THE LIFE OF RYAN
Other than top level players and coaches, not many in golf know the name Ryan Lumsden. Yet his influence has been profound.
If you knew nothing else about him, the fact that he grew up in St Andrews would pique your interest in Ryan Lumsden.
If you were told that he was a member of junior Scottish national squads, played off a scratch handicap at St Andrews Golf Club (where he is still a member), and was secretary of his university golf team as part of a promising amateur career before completing an honours degree in Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Strathclyde, you would acknowledge his considerable understanding of the great game.
If you then knew that he had at some stage worked with no less than 10 major champions and 11 world number one amateurs across national programs in 11 institutes of sport and 15 different countries around the world, you’d be impressed.
If you were told that he spends around 25-30 weeks per year travelling interstate or to various parts of the world as part of his mission to partner top coaches in assisting talented players reach their lofty goals, you’d wonder at his stamina.
And if you were aware that his esteemed colleagues and friends have described him variously as brilliant, kind, brutally honest, hard-working, a devoted husband and father, eccentric, generous to a fault, innovative, unassuming, an intellectual with a surprising sense of humour and, um, a dour Scot, you’d be intrigued.
Welcome to the life of Ryan.
“Ryan’s got a skill where he can see things that I don’t ever see. The stuff that he does is very different and I have no idea how to do it myself but he’s been a huge help to my career.” Hannah Green
Lumsden is regarded by many respected names in golf as the world’s leading biomechanist, though in truth his influence stretches far beyond that. In this, he uses evidence-based analytical tools including his own personally designed 3D biomechanical analysis system to assess swing mechanics. This, very simply put, means he attaches sensors to various parts of the player’s body from which data is collected showing how the body is functioning through the golf swing. This is presented to the player not via video image but by an avatar, meaning the focus is on the movement itself rather than how pretty the swing might look in real time.
“We’re looking for information that relates to how efficiently they are moving,” Lumsden said. “Whether we are trying to maximise or control distance, or control trajectory and/or shape, there are certain things that have to happen. Likewise, muscle physiology and body function also dictate that certain things have to happen in order to produce efficient movement and swing dynamics.
“I’m trying to find the ‘match-ups’ between these and how they fit with a player’s individual physiology. Ultimately we want a person to be developing or producing an efficient movement that gives them the ability to hit all the shots they need to.”
The most important thing in all that is ‘efficient movement’. The golf swing is a functional movement of the body and every body is different, meaning a one swing model for all is not going to produce the most efficient golf swing in players with differing physiology.
To some it sounds unfathomable and intimidating – ‘too technical’ is a criticism Lumsden has faced many times in his career from those who don’t fully understand or are challenged by it. And, yes, collecting the data, whether it be from 3D, Trackman or other, and the analysis of it is a technical evaluation but the end result – the interpretation of what the player needs to do to improve, and the communication of that to the player in terms they can understand – is not.
It’s therefore a process that is both quantitative and qualitative. For those in the know it’s this second part, the qualitative aspect of interpretation and communication, that sets Lumsden apart from the rest.
“One of Ryan’s strengths is that he is able to take that technical scientific data and relate that to the way the player’s moving and come up with a way that is not technical – through a drill or exercise – to improve that movement.” Denis McDade
Of course it began at St Andrews – how could it not – where a young Ryan ‘s earliest golf memories centre around hanging out at the course with his father Iain, the 1970 champion of St Andrews Thistle Golf Club. The golf club is just to the right of the 18th green of the Old course and that’s where he spent the majority of his time.
“Nobody ever knew where I was, but I was just there. In summertime when it was light until 10 at night, I’d just go down there on my bike, play holes across the different courses until it got dark and then cycle home,” he recalled.
In winter, when poor weather prevented a lot of golf, he’d sometimes hit balls on the wet sand on the beach, Seve-style. At that time there was no driving range at St Andrews, so his practice consisted of hitting five balls around the green, playing there till he got in someone’s way and moving to another hole. Just a kid having fun learning.
“It was always different, you never did the same thing, just tried things, figuring it out as you go.”
In a break during his third year at uni, he ventured to Australia. “At that time the Australian Institute of Sport was considered the best in the world, unique, and a lot of the research I was interested in was coming out of Australia.”
