From Chapter 9, "The Dog Days of Not-Quite-Summer"
... In 2006 most of the mid-season non-caddie movement involved swing gurus. O’Hair parted ways with David Leadbetter, who, preoccupied with Michelle Wie, had also been let go two months earlier by Charles Howell. (Howell and Leadbetter would reunite by September.) O’Hair took up with Gary Gilchrist, O’Hair’s original instructor at Leadbetter’s Bradenton Academy.
Another instructor, Matt Killen, was also moving up in the world, even though he was only 21. At first, Killen’s only client was Kenny Perry; he had gotten to know the nine-time Tour winner through Perry’s son, Justin. In May 2006, Killen took on his second student, former PGA Champion Sean Micheel. By the end of the summer he would also start working with J.B. Holmes, who, after winning in Phoenix, had been struggling to make cuts.
But the hottest names on the range were Mike Bennett and Andy Plummer.
They two initially hung their dual-practitioner shingle out on Tour in 2004. They had their first success in late 2005, spurring Steve Elkington to a second-place finish at the PGA Championship at Baltusrol. Now, in 2006, their stock was going through the locker room roof. The primary reason was a first victory, with Aaron Baddeley at Hilton Head. For new Tour-based instructors, heading out to the range with a first win—especially with a player like Baddeley, who had seemingly lost his way—was the equivalent of wearing a steak suit to the dog pound. Suddenly Bennett and Plummer were besieged by pros looking for help.
Tim Herron was asking questions. John Cook was taking notes during his practice rounds with Tommy Armour III, who regularly worked with the pair. Scott McCarron wanted to have lunch. Ben Crane and Bernhard Langer started sniffing around. So too did Colombian Camilo Villegas, Trinidadian Stephen Ames, and Canadian Mike Weir. “If things keep up like this,” Plummer joked, “we’re going to wind up with half of next year’s Presidents Cup team.”
“It’s funny how the dominos fall,” Bennett said. “If you have success with one guy, everyone wants your phone number.”
They hardly seemed suited to all the attention. Minus their videocams they both looked like misplaced high school English teachers. Plummer, a 39-year-old native Kentuckian, invariably wore white polos and khakis. (Players joked that he was his profession’s answer to Chad Campbell.) Bennett, 38, from tiny Jordan, New York, near Syracuse, was similarly unshocking. Although he owned one or two striped golf shirts, they were usually covered up with beige pullovers. His little square eyeglasses only emphasized his bookish, unathletic look.
Both began teaching by accident. In the early ‘nineties, when they were both mini-tour grunts looking to improve their games, they went out to Palm Springs to work with legendary eccentric Mac O’Grady. O’Grady had just more or less retired from a twenty-year pro career that included sixteen flunked Q-schools, two Tour wins, and a famous weeping fit on the 15th green while in contention during the final round at the 1987 U.S. Open at San Francisco’s Olympic Club.
O’Grady’s bible was a curious little yellow tome called The Golfing Machine, a dense, physics- and mathematics-laced manual penned by a golf nut named Homer Kelley, who worked in the jewelry business but moonlighted as a consultant for Boeing. The book had been all the rage in the early ‘eighties, chiefly because it underlay the youthful success of current CBS broadcaster Bobby Clampett. Clampett, “Mr. Golfing Machine,” lived by the book and had become the youngest player in PGA Tour history to amass $500,000 in career earnings.
In 1984, however, Clampett’s game went south and the book’s reputation went right along with it. Indeed, it was blamed for destroying his career. That, along with its forbidding terminology, sent it into an instructional exile that would last twenty years. As far as PGA Tour pros were concerned, Kelley’s swing elixir may as well have been Jonestown Kool-Aid.
Yet O’Grady never lost the faith. He had grown up with the Machine, reading and rereading it (along with Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet) with a battery-powered lamp as a homeless teenager living in a storage bin in Los Angeles. It now became the cornerstone of his single-minded search for the ideal swing.
When Bennett and Plummer arrived in Palm Springs to work with O’Grady, they too embraced its principles. They soon became “Macolytes,” giving up playing for teaching and working alongside their mentor in his invitation-only “swing symposia.” Eventually, however, they were excommunicated from the flock. Bennett’s transgression, he said, was a week of poor caddying for O’Grady at one of his boss’s rare Tour appearances, at the 1997 CVS Charity Classic. In Plummer’s case it was disobeying O’Grady’s edict not to work with pros like Elkington. One after the other, the two moved back east and took club pro jobs.
