand that, you're doing it for the right things or the right reasons."
Butch Harmon, whose ego has grown in proportion to his bank account, is known for making long-term swing changes with a player, as with Woods in 1998-99. But with Butch comes some extra baggage, like his inability to stay out of the newspapers. It was a problem for Woods, whose every move is magnified.
Swing-wise, however, Harmon's results are unmatched. Adam Scott, his new star, basically has Woods' old swing and this year has won two PGA Tour events -- including The Players Championship -- with it.
"I knew Butch wasn't going to sugar-coat anything, and I needed some tough love," Leonard said. "I'm sure Butch wouldn't work with some guys. Everybody's a little different with what they want to hear and how they want to hear it."
Smith says he does not charge Tour players for his time, but with an estimated $250,000 annual income from Ford -- Mickelson's chief sponsor -- the need is lessened. Multi-faceted as a course designer and TV personality, Smith gets invaluable public relations from his Tour player connections.
"I would never ask for anything like a commission on their Tour winnings," he said. "I just couldn't do it. I'm here spending time with these guys, and I'm not going to send them a bill. It all comes out. If they do well, it all takes care of itself."
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