My Shot : Pete Cowen / 66 on Jan. 7 / Sheffield / EnglandJanuary 27, 2017

The Best Teacher No One Knows

Pete Cowen on his five major champions, a prank with a lion and a tragedy that haunts him.
Pete Cowen
Photo by Sebastian Nevols

Early Tuesday morning of the 2011 Open Championship at Royal St. George's, and Darren Clarke is a mess. He's trudging toward the range with his head down and shoulders slumped. When he gets to me, I ask, "Are you all right, Darren?" He says, "No, I'm f------ not. I can't hit the ball. I'm wasting my time. I might as well go home." I had seen this before in Darren. I had talked him down off the ledge many times. I said, "Look, the weather is going to be terrible, and you're the best bad-weather player in the world. Why would you think you've got no chance? Let's have a look at you." After watching him hit balls briefly, I gave him one thing to think about. Within two hours, his demeanor changed completely: "Watch me hit this stinger. . . . Watch me hit this high draw."

It was an incredible exhibition of shotmaking. As he left the range, I said, a little sarcastically, "Are you OK now?" Darren replied, "Yeah, but I still can't f------ putt." We laughed. He won by three.


I'VE HAD FIVE PLAYERS win major championships while I was working with them: Darren Clarke, Louis Oosthuizen, Graeme McDowell, Danny Willett and Henrik Stenson. Some other very good players: Lee Westwood, Thomas Bjorn, Sergio Garcia and Charl Schwartzel [before he won the Masters] among them. And now, Thomas Pieters and Matthew Fitzpatrick. Over 200 tournament titles worldwide. I'm proud of that, but you might have noticed I keep a fairly low profile. It's not about me. I had my shot at fame when I played professionally for 10 years during the 1970s. I had very middling success—I was a failure, really—and my time to be famous came and went. As a coach, it's good to be part of something special. But let's face it, it's about the players.

● ● ●

LEE WESTWOOD told me that at his first Ryder Cup, at Valderrama in 1997, Seve, who was captain, approached him on the practice range and held out some balls of cotton. "Lee, I want you to put these in your ears before you go to the first tee," he said. "The noise there will be deafening." Lee replied, "I've worked a long time just to hear that roar. No thanks, Seve." Which tells you something about world-class players. They love the stage.

● ● ●

IMPROVING AT GOLF is not that big a deal. I can guarantee dramatic improvement from 15 minutes a day, without even using a club. But that commitment is way out of the range of most people. I spoke recently at a seminar attended by 500 Australian club pros. I said, "We've long known that exercising 15 minutes per day will add several years to our lives. Those of you who have spent 15 minutes daily over the last 10 years, raise your hands." Not a hand went up. I said, "If you won't commit 15 minutes to lengthening your very life, what makes you think you'll devote 15 minutes to golf?" The problem comes down to actually doing it. It's a very tough sell.

● ● ●

THE FASCINATING THING to me is how all these great players are different. They're gifted in varying ways—physically, emotionally, temperamentally and ambition-wise. Louis Oosthuizen's gift was to never be tempted to change the awesome swing that won the Open at St. Andrews in 2010. It's the same basic swing I saw when he came to me as an amateur. That's a gift, believe me. When a player has success, there's always a voice that whispers they can be even better if they make this one change. It can be disastrous, but Louis never heard that voice. He also has never changed his priorities in life. His family comes first, his farm second and golf third. Nothing will ever change that.

● ● ●

DANNY WILLETT'S GREATEST GIFT is something that can't be taught. I'm talking the total absence of stage fright. Did you watch him win the Masters? Here it was, the biggest moment of his career and maybe his life, yet he seemed no more nervous than if he were playing with his mates at home. It was incredible. Stage fright is a form of choking, a fear of embarrassing yourself. It happens in everything, from singing karaoke to giving a speech to playing a weekend round with your pals. Overcoming it is something that can't be taught. It has to be sorted out, alone, the way Bernhard Langer did with his yips. What's killing Tiger Woods? Stage fright. This great athlete, who once laughed at bad shots and had no self-consciousness at all, is now terrified of looking like the rest of us. He's done what most stage-fright victims do, which is try to overcome it by dissecting his technique. That stanches the flow of creativity, robs from the player's inherent talent.

Photographed by Sebastian Nevols on Nov. 23, 2016, at Cowen’s academy In Rotherham, South Yorkshire, England.