Over the years, they kept in touch with each other, and with Elkington. When the 1998 PGA Championship winner invited Plummer out to work with him, they realized they had a foothold on Tour. By the end of 2005 they had also hooked up with Armour; Dean Wilson, the Hawaiian-born grinder who was Weir’s college teammate at BYU; and New Zealander Grant Waite, whose claim to fame was his second-place finish at the 2000 Canadian Open, where he was beaten by Tiger Woods’ famous 6-iron out of a fairway bunker over a lake to a tucked pin on the par-five 18th hole, perhaps the best shot Woods has ever hit.
Bennett and Plummer’s teaching drew heavily, but not exclusively, from The Golfing Machine. “For us, the basic principles are absolute,” Bennett explained. “But when it comes to actually playing the game, some of it is just brutally poor.”
They also adopted some of O’Grady’s teachings. Their humility, relaxed demeanors and teaching styles, however, were worlds away from O’Grady’s. “Mac demanded a lot—he had you standing out on that range ten hours a day,” said Elkington, whose history with O’Grady dated back to the ‘eighties. “But Mike and Andy can fix most guys in two swings.”
Baddeley’s win wasn’t the only thing working to their advantage. It also helped that Armour and Wilson were hyperactive evangelists, singing Bennett and Plummer’s praises like doorstep Jehovah’s Witnesses. Armour also brought them attention from outside the Tour. His Hollywood connections included actor Mark Wahlberg and his entourage, and by the week of the U.S. Open, the real-life Johnny Drama (Wahlberg’s cousin) was ringing Bennett’s Blackberry for swing tips. Also enhancing their visibility was their walking practice rounds with Armour, a frequent Tuesday partner of Tiger Woods.
During the summer of 2006, their appointment books swelled. The demand forced one or both of them to attend every Tour event from Monday to Wednesday. Invariably they worked 12-hour days. (From Thursday through Sunday they held down their club jobs. Bennett was at Metedeconk in Jackson, New Jersey, and Plummer at Aronimink in Newton Square, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia.)
Not that they minded being busy. Both were self-professed golf junkies. Bennett, who was married in July, videoed himself hitting balls off a pier into Lake Winnipesaukee, in New Hampshire, while on his honeymoon with new wife Heather sunbathing in the foreground.
Despite their new popularity, some players still saw their teaching as anathema. Their association with O’Grady was a lingering stigma, as was their fondness for The Golfing Machine, whose angles and tilts and multiple planes reminded some of a class they almost failed in high school. It didn’t help that Bennett and Plummer insisted that students grasp its basic principles. “Some guys just want you to fix the computer,” said Elkington. “Mike and Andy want to open up the computer and show you how it works.”
One night at dinner during the week of the U.S. Open, Dean Wilson aped the response he sometimes got while practicing with his teachers. Turning his head as if to cough, he muttered, “Fucking cult.”
Besides, the swing Bennett and Plummer were teaching was just plain funny-looking.
Most brand-name, Golf Channel-trumpeted teachers—from Leadbetter to Harmon to Haney-- advocate a big move off the ball, loading into the right side to produce power, with the shoulders remaining more or less level. Bennett and Plummer, on the other hand, stress staying stacked over the ball, with much less weight shift and a steep shoulder turn. Their signature move resembles the one every driving range pro tries to wash out of his first-time students. “At first it looks and feels like a reverse pivot,” Baddeley said. “But now I absolutely love the feeling of being right on top of the ball.”
Wilson was easily the most outspoken proponent of their methods. Early in his career, he said, he “bounced from one top teacher to another, but things kept getting worse. There was a time, in the middle of 2004, when I didn't want to hit balls in front of people anymore."
His game came together only when he ditched the distance-oriented swing models in favor of Bennett and Plummer’s emphasis on consistent ball striking. The power game, he said, "is fine for guys who hit it as far as Tiger, Phil, and Vijay. But what about the rest of us? We're not going to beat anybody trying to play that way."
To underline the ills of those dominant swing models, Wilson liked to tell the story of his clubhouse lunch with Jack Nicklaus at the 2006 Memorial. Wilson had recently purchased on eBay a copy of Nicklaus’s hard-to-find 1980 book The Full Swing. He took it with him to that lunch and went over some swing sequences with his host.
“These pictures,” Wilson said, “make me think that all these new teachers are wrong. They all say you have to get your weight behind the ball, and onto the right side, to get any power. But you didn’t do that, and you were known for your driving.”
Nicklaus shook his head and said, “I’ve never believed all that modern stuff.”
One reflection of [Chris] Riley’s vacillating feelings about the game was what happened when he reached out for help.
