HOWEY-IN-THE-HILLS, Fla. - Gary Gilchrist wanted to be more than a swing instructor.
So he turned himself into a coach.
In the world of golf, that’s a more daunting role, requiring a skill set ranging from janitorial handyman to shaman priest. In today’s game, it also means being part clinical psychologist and part muse.
At 52, Gilchrist will need all those gifts as he steps into a challenge that could be equal parts awkward and thrilling.
Rolex world No. 1 Lydia Ko is making her 2017 debut this week at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open. World No. 2 Ariya Jutanugarn is also in the field.
Gilchrist is coach to both of them.
With Ko the newest jewel in his growing collection of talent, Gilchrist enters the season as the hottest coach in the women’s game. With No. 4 Shanshan Feng also in his ranks, he's working with three of the top four players in the world.
His team also includes 10-time LPGA winner Paula Creamer; Yani Tseng, whom he helped guide to world No. 1, and 2013 LPGA Rookie of the Year Moriya Jutanugarn.
“It’s the most fun I’ve ever had,” Gilchrist told GolfChannel.com.
But his growing dominion begs large questions:
How is he going to juggle all the demands these players will thrust upon him? Not to mention all the demands of parents, caddies and managers?
How is he going to juggle all the egos involved? All the ambition his players have to beat each other?
How tricky is that going to be?
“I’ve done it before,” Gilchrist said.
Gilchrist managed Tseng when she was world No. 1. He managed Suzann Pettersen when she climbed as high as No. 2. He made time for other LPGA pros while working with them, but he has never had this many high-profile stars at the same time.
“These girls have more flexibility than you think,” he said.
Gilchrist isn’t worrying about making time for his players. He knows the greater challenge is juggling all the expectations.
Ko has been Rolex world No. 1 for 87 weeks now, the last 68 in a row.
Jutanugarn is the reigning LPGA Rolex Player of the Year.
Feng was the hottest player in the women’s game at the end of last season.
Gilchrist laughed when asked about all the pressure that comes with that.
“Maybe I am crazy to do this,” he joked.
GILCHRIST LEARNED hard lessons early in his career about how challenging juggling star power can become, about how divisive missteps can be.
In a curious twist of fate, Gilchrist has David Leadbetter to thank for the bountiful opportunity thrust upon him this season.
Ko fired Leadbetter, her coach of three years, in the first week of December. She began working with Gilchrist on Jan. 4.
Leadbetter was Gilchrist’s mentor and made a profound impact on Gilchrist’s development as a coach and teacher. Gilchrist headed the IMG Leadbetter Junior Academy in Bradenton, Fla., for 11 years. But there is a frosty distance between them today, a remnant of their split over the handling of another rising star 13 years ago.
Ultimately, Michelle Wie came between them.
“It will be interesting to see David now,” said Gilchrist, who left Leadbetter after feeling he was pushed out of his role in Wie’s development. “At times, the relationship is awkward. He didn’t talk to me for a long time, but when we see each other now we always try to say `Hi, how are you doing?’
“I learned a lot from David, a lot of what I basically still teach. I studied what he did. He’s probably the best cause-and-effect teacher in the world, by far. And I would say he has been the greatest influence on me, by far.”
The irony here is that Ko seems to have been attracted to Gilchrist’s simplification of Leadbetter’s teaching methods, to the way Gilchrist translates Leadbetter’s ideas into how a swing ought to feel.
“When I talked to other players that were with Gary, they told me he was very simple and wasn’t very mechanical,” Ko said. “That was the aspect I thought would be great.”
Gilchrist says the "simplicity" of his approach came from leading the IMG Leadbetter Junior Academy. “I had to make it simple for the juniors to understand,” Gilchrist said.
When Gilchrist struck out on his own, he took Leadbetter’s ideas with him, continuing to shape them his own way. “I will never over-coach,” he said. “There’s such a thing as too much information, and I try to stay away from thinking too much. Thinking kills everything.
“Yes, you think through strategy with your caddie, and you talk about it, but once you play, you see the shot and you feel it. It’s like a basketball player, you bounce the ball before a free throw and then you fire.”
Gilchrist caddied for Michelle Wie in the 2003 U.S. Women's Open at Pumpkin Ridge. (Getty)
WHEN MICHELLE WIE emerged from Hawaii as a junior sensation, Gilchrist was at her side.
When she won the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship as a 13-year-old, he was coaching her. When she nearly made the cut as a 14-year-old at the PGA Tour’s Sony Open, he was working with her. When she tied for fourth at the Kraft Nabisco Championship a couple months later, he was guiding her.
