Which Englishman has won two majors in the last year?
The answer? Pete Cowen, unheralded coach with a brilliant record with the world's elite. He tells James Corrigan how he does it
Saturday 02 April 2011
Pete Cowen may well be the best-kept secret in British sport. In this age of the celebrity coach he is as an absurd anomaly. How many out there realise there will be an Englishman at next week's Masters looking to make it three majors from the last four?
Perhaps the answer is only right, perhaps his name should resonate merely with the golfing anoraks. Certainly Cowen is of this opinion, the Yorkshireman who is "old school" right down to his aversion to flashbulbs. Yet imagine if Sir Alex Ferguson was on the verge of a treble, imagine if Martin Johnson had taken England to the top of the world and imagine if Andy Flower had presided over glory for the national cricket team. Actually, with the latter example don't bother as exactly this happened recently. And the contrast says so much.
After a season which saw two of Cowen's players (Graeme McDowell and Louis Oosthuizen) win majors, which saw another of his players (Lee Westwood) finish runner-up in two majors and then replace Tiger Woods as world No 1, which saw three of his players (Oosthuizen, Westwood and Henrik Stenson) fill the first three placings at the Open, Cowen was duly voted by his peers as the UK Coach of the Year and the High Performance Coach of the Year. But as far as his public profile went? Well, maybe this is best gauged by the reaction of the Prime Minister.
"Cameron sent Flower a celebratory telegram when they won The Ashes," said Cowen. "He's never even bloody heard of me. I'm not saying he should, I'm just saying it's a bit daft so much fuss being made of these coaches. But then, it could just be golf that's different. If an English tennis coach won two Grand Slams, had the first three at Wimbledon and took a Brit to world No 1 ... well."
Cowen's not bitter, just baffled. And he has every right to be. His story is one of the more remarkable in golf and deserves to be heard – if only for its incredible beginning. "I turned pro as a 16-year-old without a handicap and in my first pro tournament shot 109-100," he told The Independent earlier this week. "In my second event, six months later, I shot 73-75."
In that short period of brutal labour he discovered what was possible with exhaustive hours on the range. It is a mantra he carries forward to this very day. That and the belief that "the more they write you off, the more you prove them wrong". "I remember the nerves on that first tee so well," said Cowen, who had barely played at that point having donated all his energies to football. "It was at Hallamshire Golf Club in Sheffield, there was out of bounds all down the right and my boss, the head pro there, had given me three new balls. Three drives later they were all over the wall. I vividly recall holing a 40-footer for a 10. It was my first hole of professional golf."
Of course, everyone advised him to give up. The other young pros laughed mercilessly, while his employer wondered why he had been so taken with that lad with the cheek to approach him in a fish-and-chip shop, begging for the vacant assistant pro's position. He soon found out. "Within three years I was playing with Gary Player in the Brazilian Open," said Cowen. "The laughter had stopped by then."
Indeed, big things were predicted. They didn't happen. Cowen wasn't a bad Tour pro, just couldn't putt. Still, he was good enough to appear in eight Opens, play with most of the greats (Jack Nicklaus, Sam Snead, Gene Sarazen, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino and Nick Faldo, "who I partnered in his first tournament") and finish 57th on the Order of Merit. "But I couldn't make a living," he said. "Now, if I came top 60 on the money list I'd make £600,000. It's a joke. You didn't get paid for mediocrity back in the 60s and 70s. I was forced to take the head pro's job at Lindrick Golf Club."
It was here where his coaching genius began to emerge. "I'd always been interested in the technical side; Ben Hogan's Modern Fundamentals of Golf and all that," he says. "I actually tried to meet Mr Hogan in 1978. I spent £2,000 to have 10 lessons with Gardner Dickinson, one of his closest associates. And they say golf lessons now are expensive. Dickinson said not to bother to go to Texas, said Mr Hogan was too unpredictable and might agree to meet me and then change his mind. He told me to sit down there in West Palm Beach for the fortnight and watch Jack Grout teach Nicklaus. It was interesting."
As it was formative. Apart from teaching hackers at Lindrick he began working with youngsters. "Suddenly one of them won the Amateur Championship, another won the English Amateur, another won the Lady Amateur," he said. "They were all under 18. That was unheard of. It made me stand out from the rest."
Fully-fledged pros found their way to his door, although it was not until 1995 when he received a call from an old pal on the circuit that he found his Secretariat. "Chubby [Chandler, the agent] rang up and said you've got to have a look at this kid," said Cowen. "So Lee Westwood turned up. He only lived a few minutes away. It had not been a good start to his career. He'd played 11 tournaments and only won about £7,000. I took a look at him and told Chubby 'if he does what I say, he could win half a million and a few tournaments this year'. Chubby said, 'you're having a laugh'. Lee won £700,000 and a couple of tournaments. It was a hell of turnaround and it all took off for me."
