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WHOM CAN THE GOLF PROS TURN TO? : Most of Top Players Have Own Teachers : Even the Heavyweights Need Help When They Fall Out of the Groove

Times Staff Writer

During the Tournament of Champions last month in Carlsbad, Jack Nicklaus was often seen on the La Costa Country Club practice range, working on his swing long after he had finished play for the day. There was nothing unusual about that, of course. Nicklaus and other pros spend almost as much time practicing as do concert pianists.

But Nicklaus was not working on his game alone at La Costa. Watching every shot and offering quiet counsel was another pro, Phil Rodgers. Rodgers, a former itinerant professional, gave up the hard life of the PGA tour a few years ago to teach the game to others.

As his sessions with Nicklaus showed, Rodgers--and other teaching pros across the land--do not spend all their time instructing overweight hackers with three-piece swings. Remarkably, Nicklaus, a fellow who plays golf on a higher level than most other humans, needs help with his game, too.

Golf is such a difficult game, in fact, that virtually every pro seeks some kind of help. Sometimes they get it from a friendly competitor. Nicklaus, for example, said he got a helpful suggestion from Lanny Wadkins, who spotted a flaw in his swing at the Masters tournament. Some players have told reporters that even their wives have noticed deviations in their swings. Practicing at a U.S. Open once, Gary Player asked a sportswriter with a 15-handicap to see if his swing was on the right track.

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More often, however, the pros take their problems to their own teachers, as Nicklaus did at La Costa.

So who teaches the pros, anyway?

Rodgers has worked with quite a few besides Nicklaus, among them Bill Kratzert, Lanny Wadkins and Billy Casper. Hank Haney has helped such players as Jay Haas, Corey Pavin, Keith Fergus, Gary Hallberg, Bobby Clampett, Bill Rogers and Mark O’Meara. Tom Kite won the Tournament of Champions only a few days after a Florida teaching pro named Peter Kostis had changed Kite’s swing.

A Phoenix teacher, Ed Oldfield, is popular with the women. He has cured problems for Alice Miller, who won the Dinah Shore tournament in Palm Springs, Jan Stephenson, Donna White, Betsy King and Jane Blalock.

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Jack Grout is another well-known teacher. Raymond Floyd thinks that Grout is a genius, and he may be. While teaching in Columbus, Ohio, 35 years ago, Grout had a 10-year-old pupil named Jack Nicklaus and, well, as somebody said, the rest is history.

Grout still keeps an eye on Nicklaus’ game at the Frenchman’s Creek club in Florida. They see each other more today as friends, rather than as teacher and pupil. Still, Grout usually cancels his lesson appointments to accompany Nicklaus on a practice round.

It’s no wonder, though, that even the best players in the world frequently need help. A good golf swing--there’s no such thing as a perfect one--is as ephemeral as a desert flower or a sunset. It’s here one minute, gone the next. It is as complex as a computer and as fragile as Lalique crystal. The slightest movement of the head, or the wrong positioning of the right arm, can shatter it.

The prevailing view that a pro’s swing is grooved is pure fiction. The slightest deviation in weight distribution, arm position, grip, stance, swing plane or rhythm can wreck even the games of such masters as Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Lee Trevino.

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At La Costa, Trevino said of his third round: “I have never swung an iron so badly. I almost shanked a couple of little wedge shots.” He had no idea why, he said.

Orville Moody, a former U.S. Open champion playing the senior tour, said there are times when he stands over the ball and forgets how to make the shot. Nicklaus’ swing had been “a little tentative,” Rodgers said, and Kite, for much of the year apparently, had been picking the club up too abruptly on his backswing, a flaw that produced too much height and too little distance.

Before he turned his game over to Haney, O’Meara had serious trouble with hooks. In two years, Haney, who is only 29, turned O’Meara’s game around by changing the plane of his swing. Haney advocates a rounded swing. “It’s not flat,” he told Golf magazine.

Haney, a former instructor at the John Jacobs golf schools and the director of instruction at the Pinehurst complex in North Carolina, does not teach a method but focuses instead on fundamentals.

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If a golfer has a bad swing, he must compensate if he wants to hit good shots, and that is not a good idea, Haney says. “But if a player adheres to swing basics, little can go wrong.”

Tom Watson has sought assistance from many sources. One of his first teachers was his father, Ray. “He was a good player, a scratch,” Watson said. While attending Stanford, Watson took lessons from Art Bell, the head professional at Pebble Beach, and later he learned from former PGA star Byron Nelson. Mired in a slump two years ago, Watson took his problems to Nelson again.