It was here that he came into contact with two of the greatest influences on golf development in Australia, AIS head golf coach Ross Herbert and golf-specific physiotherapist, Ramsay McMaster. Add to that coaches of the ilk of Mark Holland (later head coach after Herbert’s passing) and Gareth Jones at the AIS, Denis McDade (head of the VIS), Sandy Jamieson (assistant to McDade), Peter Knight (NSWIS), Jim Barden (QAS), Ian Triggs, David Milne and Ritchie Smith and you have some of the finest names in golf coaching. The groundbreaking AIS golf program also ran on a comprehensive curriculum devised and overseen by renowned sports psychologist John Crampton.
“I learned something from every one of them,” said Lumsden. The feeling, it seems, is mutual.
“I’ve learned a significant amount from him. I think technically he’s the best coach in the country. And he’s able to change his communication style to the player with whom he is dealing. I trust him completely with my players when I’m not there.” Ritchie Smith
Through the different golf programs and coaches around the country, Lumsden came into contact with a lot of players at different stages in their development and was vitally interested in the ways that the different coaches managed them.
“I wasn’t just watching; I was working very closely with them. They would ask a lot of questions of me and were challenging me to figure out answers based on information I had, and that led me to thinking about a lot of things, what they were doing, what worked and why it worked.”
Around this time Pete Cowen, currently acknowledged as the world’s best coach, arrived to also see what the best practice in golf looked like. He, McMaster and Lumsden found themselves on the same page.
“It started out as a project in Dubai that we thought would work, with Ramsay doing the physiotherapy, Ryan the biomechanics and myself the coaching. We knew it was the way forward to get players injury free, have better mechanics and more productive practice. It helped a lot with players such as Henrik Stenson, Soren Hansen, Thomas Pieters and others. It helped me a lot to understand movement and muscle structure, and it still does,’ said Cowen.
McMaster’s sudden death in 2011 stopped the project in its tracks – and also affected the way in which coaching is delivered in this country – but Cowen and Lumsden still remain close friends and talk often, exchanging thoughts and information.
In a text to Lumsden early this year, Cowen asked if his mate had discovered the ‘secret’. “Is there a secret?”, was Lumsden’s reply. Cowen responded that everything he is now teaching takes him back to where they were was 15 years ago. It’s a theme common to many coaches from that golden era who are still producing the best players, that trying to re-invent the wheel is not productive.
“Thanks to Ryan and his knowledge, my game has improved significantly. As golfers we want our swings to be functional and effective. Without him, I wouldn’t be swinging it the way I am. He has helped me and many others to get to the next level.” Min Woo Lee
To say Lumsden has had a big hand in the success of many of Australia’s best players is obvious. But along the way he has also seen talented others fall by the wayside for various reasons. One of the biggest threats to players, he believes, is what he refers to as ‘the ugly truth’, how hard it really is to succeed.
“For a lot of players, it comes back to that. The percentage that actually get anywhere is very low. If you look at those that get tour cards, it’s less than one percent that attempt it. And just getting a card is not ’successful’, you’ve got to retain it. Many of the young players now just think it’s their right to establish themselves on tour and don’t know how good you’ve to be.”
As an example, he refers to skill testing world number eight Minjee Lee early this year. Lee produced 100% of 15 shots within a 5% error radius of her target with a six-iron. “We need to educate players that that’s what they’ve got to work towards if they’re going to reach that same level.”
In an era that is littered with tales of player/coach breakups and clinical relationships, it is refreshing to hear from players who have been with Lumsden for a long time and come to see him as much more than one of their support staff.
One example is Jarryd Felton, who has been with both Ritchie Smith and Lumsden since he was 14. “I had two hip surgeries when I was about 14 and Ryan’s help with injury prevention as well as the biomechanical stuff has been massive. The injury itself is permanent and it’s always going to be a part of my golf swing, so between Ritchie and Ryan we’ve been trying to do some things to work around the injuries and not cause as much pain.
“I think all of us players – Hannah, Minjee, Min Woo, me – we ‘ve all come to see Ryan as not just the biomechanics guy, he’s more of a close friend.”