TIGER WOODS' LAST YEAR AS AN AMATEUR in some ways was the high-water mark of his swing. He had height on his backswing. He had a drop on his downswing that was to die for, a moment of deceleration with his upper body that allowed his arms to catch up. He then exploded into the ball in a way that was incredible. He will never have that again, if for nothing else than age. Age eventually makes everyone look ordinary.

● ● ●

I SPEND MY SHARE OF TIME around miserable millionaires. If you assume tour players are unimaginably happy and content, I assure you that is not the case. Many are, but most aren't. They are healthy, rich and living the dream, but something in them—the perfectionist tendencies, perhaps—leads them to not being happy people. When you think about it, there are only two things in life that are essential: food and shelter. Beyond that, it's all window dressing. A new iPhone? New car? Bigger house? You've got to be kidding. If there's a fact of life I see hit home on an almost daily basis, it's that money and fame do not bring happiness.

● ● ●

AS A COACH, I can't look at Adam Scott and not see sort of a puzzle. On one hand, I see all this natural ability and wonder, like many people, why he hasn't been more dominant. On the other hand, he has accomplished a lot: Masters champion, WGC titles and wins all over the world. Who's to say he's underachieved? You cannot criticize him. It's his life. Contentment is not a crime.

● ● ●

WHEN I BEGAN TEACHING OTHER PROFESSIONALS, I immediately formed a fee structure that is quite different from that of many teachers in America. My company, Top Ten Golf Limited, is a service that is strictly performance-based. I get 4 percent of the players' tournament winnings, but only for finishes in the top 10. If they don't finish in the top 10, I don't get paid. I cover all my expenses and am available on short notice. I'm very proud of this. What other coach in the world of sports has the confidence to structure their fee schedule this way? There have been times when the results of my coaching have produced revenue for me that the players' agents felt was excessive. This led me to add a corollary to my offer: If the player leaves my camp, for any reason whatsoever, and doesn't leave a token bit of compensation in place, said player cannot come back. This happened several years ago with a very good player I was helping. A Ryder Cupper who became top 50 in the world. The player's agent rang me one day to say his player was going to "do his own thing," was leaving and choosing not to keep a bit for me intact. I warned that said player couldn't come back. Some time later, the player's performance declined. The agent phoned me, asking if I would begin working with his player again. To that I said, "You obviously weren't listening." I couldn't take the player back. But good luck to him. He's a nice lad, and still a good player.

● ● ●

I DISLIKE PUTTING. It carries too much weight, scoring-wise. If it were up to me, each putt would count only half a stroke. I give you two golfers. Player A hits a 3-iron over water to a back-right pin. Hits it to 10 feet, then misses the putt. Player B hits a big pull left of the green, pitches it to six feet and holes the putt. Under my system, Player A scores a 2 on the hole, while Player B scores 2½. That's called justice. And it would speed up the game.

‘If you assume tour players are unimaginably happy and content, I assure you that is not the case.’

I HELPED THE IRISH MEN'S TEAM when Rory McIlroy was 13 and 14. I was told there was this McIlroy kid who was brilliant, so when the team came down to see us, I quickly picked Rory out and challenged him. "You can't hit this shot, can you?" I said, and gave him a shot only a really good player can hit, a high, soft, 30-yard bunker shot to a back pin. "I can do it!" he said and dove right into it. He couldn't pull it off. When I shook my head in an I-told-you-so kind of way, Rory didn't show an ounce of embarrassment. He came right back at me: "Next time I see you, I'll be able to hit it." A short time later, when I traveled up to Carton House Golf Club outside Dublin, Rory pounced. "Watch this," he said, and went into the bunker and played the shot expertly. Even at that time, Rory felt there was nothing he couldn't do. The enthusiasm and certitude with which he'd embrace any challenge proved he was going to be special.

● ● ●

I PLAYED THE EUROPEAN TOUR from 1970 to 1980, with a two-year break due to a back injury. I had a bit of success—I beat Tony Jacklin and Peter Butler on the same day in the Benson & Hedges Match Play in 1974. But I wasn't a world-beater, and it was tough to make a living. I tied for 35th in the 1979 Open Championship—Seve won it—and didn't make enough to cover expenses. I was 57th in the Order of Merit and lost money for the year. At that point I was 28, had a young family and needed to move on.

