‘You can save your­self a lot of shots if you keep things sim­ple’

Pete Cowen has built a ca­reer out of turn­ing golfers into se­rial win­ners. Now it’s your turn...

Today's Golfer (UK) - - PETE COWEN -

What Pete Cowen doesn’t know about the golf swing isn’t worth know­ing. Ask him a ques­tion and the re­sponse will ar­rive in dou­ble-quick time, guar­an­teed to elicit that ‘a-ha’ mo­ment. Ask him to name ev­ery pro he’s cur­rently work­ing with, how­ever, and his re­ply might take a lit­tle longer. He settles on 14, but strug­gles to re­mem­ber all of them. At Le Golf Na­tional, he coached Brooks Koepka, Ian Poul­ter and Hen­rik Sten­son, but over the past three decades he’s men­tored all but four of this year’s Euro­pean Ry­der Cup team. The cap­tains and vice cap­tains in­cluded. His busi­ness model is such that he never goes in search of find­ing play­ers; the re­al­ity is they find him.

Cowen’s open-door pol­icy on tour and at his three academies – one in Rother­ham, two in Dubai – ap­plies to all but a se­lect few who have burned bridges, left him and tried to come back. They in­clude a for­mer world No.1 and a Euro­pean Tour Rookie of the Year. That ruth­less­ness un­der­pins his coach­ing phi­los­o­phy, and was ev­i­dent when he gave Koepka an ear-bash­ing at Erin Hills last year. “He didn’t thank me for it at the time,” says Cowen, but he did when he left as US Open cham­pion. An­other two Ma­jors have fol­lowed this year, tak­ing Cowen’s tally to five in three years. “That’s a 40 per cent suc­cess rate,” he jokes.

The run­ning joke on tour is that Cowen prac­ti­cally lives on the range, but it’s not far from the truth. At the WGCHSBC Champions, he was the first on the range and the last off it. He reck­ons he clocks up 250,000 air miles a year, and only gets paid a per­cent­age of a player’s win­nings, de­pend­ing on their re­sults. It does mean he can go weeks, months even, with­out earn­ing a penny in re­turn, but hav­ing Koepka on his books means that’s rarely the case. They started work­ing to­gether five years ago, just af­ter Koepka won his Euro­pean Tour card. Since then, they’ve cel­e­brated three Ma­jor ti­tles to­gether.

The big­gest im­prove­ment has been Koepka’s short game, some­thing he openly cred­its Cowen for. The man him­self is more mat­ter of fact, claim­ing that the Amer­i­can’s short game has gone from two out of 10 to four out of 10. “That’s a 100 per cent im­prove­ment right there,” he adds. Ev­ery golfer would set­tle for that, we tell him, but it doesn’t take long to re­alise that your typ­i­cal club golfer has more in com­mon with the world No.1 than you might think…

I think a lot of play­ers – tour pros in­cluded – fail to un­der­stand the tech­nique be­hind a chip, pitch or bunker shot. A great bunker player can spin it left to right, right to left, or flight it high or flight it low, just by ap­ply­ing dif­fer­ent pres­sures into the sand. It’s the same with chip­ping, and be­ing able to un­der­stand how you make the mo­tion sim­pler by us­ing the loft and bounce. I had to ed­u­cate Brooks Koepka about that.

Most club golfers, be­cause they are taught to keep the hands ahead through im­pact, don’t un­der­stand how to en­gage the bounce, ei­ther. If you have 15 de­grees of bounce but you lean the shaft, lat­er­ally, 16 de­grees, the bounce is now -1 de­grees. So, then they start stick­ing the lead­ing edge into the turf, and fat it an aw­ful lot. That comes from not get­ting the bot­tom of the arc cor­rect, and try­ing to force the ball to­wards the tar­get, rather than al­low­ing the club to re­turn to its nat­u­ral po­si­tion.