That’s certainly the case for 2019 KPMG Women’s PGA champion Hannah Green, who started working with Lumsden at 13. Since then, she has become close to his family, often taking Lumsden’s two youngsters Aedan and Islay on outings when she has been in Adelaide working with him.
On one occasion she arranged for Aedan, a devoted Manchester United fan, to attend a game in Perth when MU played Leeds at Optus Stadium and then capped off the young fellow’s experience by taking him shopping for golf clothes the next day.
“Ryan’s always been helpful to me, let’s me come and stay with his family,” she said. “We do a few days work together and then go and play and he’s taught me a lot about seeing different shots, my course management, he’s come to a tournament in Scotland and seen me compete there; he even took me to St Andrews just to play a fun casual round, so we have more than a player/coach relationship, he’s definitely looked after me personally.”
For her part, Minjee Lee noted that she’s been able to improve both her swing and her consistency since she started with him around ten years ago. “The incredible knowledge that he has about biomechanics and specifically golf movements has been such a big part in the development of my game. Working with Ryan is always a learning opportunity for me because over the years I’ve learned more and more about my swing through his interpretation of the data.”
It’s not just the girls either. Min Woo Lee, like his sister, has been working with Lumsden since he was around 14 years old, while emerging players Brett Coletta and Ryan Ruffels – along with countless others around the country – have all felt his guiding hand at some point, either through the various programs or beforehand.
“He’s very caring, he does a lot of extra work, a lot of unpaid hours, he’ll look at swings on his computer long after the players are gone, he’s just thinking about how he can get them to improve and get them better, that’s really what he’s about.” Nick Bielawski, PGA of Australia Coaching Programs Manager
Every person who works closely with him agrees that Lumsden is really ‘the quiet man’ of golf. Outside of players, coaches and service providers, few people have heard of him or realise the significance of his reach. And the man himself prefers it that way.
“That’s partly because you don’t want to be out there shouting about what you’re doing and with whom but also because ultimately you’re always a support member to the coach.”
He has been approached to undertake a PhD, such is the respect for his knowledge and skill. Yet he is still continually searching for new information and ways to communicate his message. When COVID-19 hit early this year, Lumsden was overseas in Belgium, where he works on golf programs with Golf Vlaanderen, on his way to Ireland, then Denmark for a meeting at the Trackman headquarters.
The months at home in Adelaide were his longest break in 12 years. It gave him pause to consider his amazing experiences in golf so far- and that PhD. But an academic career will have to wait a while longer. Fact is, he’s happiest when he’s in front of a player.
“That’s where I like to be, in that elite development space, and yet that’s the hardest area to work within golf. But that’s my thing, I think, being out in the trenches and getting involved in that process.”
THE LAST WORD:
“There’s only one Ryan. In my humble opinion, he’s forgotten more about a golf swing than most PGA professionals have yet to learn. There are lots of people doing PhDs, working in labs, doing academic work, that sort of thing, and getting a lot of attention but the thing about Ryan is that he’s out there on the front lines most days making real people better at golf.” Jacques Norte, Q Golf, New Zealand
“Since the mid-2000s when Golf Vlaanderen head coach the late David Petrie brought Ryan to work with the GV programs together with Ramsay McMaster and Pete Cowen, he has been an influential figure in shaping our development programs. Ryan’s insights not only in golf technique but also into coaching have been of great benefit to players and coaches within the GV organisation.” George Mackechnie, Head Coach Golf Vlaanderen, Belgium
“Ryan has helped improve the standard of golf coaching and athlete development in Australia (and many other countries) to a point it wouldn’t have reached without him. Just as important as his work with golfers has been his work with their coaches. A commonality you will find in the development of multiple high profile coaches not just in Australia but worldwide is Ryan Lumsden.” Sandy Jamieson
“He’s an educated man and he’s happily an educator. The highest praise that I can heap on him is that I feel like I’m a better coach and that my players are better players because of him being part of the team. I know that any time we work together on a player, we move forward.” Denis McDade
First published in Golf Australia magazine December 2020
Photo credits: Golf Australia magazine
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Tee for Two is produced on the Traditional Country of the Boon Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation in Victoria and extends its respect to their Elders, past, present and emerging.