At 62, Ray Leach, who Johnny Miller once called the greatest amateur he'd ever seen, still has a swing that makes Iron Byron's motion appear human, flawed.
Leach is as close as a guy gets to a golfing robot, though he also functions nicely as an avatar. As evidence, consider a new app called SwingTIP, which features a lightweight, BlueTooth-enabled sensor that clips onto the shaft of any club and provides the user with instant feedback. In addition to the metrics that golfers love to look at (swing speed, path, clubface angle, etc), SwingTIP produces a faithful 3-D image of the swing, flaws and all, along with a swing that a golfer can aspire to: a digital ideal based on Leach's swing.
"It's flattering when you think about it," Leach said one recent afternoon, standing on the driving range of Peacock Gap Golf Club, just north of San Francisco. He was staring at an iPhone, watching a virtual rendition of his swing. "I've taught a lot of golf in my days, but I never thought I'd be passing on what I know like this."
Standing beside him was Vijay Nadkarni, a tech-savvy Silicon Valley entrepreneur who developed SwingTIP, using Leach as his super model.
"We wanted to have an example of what the perfect swing looks like," Nadkarni said. "When you watch Ray, you realize there's no better example than his."
A perfect swing, of course, is not a guarantee that you will play golf for a living. That's another a lesson one can learn from Leach, whose enormous early promise never bloomed into a full-blown Tour career.
Almost from the start, greatness was expected. Growing up in Northern California, the son of a public golf course-operator, Leach was a prodigy who played the junior circuit like a man among boys. At 15, he won the San Francisco City Championship, becoming, at the time, the second youngest player, after Ken Venturi, to capture the prestigious annual event. A year before that, he made it to the finals of the Northern California Junior Amateur Championship, beating Miller, the reigning U.S. junior champ, along the way.
During high school, Leach rose to second in the national junior golf rankings, behind Lanny Wadkins, and went on to join Miller at BYU. When Leach was a freshman, Miller was a senior. The two weren't just teammates; they were roommates. When Miller graduated into Tour stardom, it appeared that Leach would some day do the same. He was a four-time collegiate All-American, and the winner of 18 individual NCAA titles, a record number at the time.
But golf after college did not play out as planned. After two failed stabs at Q-School, Leach earned his Tour card in 1974, becoming what was known then as a "rabbit," a low-status pro forced to hop around the country, trying his luck in Monday qualifiers. He made it through to a handful of events, and made the cut in roughly half of them. But Tour life — the travel, the uncertainty, the stress — was not for him. Less than two years later, he was done.
"If you happen to have the opportunity to play golf at the highest level, your ability is probably not your most important asset," Leach said. "The ability to navigate your emotions, the management skills required in the day to day — that part of golf overwhelmed me. There was way more to it than just trying to make a score."
His brief Tour days behind him, Leach landed a gig as a golf equipment rep, a field he flourished in for more than 30 years, working for such big-name brands as Orlimar, Spalding, Hogan and Nike. Seven years ago, at 56, he decided it was time for a change of pace. He was hired as the head pro at Peacock Gap, which is where Nadkarni tracked him down.
Theirs was a good pairing: the Silicon Valley techy and the golf pro with the technically impeccable swing. Every Monday morning for eight months, Leach would drive from his home in the North Bay to a tricked-out hitting bay in the valley, where he'd spend two to three hours beating balls. Sophisticated 3-D sensors captured his every movement, gathering digital data to create the reference swing that SwingTIP showcases today.
In order to help golfers who are doing things wrong, you have to show them how to do things right. So while he was modeling the Platonic ideal of a golf swing, Leach also filmed 15 video clips, offering cures for common golfing ills. If SwingTIP warns you that your clubface is open, or that your swing path is too outside-in, you can click on links and up pops Leach, showing you how to set things straight.
This — the teaching — is what Leach says he likes most. People often ask him if he looks back with regret on the Tour career that wasn't. But he is not a man of wouldas and couldas.
"In all my years of teaching, I don't think I've ever had a bad day," Leach says. "Is it really a bad thing if you didn't get your first wish? Not at all. Not when your second wish ends up being an absolute 10."
With golf-teaching technology ever-evolving, Leach has found fresh avenues for instruction. And a product like SwingTIP all but guarantees that he will soon have more. There is always room for additional features. In its current incarnation, SwingTIP, for instance, doesn't help with putting. When Nadkarni adds that function, Leach could serve once more as a useful model, even though the flatstick was never his greatest strength.
"I think my putting stroke would be very helpful," Leach said, smiling. "We could use it to show people what not to do."