Darren Clarke, Westwood's big compadre, soon signed up and the cheques proceeded to pile up. "In one year, Lee won seven titles and Darren five," said Cowen. "Lee won 25 tournaments in five years but unfortunately in 2000 he said he was going to try to improve some other way, take it to 'another level'. I said 'there isn't another level, you just have to improve your short game'. I think he went with Lead [David Leadbetter] for a while. He went backwards and backwards. I helped him a little bit before the 2003 Ryder Cup, which he played all right in, and then we linked up again a few years ago."
The transformation has been startling, although Cowen credits much of this to Steve McGregor, Westwood's fitness coach. "He's made a huge difference," he said. "Now Lee can do physically what I want him to do. His short game has improved massively. You don't get to No 1 without a big work ethic and Lee has worked tirelessly. I'm positive Lee has a major in him. No doubt whatsoever. It was a bit of a joke he didn't win last year's Masters. But Phil Mickelson did some extraordinary things."
If Westwood had donned green, Cowen would have won three successive majors. McDowell was to lift the US Open and Oosthuizen the Open. Ecstatic experiences, surely? "No, I don't think you'll ever get that sort of satisfaction as a coach," said Cowen. "It was my dream to win the US Open as a player, not a coach. People don't realise, but as a coach the emotion is much stronger when one of your guys is playing badly. It eats me from inside out, I really feel it. Henrik [Stenson] is playing shit at the moment and it's like someone sticking a dagger in my heart. It's hurting me and I feel I have to pull my finger out to sort it out."
Except it isn't that easy, not always a question of swing planes and torque. "The problem is slightly different with Henrik," said Cowen. "He's the sort of person who gets a lot of confidence from being financially secure. You could see it; as he got more money so his confidence went higher. There's a lot of people in the world like that. Then all of a sudden he gets involved in that [Allen] Stanford debacle. Not only did Stanford sponsor him but Henrik invested £5m of his own money.
"Henrik lost it all and didn't receive a penny. But worst still, the liquidators are going for Stenson for breach of contract because he took the 'Stanford' logo off his hat. He was never going to be paid for it, but the liquidators have seen someone with a bit of money and thought 'we'll go for him'. It's like a double whammy. It's sent him reeling. He'll have to settle out of court, then there's solicitors fees. Where does your confidence go with all that going on? But he'll be back. To be fair when I started with him he was a basketcase, about to give the game up. And he ended up fifth in the world and winning The Players."
Just another of Cowen's successes. They are stacked high, with his many clients having collected well in excess of 100 tournaments across the world. His philosophy of "teaching the man and not the method" has borne the most extraordinary fruits as he has averaged eight titles in the last 15 seasons. And the harvest shows no sign of ending. "I hate the word 'change' and love the word 'improve'," he said. "As far as I see it, all of these guys came to me good players and only need 'improving'. What's the difference? Look at Tiger. That's 'change' as far as I'm concerned. I'm amazed he's allowed to get himself in the situation that he has with his swing. He can't have known as much about his swing as we all thought he did. He wouldn't have got himself into such a tangle otherwise."
Would Cowen sort Woods out? In a golf sense undoubtedly; but could he handle the added profile? Maybe not. "I'm not into self-promotion," said Cowen. "All that matters to me is the players playing well. it's about them not me. I'm just a little part of it. But I believe that about every coach in every sport."
But sometimes the spotlight should locate Cowen. For instance, at last year's BBC Sports Personality show where a group of sports editors decided Colin Montgomerie should be Coach of the Year. Cue hilarity in golfing circles as a man stepped up whose grasp of the technical is right up there with his anger-management skills.
"I saw Colin as he came into the auditorium that night," laughed Cowen. "I said 'you're not seriously going to accept that are you?'. Monty was embarrassed and that's why he thanked me and a few of the other coaches. It was a joke, but there you go. Perhaps if my players win all four majors this year I'll have a chance. You never know, Cameron might even send me a letter."
How Cowen rates the hopes of his quartet at The Masters
I worked with him last Friday and he was looking great both in himself and his swing. Very, very solid. The thing that suits Lee about Augusta is the greens are fast. He loves fast greens. You only need to see what he did last year and in so many other majors recently to see what a chance he has. The influence of Steve McGregor, his fitness coach, has been massive. Lee now knows how to peak for the majors.
I first started working with Graeme three years ago with his short game, but then 18 months ago he said he wanted to go full-time. He won the US Open within the year and I'll always remember how confident he was that week. He's backed it up with some big performances since, beating Tiger in his own event and rising to fourth in the world. I am working with him this weekend in Orlando and will see how he's playing. But you have to like his chances.
It's been a tough spell for Henrik. Not only was there all that stuff with Stanford and losing all that money, but he was ill for most of the last year and has a young family. I am working with him as well in Orlando and will be trying to sort it out. I tell you, the satisfaction I'll get when we resurrect his game and return him to his rightful position high up in the rankings will rival any feeling I've got from seeing my players win majors.
I was supposed to see Louis in Spain last week, but he was ill and didn't travel. I worked with him at Doral earlier in the month and he looked great, but he was suffering from an eye infection. Louis isn't a one-hit wonder. Not a chance. He can play. I've been telling people for a long time this young South African is special, even before last year's Open. With that swing, Louis will always have a chance.
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