Recently, however, Watson has worked more in his home town with Stan Thirsk, the pro at the Kansas City Country Club. “He’s there where I play and we talk about my swing,” Watson said. Other Watson teachers have been pros Paul Weiler and Duke Gibson of Kansas City.

Watson said that rather than having one basic fault, he has a variety of little faults. “Right now, don’t think my grip is very good,” he said at La Costa.

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Lanny Wadkins does have a basic fault, however. “I am so dominant right-eyed, my alignment is often too far right,” he said. “If you’re not starting right, you’re not going to make a correct swing.”

The problem is particularly noticeable in his putting, Wadkins said. So, in an attempt to cure the fault, he has sought the expertise of Rodgers. Wadkins also works with another pro, Dick Harmon, of the River Oaks club in Houston, who films Wadkins’ swing. “We look at the films to see where we want to go,” Wadkins said. “We also review films of tournaments I’ve won, because that’s when you’re swinging well.”

Floyd was taught to play golf by his father, but when something goes wrong with his game today he sees Jack Grout. “He’s the best,” Floyd said. “He doesn’t teach theory or method, which is fashionable today. I don’t believe in that. He takes what I’ve got and doesn’t change anything. Some players overlook mechanics and fundamentals.”

Floyd, like Wadkins, has a basic flaw in his swing. He said he loses his rhythm on the transition from his backswing to the downswing. “Numerous things cause it,” he said.

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Grout can spot the flaw after watching him hit only four balls. “He’ll say, ‘Why don’t you try this?’ and I immediately know he has spotted the flaw,” Floyd said. “I think he’s a genius.”

Floyd hasn’t seen Grout in more than a year, however. “There hasn’t been anything wrong with my game,” he said.

Senior player Lee Elder visits his teacher, former PGA president Max Elbin, at the Burning Tree Country Club in Washington, about three times a year. “When something bothers me, something I can’t put my finger on, I go see Max,” Elder said. “We review video films of my swing.” Elder said he has a tendency “to get a little lazy in my legs.” The result is that he doesn’t shift his weight properly and hooks the ball.

Nicklaus first went to Rodgers five years ago during the Los Angeles Open. They had their first session at the El Caballero Country Club.

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“I work with (Rodgers) a lot,” Nicklaus said. “I’m like everyone else. Faults crop up in my swing.” Then he laughed and said, “At my age (45), they crop up every day.”

Some pros are good pupils and some aren’t, Rodgers said. “Jack is a real quick learner. If he likes what you tell him, he plugs it in.” Many of their sessions deal with putting, Rodgers said.

Shortly after Betsy King joined the women’s pro tour in 1978, she was winless and desperate. “I was at the lowest point in my career,” she told Golf magazine. Then she went to see Ed Oldfield.

“Ed made some radical changes in my swing, and he is still making changes,” King said.

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To be closer to her teacher, King bought a home in Phoenix and has wintered there the last five years. Even when she goes out of town for tournaments, she hurries back to Oldfield about every two weeks.

In 1984, King won three tournaments, $266,700 and was the LPGA’s Player of the Year.

Juli Inkster, a three-time U.S. amateur champion, didn’t have to move to be near her teacher. She married one, golf professional Brian Inkster.

But some pros don’t like to have other people messing around with their swings. Lee Trevino is one. Who helps him when his game goes sour, he was asked?

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“Nobody,” he replied. “I taught myself to swing, and I know it better than anyone.”

Trevino knows right away when something is wrong with his swing. “When I see the ball do something funny, a bulb lights up,” he said.

Still, he thinks it’s a good idea for others to have someone to rely on for help. “Eventually you’ll find your problem, but someone else can find it faster. They can do it on the phone.”

Fuzzy Zoeller doesn’t run for help often, because when his game goes awry, he said: “I’ve found that I just get worn out. Golf is mental. You get worn out and you play like it.”

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The last time he sought help he went to Louisville pro Moe Demlind about five years ago. “He knows my swing,” Zoeller said. “He doesn’t switch anything. I don’t like for anyone to mess with my swing and switch it to his theory. It’s got me this far.”

Zoeller was right about one thing. Golf is one giant mental hazard. When Beth Daniel stopped winning regularly, she not only changed teaching pros, she sought help from a sports psychologist. So did Denis Watson.

One of these days someone will come along who has learned the physics of the swing from a biomechanic, the proper transition speed from the backswing to the downswing and other tricks from a teaching pro, and the right mental attitude from a psychiatrist.

Of course, that’s only about half the game. He will then have to learn to putt.

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