Just prior to the 2006 season Riley spent several days hitting balls on the driving range at the TPC at Summerlin with Andy Plummer.
Not surprisingly, the connection was Wilson, who also lives in Las Vegas. Plummer had been flying out to see him throughout 2005. Riley noticed, and by December he too was taking private lessons.
In January of 2006 Riley thought about formalizing a relationship with Bennett and Plummer. He even sought Wilson’s advice about which of the two to work with.
“Who do you like better?” he asked. “Mike or Andy?”
“Chris, it doesn’t matter,” Wilson deadpanned. “They’re the same guy.”
When the time came to make a commitment, Riley demurred. When Riley and Plummer saw each other in Hawaii, Riley said, “I don’t know if this is going to happen.”
“Is it the money?” Plummer asked. His and Bennett’s fee for the year was $30,000.
“That’s not it,” Riley replied. “I’ve got plenty of money. It’s just that I see you with your guys out here, and you’re all together, hitting balls and playing practice rounds and everything. Frankly, I don’t know if I want to practice that hard.”
Tim Herron’s acquaintance with Bennett and Plummer started in May 2006, during New Orleans week. Once again, Wilson was the broker. Herron had admired the way Wilson was hitting the ball and scheduled a Tuesday practice round with him. Rain foiled those plans, but Lumpy wound up sitting down that morning with Bennett, Tommy Armour, and Tommy’s brother Sandy.
The group was encamped at a grated metal table on the covered patio at English Turn. Wilson had with him his copy of Nicklaus’s The Full Swing, and Bennett explained some of his and Plummer’s ideas by way of the book’s pictures. What astounded Herron was that Bennett was already thoroughly familiar with his swing. The team’s footage of Steve Elkington from the 2005 PGA Championship inadvertently featured Herron: in some of it he was simply standing behind Elkington, staring and smoking the occasional inquisitive cigarette; in other frames he was hitting his own practice balls.
When Wilson told Bennett that Herron was interested in them, Bennett returned to that old footage, this time studying not Elkington, but the guy hitting balls in the background. Now he laid out some stills from that footage in front of Herron, dissecting his swing picture by picture.
At one point Mark Calcavecchia stopped by, and Bennett gave him too the treatment. Patiently he explained how Herron’s swing resembled Calc’s, drawing diagrams and explaining spine angles and swing paths. Calcavecchia, who had never taken a lesson in his life, was quickly lost.
He waited for a lull. Then, with his characteristic glibness, he muttered, “I gotta go,” and walked away.
Three weeks later, at the Colonial, Herron was ready to give that practice round another try. He walked onto the first tee on Tuesday morning at about 8:45 a.m. Standing alongside Wilson was Chris Riley.
This time, the tutor would be Plummer. He was running a little late; he was about fifty yards up the fairway from the 2nd tee when he spotted them. He positioned himself under a tree, opened up his Sony TRV38, and began filming the threesome’s drives.
After his tee shot, Herron made a beeline for Plummer. He peppered him with questions, trying to figure out why he was consistently blocking the ball right. Plummer spent six holes explaining how the excessive rightward tilt of his spine was making it impossible to square his clubface. Riley couldn’t get a word in edgewise.
Finally, on the ninth tee, Herron made a swing that pleased both him and Plummer.
“Alright,” Herron said. “I’ve got it. I see what I’ve got to do. I’m out of here. I’ve got to go practice.” He walked directly to the range.
On Thursday, Herron shot a 67, good for a tie for fifteenth. He improved his position with a Friday 65, landing him in a tie for fifth. He shot a pair of 68s on the weekend and ended up winning the tournament.
He nearly won again the following week in Memphis, where he held the lead until late on the back nine on Sunday.
During those two weeks Herron did a lot of interviews. He talked about how good it was to have Scotty Steele back on the bag, how well he was putting, and how the win made him feel a lot better about his decision to move back to Minnesota. Not once did Bennett’s or Plummer’s name pass his lips.
Weeks later he would privately explain his silence to a reporter, saying that he didn’t want to appear disloyal to his longtime coach, Mark Nelson.
Those close to him, however, knew the story. On Monday in Memphis Herron and his wife, Ann, ran into Bennett and Plummer in the player’s dining room. “These are the guys who’ve been helping me with my swing,” he said to Ann, by way of introducing them.
For some people that wasn’t enough. Dean Wilson, for example, believed that public props were in order.
“You guys really helped him a lot,” he remarked to Plummer that same week. “But he hasn’t said a thing about it in all those interviews.”
“I guess you’re right,” Plummer said. “But you know what? He’s going to need that help again.”