How to Buy a Birdie

Mitchell Spearman is the most expensive golf pro in the world. He charges $1,500 for a three-hour private lesson, $3,000 for a full day.

Mr. Spearman has tinkered with the swings of Nick Faldo and Greg Norman, Dan Quayle and Phil Knight. But so have dozens of swing doctors with names as well known in golf circles as those of their touring clients. What sets Mr. Spearman apart is his price.

He is only 37, though he has been a pro for 21 years. He winters in Orlando, Fla., at Tiger Woods’ home course, but early each spring, just after the Masters tournament, he comes to New York to spend the summer mining the motherlode: the conspicuously wealthy, eternally frustrated, preternaturally competitive, occasionally gullible men of Wall Street, a good portion of who spend an appalling amount of time and money in their pursuit of a viable golf swing and a bankable handicap. Many of them make their pro a central figure in their lives. They fly him to Asia and Australia, to outings at Florida and Pebble Beach-passing along his name to clients and friends as they would a sure bet.

“When you figure out how to find me, then you’re ready to be taught,” Mr. Spearman said the other day. “It’s a lot of money. But I’m setting my price for what the demand is. It’s a market like anything else. The main advantage of charging so much is that people take what I say seriously. When I charge so much, I’m in charge.”

It was a weekday afternoon, and Mr. Spearman was standing on the practice tee at Manhattan Woods Golf Club, a two-year-old club in West Nyack, just off the Palisades Parkway, half an hour north of the city. As a visitor tried to hit a few shots with a seven iron, Mr. Spearman maneuvered a video device around him, like a dentist taking X-rays. In a mild voice-British accent, with some Australian-sounding vowels-the instructor asked questions of his pupil, who was hacking hideous divots in the soft earth as the ball launched off in various directions.

Then Mr. Spearman began to teach: “You’ve just shown me a wide variety of shots. Obviously, consistency is a big issue for you. Your grip needs additional work. Your setup and posture need work. Your wrists don’t really hinge in the manner I’d like to see, so that the raising up of your body is to compensate for the fact that you don’t hinge your wrists …” Heenge yaw wreests.

For 10 minutes, he talked breathlessly about leverage and timing, posture and positioning. “Take a look at this,” he said, standing over his video monitor. “Have a look at yourself.”

Mr. Spearman is no Shivas Irons, the mystical Scottish pro in Golf in the Kingdom , Michael Murphy’s 1972 rumination on the metaphysics of golf. Nor is he a Ty Webb, Chevy Chase’s soul golfer in Caddyshack . (“It’s American humor that I never quite got,” he said of the film.) He is not mysterious or coy. He is a swing mechanic, a pure technician. Like Chauncy Gardner, his metaphors aren’t metaphors, even though they occasionally sound like them. “Sometimes,” he said, “I think about going to a driving range at night and just going up and down the line, giving tips.” He dreams of golf, but they are mechanical dreams about certain swings. “You wake up having Hogan dreams,” he said. “We all do.”

As he talked he began to sweep the head of his sand wedge back and forth absent-mindedly across the same patch of grass. In his lifetime, he had done that probably a million times. Dressed in a slate Nike pullover, gray pleated pants, white shoes, wraparound cycling shades and a Manhattan Woods cap, he looked fine-boned and fit. His hands were hairless and small, like a child’s.

He was interrupted by the bleat of one of his two cell phones a few yards away in the cart. He excused himself and took the call.

“Hello, Dick,” he said softly. “How are you?”

“Unfortunately, I’m booked for Friday,” he continued. “The next time I’m available is the 9th of June.”

He listened. “Yes, I think I’ve heard of it, yes,” he said. “Well, I wish I was able to help you before you went.”

Mr. Spearman hung up. Dick, he explained, was the chief executive of a major Wall Street firm (that’s all Mr. Spearman would say). Dick needed a lesson soon. He was headed to Pebble Beach for a tournament and needed to hone his game. This happens to Mr. Spearman a lot: Clients want him to fix their swings prior to competitions or company outings.

“They don’t want to embarrass themselves,” he said.

So on Memorial Day at 8 a.m., he juggled his schedule and made room for Dick, who was concerned that his 15-year-old son kept beating him, even though Dick had been playing for years and considered himself an athlete. The morning went well. For Dick-“a keen golfer with no consistency”-the results “were there right away.”

Then Mr. Spearman drove back to his sublet near Lincoln Center. He changed and went to the big Knicks game as a guest of another client, a banker. They sat near the court. It was a great night.


“My clients normally want to adopt me,” he said. “They say they need me to come with them.”

