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Golf — Phil Kenyon’s teachings helping many pros in Open Championship field


FORMBY, England — As the ball closed in on its target, caddie Gareth Lord knew exactly where it was heading. He pulled the flag and squeezed it joyfully as the 51-foot birdie attempt dropped deadweight into the cup.

In the center of the green, Henrik Stenson, playing the greatest round of his life, had walked the putt toward the hole and then delivered an impassioned fist pump in the direction of the putting surface as it gobbled up his ball.

Around Royal Troon’s 15th green at the 2016 Open Championship, the packed galleries released an explosion of noise. On television the commentators gasped. Across the world viewers laughed at the absurdity of the sustained mastery of the greens they were watching. To one side, Phil Mickelson strived to maintain focus under the weight of so many golfing punches to the head.

It was not quite the end of the 2016 Open Championship, but it was a defining moment. Sheer brilliance on a day when Stenson’s putting was epic in scale, a day when runner-up Mickelson tied the second-lowest Open total in history and bettered the field by 11 strokes yet was left trailing 3 shots in the wake of the victorious Swede.

A day when the nine years of endeavor Stenson had shared with his English putting coach, Phil Kenyon, peaked in a blizzard of lengthy birdie conversions. Surely, Stenson’s performance has to rank as one of the greatest putting displays ever, right?

“Well, yeah, it was pretty good,” Kenyon responded to ESPN.com with a sheepish chuckle ahead of Stenson’s defense of the Claret Jug at Royal Birkdale this week. “Under the circumstances, it wasn’t bad at all really.”

What Kenyon can be drawn on is his flexible approach. He’s not interested in creating a series of replica golfers, stroking the ball with an identikit style. His roster of clients includes not only Stenson, but other major winners such as Justin Rose, Rory McIlroy and Danny Willett along with European Tour champions Chris Wood, Alex Noren and Tommy Fleetwood.

All have enjoyed high-profile success in the past 18 months, and each putts in his own manner.

“There’s no prescriptive model,” said Kenyon. “It’s more about improving the individual. No dogmatic approach.”

His base utilizes a SAM Putting Lab, Quintic Ball Rolling Software, GASP video technology and a Zen Green Stage, the latter a hydraulic putting green that can create any type of putt in seconds.

If understated praise and deflection of attention are very quirky British traits, then it is only right that Kenyon should employ them. The 43-year-old — whose base is the Harold Swash Putting School of Excellence at Formby Hall Golf Club, less than 5 miles from Birkdale — is a man whose backstory has been shaped by British quirkiness.

To properly understand Kenyon, you must first appreciate the story of Harold Swash, a fellow of idiosyncratic yet brilliant nature, whose engineering rather than golfing background informed his early fascination with the sport.

Not satisfied with what was on the market in the 1960s, Swash designed and produced a putter in his garage that outperformed the established golf industry. He didn’t do it once, but repeatedly. Enthralled by the game within a game, obsessed with the dynamics of putting, Swash moved beyond manufacture into coaching, driven by his belief that the roll of the ball held the key.

Fundamental to Swash’s work was the creation and development of the C-Groove Putter which improves grip on the ball at impact, reducing the sliding and skidding common with conventional putters, instead promoting a swifter transition into forward roll which makes the ball more stable, less vulnerable to deflections and holds a truer line.

His approach was revolutionary and ahead of the curve, encompassing all manner of scientific and engineering principles. Yet when it came to teaching, he sought uncomplicated methods to relate his advice.

He became a familiar face on the European Tour, aiding the likes of Nick Faldo and Padraig Harrington. He was also, crucially, a Kenyon family friend.

“I’d been around him from an early age,” said Kenyon. “I was intrigued and interested from the start, but I set out with aspirations to play myself, and after university, I turned pro.”

Kenyon was briefly on the treadmill of minor tour golf, even making a few appearances on the European Tour’s feeder circuit, the Challenge Tour.

“To earn money, I was helping Harold out with teaching, but it was only when I packed in playing that I fully embraced it. There had been moments, though — insights which made me realize that maybe I had something to offer.”

There’s an element of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice about this tale, and Kenyon, like his mentor, wanted to know rather than guess. He returned to university, completing a master’s degree in sports science.

“There’s a lot of pseudo-science in sport,” said Kenyon. “It’s important to distinguish between true and pseudo. My thesis dealt with psychology and motor learning, and I guess there’s an underpinning of knowledge there that has helped me from a coaching perspective.

“I’ve applied academic principles in a practical way because there’s often a gap between theory and practice. You learn a lot, in time, of how to bridge that gap to create the best coaching environment, allowing players to acquire skills. You notice that how much players want to take onboard varies. So does how much they are capable of taking onboard.”

The association with Swash helped Kenyon’s progress to some degree, but gaining the trust and faith of players, often a suspicious breed, must have been difficult. The down-to-earth Kenyon suggests it was more straightforward.

“I think it’s like any other job,” he said. “You work your way up and get promoted based on the success you have. With me, it’s players picking me out.

“If I’m honest, I never set out to do what I’m doing now. I’ve developed by attracting one player, and that’s led to one more and so on.

“But, essentially, I’ve only ever set out to become the best coach I could be, to learn more and push myself. You need luck and opportunities, but you’ve also got to seize them.”

One of Kenyon’s biggest turning points came in 2008, when swing coach Pete Cowan introduced him to Stenson.

“It was great exposure, to work with a player of that caliber early on,” said Kenyon. “Other players saw me with him and took an interest. That’s how it is. Little things, rather than one big one.”

Asked for a standout characteristic of the 2016 Open champion, Kenyon’s response is the perfect player echo of his mentor Swash’s philosophy.

“Henrik likes to understand things in their complexity,” said Kenyon. “But he applies them in their simplicity. He really wants to gain knowledge in detail, then play golf very simply. And from my point of view he’s very engaged in technical stuff. You get a lot of feedback from him.”

Like Kenyon, Fleetwood is based at Formby Hall, and his advances over the past year have been driven by his adoption of the claw putting grip, an example of Kenyon’s elastic methods.

“Tommy had a couple of technical issues with his right arm,” said Kenyon. “Biomechanically, this was a much better stroke for him. The process was really interactive between us, plenty of trial and error, but it’s long-term work and had a significant effect. He’s much more stable and comfortable now.”

The weeks leading up to the Open have been busy for Kenyon with many players doubling up during their preparation, paying him a visit while also scouting Birkdale.

McIlroy, Rose and Wood are among those who have visited during the European Tour’s three-tournament links swing, and the message was clear.

“On a windy links, you’ll face a lot of long putts, and the greens tend to have more subtle breaks, but at the same time every venue is a unique challenge,” Kenyon said. “Take those basics, apply good practice and prepare well.”

Simple words, but behind them a love, a fascination and a tangible historical relationship with the game within a game.



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