Gilchrist became head of the IMG Leadbetter Junior Academy in 1995. Starting with a small band of boys and girls, he boosted the academy's reputation when he recruited Paula Creamer in 2000. In 2003 he was invited to Hawaii to meet a gifted prospect. The Wie family was looking for a new coach for Michelle.
“I remember Michelle being big, tall and a little clumsy,” Gilchrist said. “They took me to the range to watch her hit balls, and she was so confident. She didn’t give a crap who I was.
I remember her hitting this Fujikura 7-degree driver, the worst driver she could have. She was hitting it 270 yards.
“This girl was in another world.”
As Wie’s emergence gained more and more international attention, Gilchrist said Leadbetter paid more attention. Finally, at the PGA Merchandise Show in ’04, Leadbetter approached him.
“He said `When are you bringing this girl over to see me?’” Gilchrist said. “I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, if the family was going to want to continue to work with me or go with him. But the day I took them to see David, I knew she was gone.”
Gilchrist said he hoped to remain part of the team, but he was pushed out.
“I was head of the junior program, and I worked for David and it was his prerogative to either support me, tell the family to stay with me, or take over himself,” Gilchrist said. “He made the decision she was going to be his responsibility.”
Gilchrist decided to strike out on his own. About six months after losing Wie, he left Leadbetter to become head of the International Junior Golf Academy on Hilton Head Island, S.C.
There were rumblings he was “trying to steal” Wie from Leadbetter as he left, but Gilchrist said he knew she wasn’t going to leave him. So Gilchrist started building his own brand from there, eventually starting the Gary Gilchrist Academy, with his base in Howey-in-the-Hills, Fla.
Leadbetter says today that he doesn’t regret taking over Wie, but he sympathizes with what Gilchrist must have felt at the time.
“Naturally, I was hearing so much about Michelle, I wanted to see her,” Leadbetter told GolfChannel.com.
Leadbetter says the first meeting led Michelle’s parents, B.J. and Bo, to invite him to take the reins. “They asked me to coach her full time,” Leadbetter said. “What was I going to say? No? It just sort of happened. When your name is on the business, people want to work with you.
“I felt bad for Gary, and maybe I could have gone about it better and brought him on the team. I don’t know. It’s one of those things.”
Leadbetter and Gilchrist agree that their rift widened over criticism by Gilchrist during the U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles in 2007. Wie shot 82 playing hurt, eventually withdrawing in the second round with a wrist injury.
Gilchrist was quoted saying Wie’s “great tempo was gone,” that there were other problems with her swing and she wasn’t improving under Leadbetter. Gilchrist said he didn’t mean it all to be on the record.
“I went to Gary and told him that she was injured there, and the comments were uncalled for,” Leadbetter said. “I think it was a bit of sour grapes. I was annoyed, and so, yes, there was a time where we didn’t speak to each other, but that was a long time ago. A lot of water’s passed under the bridge, you just go on.
“Look, Gary’s a great teacher,” Leadbetter said. “There’s no two ways about that. He was one of ours. There are no hard feelings. I wish him and Lydia the best. It’s the nature of the business.
“When you go into coaching, it’s like it is in other major league sports. If you’re a manager or a coach, you’re hired to be fired. It goes with the territory.”
Lydia Ko fired David Leadbetter in December and replaced him with Gilchrist. (Getty)
KO'S RETOOLED SWING is a work in progress, but it already looks a lot different under Gilchrist.
Fans tuning into Ko’s debut this week in Australia will quickly see the most visible staples of Leadbetter’s A-Swing have been erased. The upright A-Swing takeaway to a pronounced dropping of the club at the top of the swing, into a more shallowing downswing, are gone. There’s a more subtle transition at the top now, a more one-plane look.
But contrary to misconstrued reports out of New Zealand last week, Gilchrist didn’t overhaul Ko’s swing.
“We didn’t rip the swing apart,” Ko said. “I think that was really important, and it’s been good to see the changes we’ve made."
Gilchrist didn’t want to dismantle Ko’s entire swing, just tweak some basics, like the setup and takeaway. She still hits a draw, a ball flight she wanted to keep.
“I don’t break things apart,” Gilchrist said. “I don’t have a particular swing philosophy. I don’t teach a `G Swing.’ I make little improvements.
“Do any of my players look technical? Shanshan has her swing, Paula has her swing, Yani has her swing. They all need something different. They all have different bodies and different personalities.”
When Ko worked with Gilchrist for the first time last month, she didn’t have the spine tilt Gilchrist wanted. With the A-Swing, Gilchrist said, she was tending to tilt left on the takeaway, with a move to the right on the downswing.
Gilchrist altered her spine tilt to the right, making her setup more behind the ball with her hands forward. Gilchrist said that setup allows Ko to turn to a shallow downswing more naturally and to get on her left side more decisively in her follow-through.
