The Swing Whisperer
Pete Cowen on his Major-winning stable, the one thing you can’t teach a tour pro... and how he lost 10,000 range balls
They say a coach is only as good as his players. So when you consider Pete Cowen has guided five different players to Major titles, including two in 2016, it’s little wonder that he’s held in the highest regard on Tour.
The likes of Henrik Stenson, Thomas Bjorn and Darren Clarke have had Cowen on retainer for more than 15 years, and all three have won the Open. At the last count, Cowen estimates his stable of players has more than 200 Tour titles between them. Not a bad return, then, for a man who only gets paid when his players finish inside the top 10.
Cowen’s CV shows he is Britain’s most successful golf coach, and yet he is also one of the most underappreciated. In America he would probably be talked about in the same breath as Butch Harmon. At the very least he’d be inundated with offers to coach at some of the best clubs in the country. As it is, Cowen operates out of his own Academy in Rotherham.
The open door policy means it’s not uncommon to see a complete beginner bashing balls next to Danny Willett or Matt Fitzpatrick on the range.
But despite the star power, the Peter Cowen Golf Academy is yet to make a profit, and Cowen has had to rely on his dry Yorkshire humour to make light of more than 23 break-ins in 12 years. He admits his love for the game is the only thing keeping him going, even if it means dipping into his wallet to keep the facility afloat...
I’ve been coaching since I packed up playing on Tour in 1979. I took a club job in 1980 at Dore and Totley for nine years, but everything took off when I went to Lindrick. We were trying to develop kids and Ian Garbutt was the first to make a name for himself when he became the youngest English amateur champion ever. We also had Iain Pyman, who won the British Amateur and was the leading amateur at the Open in 1993 when Norman won at Royal St George’s. I went with him to Augusta in 1994 and I’ve been going ever since.
Once everybody saw how good the youngsters were, things snowballed from there. Lee [Westwood] came along in 1995 and Darren [Clarke] joined, too, and they both established themselves as the best European players in the late ’90s until the mid 2000s. Stenson came along in 2001 and Thomas Bjorn just before him, so we’ve had an awful lot of success with a lot of different players. We’ve had five different Major champions now. Normally you win multiple Majors with one player – like Butch and Tiger – but we’ve achieved success with five different types of players and personalities.
We won two Majors with Graeme [McDowell] and Louis [Oosthuizen] in 2010, and we did the same last year with Danny at Augusta and Henrik at Troon. That’s pretty impressive! We also had one, two and three at the Open in 2010 with Louis, Westwood and Henrik. That was the year I won UK Coach of the Year and High Performance Coach of the Year. Monty got the BBC Sports Personality Coach of the Year, but I said to him: ‘You’re not a coach. You’ve never coached anyone in your life’. The BBC just threw a name at the trophy because he captained the Ryder Cup side. But that’s all he was; a captain, not a coach.
There is one thing you can’t teach people, and that is how they cope with stage fright or extreme pressure. That’s either inherently in there, or it’s not. People call it cockiness or arrogance, but you need that to be the best. Danny has always been able to handle pressurising
situations. Matt’s exactly the same.
You can look at him and think he’s a schoolboy, but every stage he has been put on he’s coped with it; whether it’s winning the US Amateur or being paired with Adam Scott and Jason Dufner in the Masters. There are an awful lot of players with almost an equal amount of skill as Danny and Matt. But put them on the big stage and they are shrinking violets, unfortunately.
The thing that makes me get up in the morning is that I always think there’s a better way of coaching. I don’t think
I’ve got the best way yet, but I haven’t found a better one. It’s the same ethos for the players. If you want to get better at dancing, you make the routine better. I can’t tell the difference between the 100th best pianist and the best pianist. Why? Because it’s a matter of fractions. Golf is the same. And once you have the principles right in what you are trying to
achieve, it’s about observing practice and making sure they are doing things a little bit better. There are only three things you need to get right in golf. You need to get the ball started online with the correct flight and the correct spin. And when you can do that, go chip and putt because there isn’t much else to worry about.
Danny will hit the big target on our range, about 155 yards away, with an 8-iron and do it 20 or 30 times without missing a shot. Therefore, we know that his mechanics are sound. If your mechanics are good, you should be able to swing blindfold. Danny used to have a drop-kick draw and there was a big hook in there. He was quite steep and would then reroute too much and swing too much from the inside. When you see Danny now, he’s much more on path and his stock shot is a release cut. My philosophy is finding matching movements in the golf swing.
You need to understand mechanics when you look at a golf swing. You need to ask yourself ‘why does that work and how can I make it better with what they’ve got?’ A lot of players go searching for the mechanics of different players, and a lot of the time it won’t suit them.
Everyone has a go at Harrington for changing his swing, but he’s trying to get better. They all are. The hardest job I’ve done is rebuilding Stenson’s swing. But it’s probably the most satisfying. I turned someone who really couldn’t keep a 5-iron in bounds on a driving range into a world beater. He’s unique in the sense that he’s got three types of hitting: Good, very good and excellent. He’s almost perfect when he’s at his best. He doesn’t accept good or very good, though he could win playing any of the three. He often only gives himself a third of a chance of winning because in his mind, he has to play excellent to win.
I probably spend about 30 weeks a year coaching on Tour. Sometimes I get called over to Ireland by Harrington for three days, and I might spend a couple of weeks in Lake Nona with McDowell and Stenson and then head down to West Palm Beach to see Brooks Koepka and Louis Oosthuizen. So it can be 35 weeks a year I’m away. It can be quite timeconsuming, especially at tournaments.
