The game’s best teachers are making their special marks this year in tournament golf.
Butch Harmon has watched Phil Mickelson win another major, his newest pupil, Dustin Johnson, make a run at PGA Tour Player of the Year honors and his oldest pupil, Fred Couples, dominate on the Champions Tour.
David Leadbetter helped Michelle Wie return to the winner’s circle in a hot, late-summer run.
Jim McLean is a guiding hand in the rise of teen phenom Alexis Thompson.
And Sean Foley’s popularity is soaring with Tiger Woods moving under his watchful eye in the same year Justin Rose and Hunter Mahan have won PGA Tour events.
Big years, for sure, but David Whelan may be trumping them all.
No teacher’s influence reached deeper or wider than Whelan’s this summer.
The evidence is in the variety of champions and championships he touched.
Paula Creamer (U.S. Women’s Open), Peter Uihlein (U.S. Amateur) and Doris Chen (U.S. Girls’ Junior) all won U.S. Golf Association titles under Whelan’s tutelage in a remarkable eight-week span this summer. Jaclyn Sweeney didn’t win the U.S. Women’s Amateur, but she shared medalist honors with Whelan helping her. And if you go back 14 months, you can add Catriona Matthew to Whelan’s list of champions. Whelan helped her win the Ricoh Women’s British Open late last summer.
While fans who follow golf know Whelan’s special gifts, the run of champions he’s touched makes you wonder why he doesn’t get more credit for his influence. Though his pupils sing his praises, the spotlight rarely finds him. And he says that’s the way he likes it.
“David’s had a lot of success,” said David Leadbetter, who first coached and later mentored Whelan. “He’s a really, really good teacher, an excellent communicator who has a great way with people, but he’s a very low-key guy. He’s not into self-promotion.“But you ask the people who work with him, and he’s very popular. Paula Creamer really leans on him.”
Whelan is the director of instruction at the IMG Leadbetter Golf Academy in Bradenton. It’s where he first met Creamer and Uihlein.
While Whelan is a fixture on the driving range, he isn’t typically around when reporters break out notebooks to interview his students. You follow Creamer, and you’ll see Whelan popping up at the gallery ropes, and trading thoughts with Creamer’s father, Paul, but you won’t often see him around microphones when the day’s done.
“My theory is that it’s all about the player,” Whelan says. “If you are out there for your own reasons and your own reputation, you are doing it for the wrong reasons. In some ways, when the players I’m working with do well, it’s more relief to me than joy. When you are influencing somebody’s game, especially a highly talented athlete, you have to be concerned about them first.”
The concern might never have run higher than his time with Creamer at the U.S. Women’s Open at Oakmont back in July.
Just three months after a doctor cut open Creamer’s left thumb to reconstruct ligaments, tendons and a torn volar plate, Whelan was at Creamer’s side to help with more than her swing. He was instrumental in devising a game plan to help her navigate one of the great American tests of golf and its beastly greens.
In practice rounds at Oakmont, Creamer said Whelan stood on every tee box with her, plotting out strategy.
“His thoughts of becoming `in sync’ with the golf course were very important concepts in the heat of the battle,” Creamer said. “He created a game plan for each hole that sounded good to me. We discussed it, then it was up to me to execute it.”
Creamer, despite obvious pain, won the U.S. Women’s Open by four shots. She won just seven weeks after she began hitting balls following surgery.
“The biggest challenge was not being able to practice as much as Paula normally practices,” Whelan said. “The work that was done to get ready had to be done in very short and intense periods.”
That’s a testament to the level of Whelan and Creamer’s communication.
When Uihlein won the U.S. Amateur at Chambers Bay last month, he credited Whelan with helping him take his game to another level by hitting more fairways and by showing him how to take spin off shots around the greens.
“When you’ve got somebody who generates as much power as Peter does, as much ball speed, the goal is to control that,” Whelan said.
A former European Tour pro from Newcastle in England, Whelan once beat Nick Faldo in a playoff at the Barcelona Open. That was back in 1988. The victory came a couple years after Whelan turned to Leadbetter for help with his game, a connection that would eventually lead Whelan into teaching as a Leadbetter disciple.
After 10 years as the European director of instruction for the David Leadbetter Golf Academy, Whelan moved to the United States in 2003 to work for Leadbetter in Bradenton.
“I started with David Whelan when I was 15 years old and have never even considered any other coach since that first day,” Creamer said.
Creamer said she respects Whelan’s studious approach, the way he observes and evaluates without feeling the need to quickly “fix” something. She also likes the fact that he competed at the highest level.
“David learned early on with me that I am a more visual learner,” Creamer said. “When I see something done properly, it is easier for me to imitate the movement, or shot, than to just be told how to do it. Because David has such an incredible short game, for example, when he sees me struggle, he will ask for the club and execute the shot repeatedly. I almost get the `feel’ of the shot through him.”
While Whelan learned Leadbetter’s swing principles, he says he’s keenly aware of how everything must be adapted to the uniqueness of every player’s swing. Ask him to detail his method, and Whelan will tell you it depends on the player. Whether he’s teaching Creamer, Uihlein, Matthew, Chen or anyone else, he takes into account a player’s individuality, knowing there are different paths to the same successful ends.
“I try to keep it very simple,” Whelan said. “I try to talk to players in a language they understand, that’s always different. I have feel players, technical players, those who learn by seeing, those by listening. It’s about getting to know your students, assessing that `This is where you are,’ and `This is where you need to be,’ and `This is how you get there. So, let’s get on with a plan and stay focused on it.’”
That approach is proving a winning method.