Powerful middle-aged men tend to form attachments to their coaches, to their fishing guides and tennis pros, as though they are training for the day when they will turn over their lives to doctors and nurses. Certain kinds of successful men like a bodyguard or a mistress. But others get a golf guru. They pay him well, take him along on trips and defer to him as they do to no one else. They envy a life saturated with the game and covet the talent. They cling to it. It rarely rubs off, but it is exhilarating to be around. Besides, the game is so perplexing, it helps for a typically self-confident man to have a companion and guide as he negotiates the deep waters of his own incompetence. It comes to the point where they can no longer go it alone.

Money can buy such men company, though it cannot always buy them a swing. In that way, the pro, despite the fact that he is essentially a hired hand, maintains a psychic hold over the client. You wind up with two men at opposite ends of a monetary transaction, each feeling, in his special way, superior to the other.

“I did a Morgan Stanley outing with Mitchell in Orlando,” said Eden Foster, the head pro at the Maidstone Club in East Hampton. “As there usually is, there was a guy who didn’t want to hear anything. But by the end, the guy thought Mitchell was God. No matter how much someone comes in acting like they know what they’re talking about, the pro knows a lot more than they do. They don’t know a tenth as much about the game as Mitchell does.”

“You don’t feel like hired help,” Mr. Spearman said. “You feel special.”

Some very rich men have made Mr. Spearman feel special. Kerry Packer, the Australian media magnate, once had Mr. Spearman flown in his jet to Australia for three weeks to help him prepare for the AT&T tournament at Pebble Beach. Mr. Packer wound up winning. “That was due to the three weeks we spent together,” Mr. Spearman said.

One client, a shoe manufacturer, flew him to Indonesia to impress his friends in the government. Under armed guard at a driving range in Jakarta, Mr. Spearman conducted a clinic for the Indonesian prime minister and an army general at 4:30 in the morning. Okay now, general, heenge yaw wreests.

He has coached former Vice President Dan Quayle: “Excellent golfer. His swing was a little short. He didn’t quite get back on his right side. I still get Christmas cards from him.” He gave Nike chief Phil Knight a lesson last year at Manhattan Woods: “He had a poor setup, but he’s got a tidy game.” He has taught casino magnate Steve Wynn, Starwood chief Barry Sternlicht, Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus, among others.

But when it comes to his Wall Street clients he’s mum. “Let’s just say I work with top executives from all the big firms on Wall Street,” he said. He does countless outings for the firms, ministering to pods of competitive men and women, careful not to diss them in front of their peers or flatter them too much.

“It’s fascinating to see them chill out when they’re here,” he said. “I only see them in golf clothes. I don’t see them in their jackets and ties. People say, ‘God, so-and-so’s a real ballbuster!’ But I don’t see that out here.”

A Child Prodigy

When he was 7 years old, Mr. Spearman, born and raised in London, got turned on to the game by his aunt, Marley Spearman, a British amateur champion. By the time he was 16, he had given up school for his tour card and was giving lessons at the local club for £6 an hour.

At 18, he came to the United States and introduced himself to David Leadbetter, who was then an up-and-coming golf instructor. He spent six weeks at Mr. Leadbetter’s school in Orlando, Fla., honed his swing and became an acolyte to Mr. Leadbetter, helping him set up Leadbetter clinics all over the world.

Mr. Spearman’s connections to executives at International Management Group and its founder Mark McCormack-“They took a shine to me”-helped him make relationships in the golf world. Soon he was helping a newcomer named Ian Baker-Finch hone his game, guiding him to a British Open title in 1991. (Mr. Baker-Finch’s game later imploded, and he quit the sport.) He took on other tour clients, most of them coming off some kind of a meltdown: Greg Norman, Curtis Strange, Jerry Pate, Laura Davies. He hung around the tour, giving swing tips, gaining credibility. His latest project is the resuscitation of Nick Faldo’s game.

Two years ago, he set out on his own, and started coming to New York in the summers, making Manhattan Woods his summer base.

The clubhouse at Manhattan Woods is not yet finished. Until June 6, the club is operating out of a cluster of trailers. The course, designed by Gary Player, is owned by Ken Lee, a Korean businessman and “keen golfer who likes to gamble when he plays.” There are 150 members, with room for more. The initiation fee is $150,000, the annual dues, $12,000.

It is a lovely course, but a far cry from the exclusive, rarefied clubs around New York-Shinnecock, Winged Foot, Maidstone-with all their baggage. It is the perfect place for a man to cultivate new clients with lots of money. They go away with new swing thoughts, and send their friends north.

The other day, on the lush practice range, after 45 minutes of instruction, his visitor began hitting practice balls straight and true toward the second of three greens, 140 yards out. He had a new swing, a new outlook on life. “That sounded good,” Mr. Spearman said. “You can see and hear the difference.”

But then, seeing the student’s new swagger, he qualified his praise. “Of course, you don’t own it yet. I’m not that good. And neither are you.” He snickered. “That was a joke.” How to Buy a Birdie