At the Ry­der Cup, I spent a lot of time help­ing Brooks and Rory in the bunker. I was ac­tu­ally Ir­ish coach when Rory was 14 so I knew his bunker play from back then and he had lost it a bit. We went back to ba­sics and that sorted it. I set up a sta­tion (see page 59) and made sure the me­chan­ics were good. Play­ers tend to for­get what made them good, and of­ten it all comes back to the ba­sics.

When I’m on the range with a player, I might set them a chal­lenge of hit­ting nine shots: A low fade, low draw, low straight, mid fade, mid draw, mid straight, high fade, high draw and high straight. The chal­lenge is to do them in the cor­rect ro­ta­tion. If they fail, they’ve got to start again. That’s a con­se­quence drill. With the short game, some­times I set a sta­tion up where they’ve got to pitch five balls to a flag. I then ask them how close they ex­pect to hit each ball. So, if it’s a sim­ple chip, they might say, ‘ev­ery shot within three foot.’ So, three times five is 15. Their chal­lenge is to get all five balls in­side a to­tal dis­tance of 15 foot, oth­er­wise they start again.

Graeme Mcdow­ell does the par-18 drill a lot. Kenny, his cad­die, will put him in dif­fi­cult po­si­tions around the green and set him the chal­lenge of get­ting up and down with at least one of two balls. Any kind of con­se­quence drill is great to repli­cate the pres­sure of com­pe­ti­tion.

I’ve had over 250 wins in the last 23 years, and eight Ma­jor wins. All the time peo­ple come up to me, ask­ing for help. Just re­cently, I helped Pep An­gles in Por­tu­gal. He was strug­gling with his game, hadn’t made a cut in ages and then he fin­ished 12th. Most of the time I just make them un­der­stand what they should be do­ing. That’s half the bat­tle. I’m not rein­vent­ing the wheel. I see a lot of play­ers try­ing to re­learn the golf swing, in­stead of try­ing to do the cor­rect thing, bet­ter.

I al­ways say, don’t swing to stay in bal­ance, swing in bal­ance. If you watch some­one who hits it down the mid­dle all the

time, they swing within them­selves, fin­ish per­fectly in bal­ance and can hold that po­si­tion for 20 sec­onds. Most golfers can’t do that be­cause their me­chan­ics aren’t good enough.

The swing is like a spi­ral move­ment. If you want to cre­ate a lit­tle torque in the body, which is where the power comes from, you need to do more than just turn the shoul­ders. You need to use your lower body and feel like you’re turn­ing a screw with your feet so you can wind up into the back­swing. As you swing back, the weight should move like a spi­ral, from the left foot to the right an­kle, left an­kle to right shin, left shin to right knee, left knee to right thigh and left thigh to right hip. When you go from left hip to right ab, you can then start to match the po­si­tions with the hands. By that I mean when you go from left ab to right chest, your hands are at chest height. When you go from left chest to right shoul­der, your hands are at shoul­der height. Think­ing like this will get the body work­ing prop­erly and cre­ate a set of ref­er­ence points for dif­fer­ent lengths of shots. It’s much eas­ier than con­sciously putting your hands at nine o’clock, 10 o’clock or 11 o’clock.

Ninety per cent of play­ers would be bet­ter play­ing with their feet to­gether. Why? Be­cause they will turn around a more con­sis­tent cen­tre, and so the bot­tom of the arc will be more con­sis­tent as well. Plus, they will only lose 10 per cent of their usual dis­tance. Re­search has proved that.

You can save your­self a lot of shots if you keep things sim­ple. I will give you an ex­am­ple. When I was watch­ing Vi­jay Singh at the Masters a long time ago, he was right of the green on the 15th and play­ing a flop to a pin just over the bunker. In the prac­tice round, he was land­ing it right by the flag, no prob­lem at all. But in the tour­na­ment, he chose to chip it to the back of the green. He didn’t even try the shot, de­spite the fact he had been prac­tis­ing it. He knew he could get him­self into a lot more trou­ble by try­ing some­thing so risky. At worst he was go­ing to make par. A lot of the time it’s about play­ing the per­cent­ages.

