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.

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