“I don’t think you’ve ever seen her turn through the ball as much as she does now,” he said.
Leadbetter says, in his defense, that he agrees Ko was getting stuck tilting too much to her left side on the takeaway late last season, but he says that wasn’t a product of the A-Swing. He says the swing worked fine in their 15 worldwide victories together, including five last year.
“We were very conscious of not wanting her to get tilted and reversed,” Leadbetter said. “That’s no part of the A-Swing. We wanted her to load into her right side and move back into her left side.”
Leadbetter said fatigue late last year led Ko into bad habits. He said she was playing too much in an overly ambitious schedule, and that a combination of fatigue and a lack of fitness led to her swing issues.
“When she got tired, she would start picking up the club with her arms, not using her body,” Leadbetter said. “There was a fitness issue there. These were all things we would have worked on.
“Even the great players have highs and lows. We saw Jordan Spieth have issues last year, but it’s almost l ike panic set in because she hadn’t played well for a couple months. It seemed illogical to change everything - your coaches, your caddie, your equipment.
“When you look at 2¾ of her 3 years with us, it’s a heck of a record, but we have no ill feelings.”
GROWING UP in Durban, South Africa, Gilchrist was a gifted junior. He made his country’s national team, and he won three times on the South African PGA Winter Tour.
Ultimately, though, he went broke trying to measure up alongside fellow South Africans Ernie Els and Retief Goosen.
“I played with Ernie in Pretoria one day, and my dad’s watching us,” Gilchrist said. "Afterward, my dad says, `If you could putt like Ernie Els, you would be great.’”
Gilchrist says there was motivation in the failure that would lead to his success as a coach.
“Sometimes, life sends you in another direction, and you’ve got to trust it’s the right direction.” In Gilchrist's case, it was a new start with David Leadbetter.
Back when he was playing at Texas A&M, Gilchrist had become so enamored with Leadbetter’s ideas that he called and asked Leadbetter if he could spend the summer break with him.
Gilchrist hopped a bus and made the trip from Texas to Leadbetter’s place at Grenelefe Resort in Haines City, Fla.
“David had a little shack there,” Gilchrist said. “Nick Price and Denis Watson were practicing there. I’d stay there all day hitting balls. I loved it.”
When Gilchrist’s playing career ended, he turned back to Leadbetter, asking for a job. Leadbetter, who had moved his headquarters to Lake Nona, hired him, but Gilchrist had to start at the bottom.
“I went from playing with Nick Price on the South African Tour to pouring out balls for him on the range at Lake Nona, asking him if he needed any water,” Gilchrist said. “It was a very humbling experience.”
Gilchrist moved up quickly in the Leadbetter ranks, taking the IMG Leadbetter Junior Academy job in Bradenton. The junior golf program there wasn’t much to speak of back then, and he jokes he got the job because none of the other Leadbetter assistants wanted to move away from David at his Lake Nona base.
Gilchrist began with small summer camps. “We had 10 kids, and we were trying to build it to 200 kids,” Gilchrist said. “Nobody gave a crap about us until about four years into it, when we started winning everything.”
As a player, Gilchrist could be his own worst enemy, trying to be perfect with every shot. He says there was a revelation in that when he became a coach.
“Golf was really about instruction then, but I wanted to be a coach, to teach the whole person,” Gilchrist said. “So, I started learning about coaching from the tennis side at the academy, from Nick Bollettieri. I developed the program I still have now.”
Gilchrist learned he couldn’t expect perfection from his young players. As a coach, he also learned nurturing the whole person meant training youth to be self-sufficient. That meant teaching them to work through frustrations and fix themselves.
That’s still part of Gilchrist’s coaching plan, even with his star pupils. Sometimes, that gets him in trouble.
“It’s why I’ve been fired,” Gilchrist said. “People want perfection, but it’s not out there. Thinking you have to be perfect is what kills you.”
Gilchrist likes how Ko seems to naturally understand that about the game.
“Lydia has the head of a genius,” Gilchrist said. “I’ve seen better putters. I’ve seen better chippers, better iron players and better drivers, but she knows how to put up the best score at the end of the day.
“Her golfing IQ is 10. She understands the game isn’t easy. So, when she hits a bad shot, she doesn’t cry, criticize or complain. She accepts it, but she learns from it and she works to get better.”
Feng says she’s excited the world will learn more about Gilchrist with all the talent he’s leading this year. She hopes he gets the acclaim he deserves.
“I’m really proud of Gary, because I’ve been with him since I was 17,” said Feng, who’s 27.
“And I’m really happy people know how good he is now.”