If you want to play a re­lease chip, use a 7-iron. If you want a slightly flighted chip, use a 9-iron. If you want a high chip, use a lob wedge. But re­gard­less of the club change, stick to a ver­ti­cal set up. That’s why a lot of pros stand with their feet close to­gether when they’re chip­ping, so they can keep the cen­tre of the ster­num over the ball a lot eas­ier.

There’s a lot of con­fu­sion about hing­ing and cock­ing, es­pe­cially when it con­cerns shorter shots. You cock the wrist up and down, and hinge the wrist back and for­ward. You need to hinge when you chip, and then use a com­bi­na­tion of the two when you’re pitch­ing. If you try and cock the wrists like a ham­mer when you chip, that’s what throws the club miles out of plane and adds un­wanted height. If you keep the shaft more ver­ti­cal and have a slight hinge, the ac­tion al­most re­sem­bles a brush­ing mo­tion which gets the ball run­ning on the ground a lot quicker.

If you are chip­ping as op­posed to pitch­ing, the goal should al­ways be to get the ball run­ning on the ground, as quickly as you can. When I helped Brooks at the US Open at Pine­hurst, we were talk­ing a lot about chip­ping be­cause there were so many run offs. I put him in six dif­fer­ent spots and said ‘if your life de­pended on it, what shot would you play?’ He said ‘if my life de­pended on it, I would putt!’ He fin­ished fourth that week and got his Tour card. Martin Kaymer won and he’s not a great chip­per. What did he do? He putted most of the time. Every­body thinks that they need to chip when they’re off the green, but the short game is about get­ting the ball in the hole. Some­times, we force our­selves to chip and ig­nore the sim­plest shot. I’ve seen Phil Mick­el­son chip so many times when he should be putting.

One of the big­gest faults I see is peo­ple stand­ing too far away from the ball, and hav­ing lit­tle con­trol of the butt end of the club. If the butt trav­els too far back or for­ward when chip­ping and pitch­ing, it causes the bot­tom of the arc to change which causes in­con­sis­ten­cies. The more you min­imise the move­ment, the bet­ter your con­sis­tency will be.

If you watched Todd Hamil­ton win the 2004 Open, you might re­mem­ber that he used a hy­brid al­most like a chip­per. In many ways, he was elim­i­nat­ing two shots. When you chip with a rescue club, the thick­ness of the sole can al­most bounce through the grass, which elim­i­nates the fat shot. Plus, be­cause it’s hard to get un­der­neath the ball on a links course, it’s easy to thin a chip with a wedge. That’s why golfers who suf­fer from the yips, or play a lot of links golf, could ben­e­fit from us­ing a rescue club and play­ing it like a putt. The lit­tle bit of loft on the face will get the ball up and over a patch of grass, and run­ning on the ground a lot quicker.

I wouldn’t rec­om­mend play­ing a flop shot un­less the lie is near per­fect. You need grass un­der­neath the ball, but most peo­ple at­tempt it when the lie is bare. Mick­el­son can get away with it be­cause he has no bounce on some of his wedges. But the tim­ing still has to be per­fect, and a lot of the time peo­ple don’t swing back far enough and then de­cel­er­ate into im­pact. They’re scared ba­si­cally, and if you’ve got no con­fi­dence, your short game will suf­fer.

One shot I think peo­ple should prac­tise more is the ‘belly wedge’. When the grass is up against the ball, try­ing to play a nor­mal chip or even a flop shot is al­most im­pos­si­ble be­cause there’s usu­ally so much grass be­tween the ball and club that it just doesn’t come out. When you don’t have any con­trol, some­times you just need to get the ball tum­bling for­ward, even if it doesn’t look pretty. Us­ing your lob wedge and try­ing to thin it with the lead­ing edge to cut through the grass and hit the back of the ball is far more ef­fec­tive.

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