Danielle Kang and David Leadbetter: A she said/he said account of a golf student/teacher’s working relationship
The metaphor of a person’s “meteoric rise” to the top of his or her profession seems peculiarly oxymoronic. After all, a meteor doesn’t rise at all, it travel’s horizontally at best at first then actually swiftly falls before blazing into oblivion. Indeed, the 24-year-old LPGA player Danielle Kang’s initial burst onto the stage of world-class golf as a young teenage amateur has since then steadily sunk its roots into the soil of sturdy competitiveness and determined spirit and now seems destined to thrive through the vicissitudes’ of a long pro career.
Now living in Las Vegas, Kang was born in San Francisco before growing up in Thousand Oaks just north of L.A. She began playing golf at around 12 and just 18 months later qualified for and teed it up (as an amateur) in the Women’s (not the Girls’) 2007 U.S. Open at Pine Needles in North Carolina. One must look no further than her natural athletic talent (she was training at that time in Taekwondo for the Olympics) as well as lessons from her first golf instructor, Scott Schopp, for this impressive achievement.
Kang credits her brother Alex, two years older than she and a golf pro himself now competing on the Web.Com Tour, for getting into golf in the first place.
“At the time I played in that U.S. Women’s Open I wasn’t really thinking about golf as my future profession,” Kang explains. “I fell in love with golf mainly because I just wanted to beat my brother when we played together.”
The sibling rivalry clearly trained Danielle well for match play, as she went on to capture back-to-back U.S. Women’s Amateur titles in 2010 and 2011. A Westlake HS graduate who played golf for one year at Pepperdine University, Kang turned pro after her second Amateur victory and headed out for a career on the LPGA Tour.
It was at that U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles where Kang would meet David Leadbetter. “I was playing a practice round with Michelle Wie, who was his student,” Kang says, adding, however, that the two didn’t discuss working together at that time.
Eight years later, while playing in the 2015 season-ending CME Group Tour Championship, Kang found herself struggling a bit with her game.
“I had a couple of coaches in mind to work with, including David,” she recalls, “and I asked him ‘What are you doing on Monday? How about a lesson?’ He said, ‘I’ll see you at Champions Gate,” referring to Leadbetter’s world-wide teaching headquarters and facility in Orlando, Flor.
Kang says that initial session lasted all day and that she really liked Leadbetter’s style of teaching.
“It just clicked,” she said. “We worked mostly on setup, which is so important to my swing.
“It’s like a ripple effect for me, with everything going back to my setup,” Kang explains. “Whether it’s club path, club face or swing path, it always depends on the most little detailed things.”
Jump ahead to this year’s ANA Inspiration, the LPGA Tour’s first major each season in Rancho Mirage, when prior to Thursday’s first round Leadbetter and Kang addressed some structural issues in her swing on the range.
“We were working on my staying more up during my swing,” she says, “because I tend to bend my knees, which lowers my body,” Kang says.
She quickly points out, though, that Leadbetter “doesn’t really do major swing changes with me, but keeps things simple because I’m not a very technical person.
“Even if he tries to get technical with me,” she says, “I don’t understand it unless I can translate it to a feeling in my head. If you watch us working together on the range, we don’t spend that much time together, because once I get that feel of what he’s teaching me it’s like I’ll say, ‘I’m good now, David, you can go.’”
That is how Kang explains this student/teacher teamwork equation. And what the coach says actually aligns with her thoughts and sentiments almost uncannily.
“From that first day working with Danielle at Champions Gate“ Leadbetter begins, “I was really impressed with how well she hits the ball. The truth is, I wasn’t looking for another student as I was working with many Tour players, including Lydia Ko, at that time, and, of course Michelle Wie, whom I’ve been teaching since she was fourteen.
“Danielle’s talent and competitiveness was apparent to me right away, which made me want to work with her.” Years later, Leadbetter is still confident in his initial evaluation. “She’ll be a top ten player out there on the LPGA Tour before long,” he says.
That was a statement made my Leadbetter this Spring, well before Kang emerged as a true LPGA Tour top competitor by winning her first event, and first major at that, at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.
Leadbetter agrees with Kang that she’s far more of a feel-oriented player than a technical or mechanical one, which is why “keeping the instruction simple and giving her an awareness of what her body is doing during the swing is what works best for her.”
As if on cue, Leadbetter agrees with Kang’s observation that “he doesn’t teach me The A Swing,” referring to Leadbetter’s new A Swing philosophy expressed in his latest book of the same name.
“We don’t call it ‘The A Swing’ with her,” he explains with a qualifying tone of voice, “but essentially what we’re working on with her is what The A Swing is all about, which is synchronization.
“To that end, we’ve made her swing more compact and shorter so her arms don’t ‘run out’ independently of her body’s turning or ‘coiling’ movement as I like to call it during her backswing,” Leadbetter explains. “We’ve worked to get her clubface squarer coming down, so she’s more ‘on top of the ball’ now, which allows her to compress it better through impact.”
As to Kang’s assertion that her swing issues begin with her setup and posture, Leadbetter corroborates that “when we began working together, Danielle would begin her backswing by bending both of her knees and kind of squatting down. I said to her, ‘You’re short enough already, why do you want to make yourself shorter?’”
Turning less technical himself, he’s quick to add how much he admires both her athleticism and fierceness of spirit. “She has no fear over the ball. There’s no guidance or steering in her swing whatsoever. She just stands up there and gives it a rip.”
Leadbetter says he really enjoys Kang’s honesty with him during their work together, indicating that she’s hardly a mere recipient of his instruction.
“In fact, she’s brutally honest to the point of being … how shall I say it … blunt at times,” Leadbetter says.
“With some of the other Tour players I work with, “ he continues, “I may have to be a little more empathetic if they’re struggling, or take into account their feelings when I teach them, but not with Danielle. If she doesn’t like what we’re working on she’ll let me know it in no uncertain terms.
“So our work together involves challenge and at times disagreement, which leads to compromise, which actually I think is rather healthy and a productive element of our work together.”
Leadbetter pauses a moment then takes a stab at a bit of bluntness of his own.
“She give me a lot of crap and I give it right back to her.”
“She can be and often is patient with people, perhaps with the media for example, but she’s not patient at times with herself out there on the golf course. She wants to win out there rather badly, but I tell her that winning is a result and a process of what you’re doing, and that it’s going to happen soon.”