The Chuck Wagon
Teacher Chuck Cook has picked up some big-name players just like he did 25 years ago
At the WGC-Cadillac Championship back in March, after two days of working with Keegan Bradley, Luke Donald and Jason Dufner, Chuck Cook waited to see what would transpire when the tournament began. The first-round results were good enough, but on Friday, with winds gusting up to 40 miles per hour, wrecks ensued. Donald shot 82, Dufner 77, and Bradley 76. The group did not make a single birdie. That evening, text messages flew among the four. "Hey, Team Cook didn't do so hot," Bradley typed.
"Awful," Donald answered.
"Yeah, don't you teach your players how to make birdies?" Dufner deadpanned.
Replied Cook, "Tom Kite made 37 birdies when he won the Bob Hope. It helps to have players who know how to make them." Within that exchange rest clues as to why Cook might be the most compelling teacher in the game today and insight into how modern tour players are wired. First, there's the want-it-now impatience of the millennial golfer: Where are my birdies? There's the connected, tech-savvy nature of the players, all in their mid-30s or younger and all into social media. Third, how about tour players sharing a sense of common purpose and having a little fun with it? Then there's the irreverence of it all. The days of players addressing their instructor as Mr. Penick or Mr. Toski are long gone. The teacher—in this case Cook, an energetic Texan who is 69 and was teaching before any of these players were born—is just one of the guys.
Not only is Cook quick with a comeback, he's expert at communicating his teachings to these three players, all of whom are in the top 30 in the World Golf Ranking. (In the 1990s, Cook schooled Kite, Payne Stewart and Corey Pavin to major-championship victories.) Cook believes there is no specific swing for everyone. He dislikes methods and rejects "ideal" swing models. Indeed, it is hard to discern similarities in the swings of Donald, Bradley and Dufner, who came to Cook with different strengths, physiques and learning backgrounds. Dufner started working with Cook in 2008 and has transformed from an erratic journeyman to one of the best ball-strikers on the PGA Tour. Donald, a former world No. 1, arrived in August 2013, looking to add power and consistency to his long game. Bradley signed on three months later, eager for clear direction on his full swing and unsatisfied with his wedge play.
What they're getting from Cook is a counterpoint to what you see on tour practice ranges every week. On any given Tuesday, TrackMan launch monitors are everywhere. ShotLink stats and phrases such as "D-plane" and "smash factor" are referenced as readily as the latest episode of "Game of Thrones." Players beat paths to and from the equipment vans, club reps handing them tweaked-out clubs like offerings from a dessert tray. The weight of technology in teaching is heavy, and the trend has been to answer with even more technology. Cook's approach is more organic. He views science as an important adjunct to teaching, but it definitely is not his master. That doesn't mean he's hung up on the past.
"I'm an old guy, but I wouldn't say I'm old school," Cook says in the grillroom at the University of Texas Golf Club in Austin, where he's based. "Then again, I'm not so fixated on science that I don't see the value of more traditional teaching."
"Chuck is unusual," says Sean Foley, whom Cook mentored early in his career and still advises about his tour students, including Tiger Woods. "He's essentially a right-brain, creative person. But right-brain people can be very adept at understanding science. Chuck is always learning. At teaching seminars, you'll usually find him in the front row. One of the remarkable things about Chuck is, he has never become dogmatic. He's open to ideas and is very much in the camp that there's no 'correct' way to swing a golf club."
Cook's horn-to-hoof approach fits a man as varied as the music along Austin's famous Sixth Street. A decent player who tried but failed at the 1976 PGA Tour Q school, Cook has shot his age 12 times. As a teen, he initially aspired to play professional baseball and was offered a tryout by the Philadelphia Phillies, but his father discouraged the effort. "He told me I was too small, and that I'd wind up being a minor-league bum," Cook says. So he turned his attention to golf and walked on to the team at Tulsa University. After college, he served two years in the army, including six months in an intelligence unit in Vietnam. Then Cook became an assistant golf professional. "I liked playing, teaching and fixing clubs," he says. "Of the three, teaching won out."