Stoke Park is without doubt one of Britain's most striking golf clubs, a Wyatt-designed clubhouse within a landscape by Capability Brown and Humphry Repton. Now they've brought in one of the world's top golf coaches to help golfers make the most of the fine surroundings.
To golfers of a certain age – middle age, that is – the name ‘David Leadbetter’ is not one to be spoken out loud. Instead it should be intoned in a respectful sotto voce, in the manner of a novice Tibetan monk discussing the Dalai Lama, or a hopeful young Wall Street speculator invoking the name of Warren Buffet. That’s because, like His Holiness or His Filthyrichness, Leadbetter is a guru.
Born in West Sussex but raised in Zimbabwe, this tall, rangy former golf pro became a household name in the 1990s, at least in the sort of household where one finds golf tees under every cushion and grubby old scorecards on every kitchen surface. The reason: Nick Faldo. The English golfer had been extremely successful in the late 1970s and early 1980s without ever quite hitting the level that his contemporaries Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer and Sandy Lyle had reached.
Then Leadbetter came along. Faldo spent a couple of years rebuilding his swing – the aims being more control, more consistency, more reliability under pressure and thereby more victories – before emerging as the finest player of his generation.
In a six-year spell between 1987 and 1992 he won three Open Championship titles and two green jackets at the Masters, came within a shot or two of claiming several more, and enjoyed the sort of profile which brought with it tabloid front pages, big-money sponsorship deals and, in 1989, the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award. Later in his career Faldo would win another Masters title – in 1996, when Greg Norman famously collapsed – but it was his spell from ’87 to ’92 which changed everything.
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Leadbetter was by his side throughout, becoming as famous for his transformative work on Faldo as any coach in the game’s history at that point. Previously the golf coaches of the stars had barely appeared on the radar; now, they became as noteworthy as the players they guided.
As Faldo prospered so did Leadbetter, so much so that today, over 30 years later and with many more major-winning golfers under his charge, his name on the sign above a golf academy is still a major draw. And the latest of those signs now sits at one of the smartest golf clubs in South East England: Stoke Park, in Buckinghamshire.
For those who’ve yet to have the pleasure of a visit, Stoke Park – formerly known as Stoke Poges – boasts one of most lavish golf clubhouses in the country. No less a figure than James Wyatt – architect to King George III – drew up the plans for this magnificent building, which was started in 1790.
As its splendid walls, colonnades and dome rose above the surrounding area, they brought in a gardener to update the surrounding landscape. The original landscaper had been Capability Brown. The man they called in to smarten things up a little? Humphry Repton.
Georgian house and garden pedigree simply doesn’t get any better, its beauty and grandeur becoming famous. When the makers of the James Bond films scouted locations for Bond’s golf match against Goldfinger, they eschewed Royal St George’s – the venue mentioned in Ian Fleming’s original novel – and instead filmed at Stoke Park.
Truth be told, the golf at Stoke Park – which became, in 1908, Britain’s first country club – has often been slightly overshadowed by the magnificent clubhouse. Yet major efforts have taken place of late to change that, with all three loops of nine holes now having undergone extensive refurbishment and repair.
The original work of Harry Colt (course architect of Wentworth, among others) has been brought back to life as the sand traps have been re-shaped and re-positioned to take account of the modern game. And even the more modern Lane-Jackson course, the last of the three to get the treatment, is now a fine and attractive course.
With that work now done and Leadbetter moving in (and making it his European headquarters), it seems that Stoke Park has done everything possible to raise its profile still further. Leadbetter himself won’t be doing much coaching here – apparently he’ll be around three or four times a year, for those not put off by his reported $1,000-an-hour rate – but his trusted lieutenants will preach his methods to the golfers, whether members of the club or visitors from further afield.
It’s not exactly as if the coaching here was poor previously (several of the club’s young players have made a splash at a national level in recent years) but with Leadbetter’s backing it should get even better. After all, if it’s good enough for Nick Faldo, it’s good enough for anyone.
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