I’m there for emergencies, really, but I’ll arrive before the first guy tees off and I’ll be there when the last guy comes in.
I’ve virtually stopped taking on players. I just can’t do it. I’m 66, so the future is in my colleague Mike Walker’s hands; he is approaching 40. Hopefully he will carry on the progression and I’m sure he will because he’s as interested in the psychology side as he is in the technical. That’s becoming such a big part of the game nowadays.
My fee structure is all about winnings. If you are any good, you should back your ability. I cover my own expenses and originally, I only got paid 5% of what they earned for finishing inside the top 10. I’ve now dropped it to 4%. If they don’t receive a cheque, I don’t receive anything. It upsets me when a football manager gets a payoff when they are sacked. It’s bizarre people get paid for being a failure.
I don’t do individual lessons at the Academy because I just don’t have the time. Plus, if I charged £500 a lesson, for a northerner that’s an awful lot of money! Most are probably not good enough to understand what I’d want from them, and that’s why I don’t teach the paying public. They’d get more value seeing someone else. Most club golfers can get a lesson off one of the other four lads who work here for £25, which is just as good.
A coach from Finland sent me a video of a kid who’s got a really good swing. He said: “What do you think?” I replied: “Nothing wrong with the swing, but has he got the heart, the head and the dedication and determination to be the best?” Those are the questions you need to ask. It all comes down to whether they can do it on the big stage.
When I look at Tiger’s swing between 2000 and 2001, it does look like a young man’s swing, but I think it’s fantastic. It really was exceptional. He was loose, but he was so powerful. He used to overpower courses. He’s tried to rein it back as he’s got older and if there is one thing that makes everyone look ordinary, it’s age. But 15 years ago he was invincible. He was the Usain
Bolt of golf. Golf needs him because the game is dying a little bit. We need a dominant figure. Rory looked like he was going to do it, but never with the same, pure dominance. Golf needs Tiger back – and winning again.
“It upsets me when a manager gets a payoff when they are sacked. It’s bizarre people get paid for being a failure”
Our juniors here get inspired by Danny, but they see him all the time. They might watch some of the tour pros through the windows in the teaching bay, but they won’t bother them. They’ve seen them so many times now that the novelty has worn off. Danny actually sponsors our kids’ tournaments. We hold 12 events, including four Majors, as part of the Pete Cowen Tour. They only play nine holes, and then we have the four Majors which are held at the four best courses around here.
We’ve had 23 cases of vandalism at the academy in 12 years, and not one has been solved. Not one! A week before Christmas, they ripped the shutters off the window, put a lump hammer through it and took the till and the Christmas money for the kids. They obviously knew what they were doing and had hoodies on so we couldn’t identify them. We have 24-7 CCTV and we filmed it all. It took three-and-ahalf minutes in total. It’s come to the point where I can’t claim on insurance. The excess is £1,000 and that was a £2,000 repair job. We can’t claim it because the premiums will go ridiculously high. We won’t get insured if we’re not careful. They also came through the roof at the end of
2015 and took all the slates off. They’ve even nicked the range balls! We leave them out at night because we’ve got about a thousand metres of three-metre high fencing. You’d think that would stop them, but they pulled out some of the fencing and took 10,000 balls.
The only reason I keep this place open is because of my love of golf. The field next to the driving range on the right is going to be a dumping ground for a million tons of waste over the next five years. At the moment, we are fighting to stop it. The prevailing wind is right-to-left, so you can imagine what it would be like every day. I’m due to buy the freehold for this place. Eventually, what we wanted to do was create a proper academy, and have a gym and hotel. There is a golf course at the end which used to be owned by the council, but is now leased by one guy. Again, he gets so much trouble with guys driving on the greens with cars and quad bikes. You wonder why people ever bother running a
business with all the problems involved.
My other business, Top Ten Golf Limited, subsidises the academy. I’m making a loss every year. It’s been the same for 12 years. I’ve invested £1.7 million. I have to pay £30,000 a year to keep it solvent. All the players I coach on Tour use the academy so through Top Ten they all pay a legitimate fee. That’s what keeps this place going.
When Danny is back home, he’s in virtually every day practising or using our short game facility or distance control area. Matt comes in most days as well, so it’s a facility for my other business as well. Thomas Pieters always said he’d buy a flat in Sheffield because he thought Danny and Matt were getting more coaching than him! I think that shows his desire to be the best.
The biggest problem in golf is money, and how lots of it spoils virtually all the players in a negative way. I see it in football, where the desire to actually be the best is gone. You’ve got to ask yourself, what do you really want? Do you want to become a very wealthy man, which you already are, or do you want to be the best? There’s a difference. Thomas Pieters doesn’t even say it, but I know he wants to be the best. He’s one of the most motivated players I’ve coached, and he’s got a bit of an edge to him. He gets annoyed. At the Open last year, he chucked his 9-iron on the ground after making nine. If he hadn’t played that hole so badly, he’d have been in the top four or five. There’s a fire in his eyes and I see that in Danny and Matt, too.
“Thomas Pieters said he’d buy a flat in Sheffield because he thought Danny and Matt were getting more coaching”
Fire in his belly Danny’s heart was a big part of his Masters win.
Dream team Fitzpatrick, with Walker and Cowen.