July 13, 2014

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."

Cook is an intense book reader, serious skier and avid traveler. He's married with two children, and his demanding schedule working with three tour stars is further crowded by another thousand hours a year teaching everyday amateurs around Austin. His fee for teaching Bradley, Donald and Dufner? "Whatever they want to pay me," he says. For that collection-plate fee schedule, the players get 40-plus years of collected wisdom and perhaps the best delivery in the business. The x's and o's are specific to each player, but beyond technique, the Chuck Cook playbook might read like this:

__1. THERE IS NO OUTSOURCING

__ Cook helped retool Dufner's swing to create a move that Cook says "requires almost no timing." Bradley's swing went from upright to more around his body. Donald went from squaring the clubface with his hands to more of a big-muscle release. But for all the work Cook does with their long games, his work nearer the hole has been as vital. "Chuck has done more with my short game than my swing," Bradley says. "The way he emphasized swing plane with chipping and pitching got me away from being upright and too handsy. It's just a smaller version of the full swing. It's simple, but I never knew that before."

Cook actually does the grinding on Bradley's wedges. He's Dufner's putting coach and even advised him on his conditioning routine. "I shooed him away from the elliptical," Cook says. "If you want an exercise that fits a slow metabolism, try wind sprints." Only Donald, who still consults short-game expert Pat Goss, ventures outside for help with other aspects of his game. As a teacher, Cook is one-stop shopping.

__2. CAMARADERIE IS KEY

__ "We like to feel we're a little bit of a team," Cook says. Camaraderie in the modern era involves unmerciful teasing, such as when Bradley tweeted a photograph of Dufner slouched against a wall at an elementary-school function, and Dufnering went viral. After Bradley came aboard with Cook, Dufner got revenge by snapping a photograph of himself wearing a T-shirt that read "Missed the cut" when Bradley was down the road after 36 holes at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Even Donald, the most reserved of the three, gets in on the act. He texted a photo of balls resting near a flagstick—results from a practice session—to the other three members of Team Cook, with the message: "Decent spread...3 balls from 119-146, 3-yard increments. Hit the flag with 1. Take that, Keegan." Donald might be the most businesslike in the group, but he takes it, and he gives it out. "Chuck in particular has a hard time getting a rise out of me, but he never gives up," Donald says. "The fun part is giving it back."

Dufner, Donald, Bradley

Says Cook, "The social end is important, and all my guys are different. Dufner is a fried-chicken-joint kind of guy and likes places that are a little off the grid. Luke, he likes nicer restaurants and a good bottle of wine. Keegan is pure frat guy. I stayed at his place once, and the only things in the fridge were half-drunk bottles of beer. Stuff is piled everywhere. His PGA Championship trophy, I doubt very much that it has been polished since he won it."

3. THE MESSAGE SHALL BE SIMPLE

Cook tells of witnessing a lesson from Harvey Penick in which he told the student, "Show me another knuckle and clip the grass." There was no explanation. The pupil, who had a weak grip and was swinging down very steeply, was straightened out immediately. "I asked Harvey why he didn't explain his reasoning to the student. He said, 'Asking him to perform something gave him one thing to think about. If I explained it to him, that would've given him two things. Why give him two things when one will do?'"

Cook explains to Donald, Bradley and Dufner the reasoning behind the swing fixes he asks of them, but he keeps the message simple. "Chuck translates a lot of technical things into movements I should feel, or into sequences," Donald says. "That's good for me, because I tend to be too analytical. On my downswing, his message is, 'Heel, toe, cover left' [in Cook code]. That's about as uncomplicated as it gets." Bradley, who came to Cook after working with Jim McLean, says he was drawn in by listening to Cook explain short-game principles to Dufner. "He communicates on different levels," Bradley says. "Chuck can explain the same technique as it applies to TrackMan, Ben Hogan or standard teaching."

__4. CREDIBILITY DOES MATTER

__ "Part of Chuck's strength is that he's sort of a father figure to his guys," says Gary Koch, the NBC analyst and former tour player who first saw Cook teach in the early '80s. "Not in the classic sense, but through the range of his experiences. It's hard to hear a guy talk about how he watched Hogan hit balls and talked golf with him, and not be impressed by that."

It also helps that Cook is quick with answers—Bradley says there's rarely more than a three-second wait on a technical question. This makes Cook effective at getting his students to believe in what he's saying. "I explain there are options for tackling a problem," Cook says. "But then, I don't really give them options. I'm bluntly honest, but in a nice way. Players choose teachers and always will, but I get to control the message.

"I also think I'm good about giving evidence," Cook says. "When I showed Keegan his low spin rate with wedges and compared them to rates of other players, it made it that much easier to explain the ball flight he needed—a low, tight draw—and the techniques that would get him there."

__5. IT'S ALL ABOUT TACT

__ With his friendly twang and storytelling and his way of ameliorating phrases with "just a little bit," Cook makes his messages an easy sell. His tact, he points out, is an acquired skill.

"Jim Flick was the best when it came to building people up and depicting things in a good light, and I learned from that," he says, recalling teachers he worked with in the Golf Digest Schools starting in 1979. "Peter Kostis sold his instructional points so well, he made it seem like there was no other way than his way. It's important to make personalities match as best you can. Seve Ballesteros and David Leadbetter tried working together once, and it was a disaster."

"Chuck is a chameleon," Foley says. "Teachers have to be, because when we're home, there's no telling what's coming through the door for your lessons between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. He has empathy. And humility."

What Cook is doing with his three stars—from the travel to the range time to, yes, even the texts—is not light work. "Players today are multimillion-dollar corporations, and we teachers are consultants," he says. "We're all using the higher ends of our knowledge. There's so much at stake, but it's important to keep it fun."