● ● ●

MY BEST FRIEND on the European Tour was David Jagger. Nice player, and the best practical joker I ever met. David, who also was a club pro, got a call from a friend who had been to a house clearance sale and bought the complete stuffed body of a lion a hunter had claimed in Africa. David ordered the man to bring it over to the club early the next morning. Together, in secret, they took the lion out to a far corner of the course and inserted it into a gorse bush. They went back to the shop, and, as players began showing up to play, they told them that a lion had escaped from the nearby zoo. "The whole town is on the alert," David said. "I'm sending you out, but for God's sake, be careful." You can guess what happened next. A young boy, out with his trolley and clubs, rounded a corner right into the gorse bush and the face of the lion, teeth bared, ready to eat him up. The boy ran back to the clubhouse without his clubs, almost dying with fright. David, of course, thought it was hysterical.

● ● ●

MY FIRST TOURNAMENT as a pro was in a local assistant's event. I shot 109-100. It was a rather traumatic experience, but I did have the courage to at least sign my card. When I talk to kids who come by my academy, I mention that story as I lay out my three Rs for being successful in life. The first R is Respect yourself. Never be embarrassed so long as you try your best. Don't throw clubs or lose your temper; you're really disrespecting yourself when you do that. The second R is Respect those who helped you. This particularly applies to your coaches, parents or teachers. Remember that if you disrespect yourself, you're disrespecting them, too. The final R is Responsibility, which sort of goes back to my signing for the 109-100. Always be accountable. Whatever happens, it is not anyone else's fault. Do not buy into the blame culture that is ruining the world today. Man up, and you'll be fine in life.

● ● ●

THAT ISN'T TO SAY LUCK ISN'T A FACTOR in life, or on the golf course. The secret is to ride the good streaks and wait out the bad ones. If your ball buries in a bunker on the first hole, hits a spike mark on the second and comes to rest in a divot at the third, don't start taking chances. Ride it out and play conservatively. When a run of good luck happens—say, a lucky chip-in followed by a 50-foot putt—start rolling the dice. Play along with the golf gods.

● ● ●

ON THE SUNDAY PRIOR TO THE 2010 U.S. OPEN at Pebble Beach, I sat with Graeme McDowell in front of a TV at a restaurant near the 17th hole. As we watched Lee Westwood win the St. Jude Classic, Graeme grew rather quiet and seemed to be taking something from it. After the first round—Graeme shot 71, only two shots back of the lead—I casually mentioned it was too bad he didn't get more out of the round, because he'd hit the ball great. Graeme spun, looked me in the eye and said, "I've got a big one in me, you know." Over the next three days he put on display his particular gift, which is massive balls. Graeme is absolutely fearless. He hits the right shots at the right time, and if it happens to be a demanding one with dire consequences if he misses, he won't hesitate. When Graeme is on, his courage and self-belief are unreal.

● ● ●

WHEN I BEGAN WORKING WITH HENRIK STENSON, he had sort of a preset movement with his shoulders I didn't care for. I decided Henrik should get rid of it, and he followed my direction exactly. It wasn't the best decision I ever made. It took Henrik an awfully long time to work through it, enough to make me wonder if it was worth it. As it turned out, it was, but it was a reminder I should think changes through very carefully before recommending them.

‘If it were up to me, each putt would count only half a stroke.’

WHEN I SEE PLAYERS going through a wholesale swing change, I worry for them. When it comes to the golf swing, improvement is good, change is bad. If I see an aspect of the swing I don't care for, I usually try to integrate it into the rest of what he does, without changing it radically. You can sometimes even make it a strength. This often is better than trying to eliminate the flaw, because that can require a great deal of other complex changes. It can set up an entirely different motion.

● ● ●

I LIKEN THE GOLF SWING TO A CAR. During the swing, the whole of your body is the engine. The arms, hands and the club are the steering wheel. Your brain is the driver and provides the fuel. Despite our efforts, sometimes we start hitting poor shots. More often than not, the source of the problem is the car's transmission, which in a golf context, is the shoulders. Poor shoulder movement is a huge cause of inconsistency and days where you don't seem to "have it." Any command from your brain to your arms and hands can't be obeyed, because it's not transferring correctly through the shoulders. It's one of the biggest oversights in golf.

● ● ●

BEST SHOULDERS IN GOLF: SERGIO GARCIA. Sergio lays the shaft down on the downswing far more than anyone, myself included, would recommend. But the way he delivers the club into the ball through the movement of his shoulders is fantastic. When I work with Sergio, I'm never tempted to touch the way he flattens the shaft, because the movement of his shoulders is so good. Remember, the swing isn't about positions, it's how you move from one position to the next. Billy Foster, who has caddied for Lee Westwood, Darren Clarke, Seve Ballesteros, Sergio and even Tiger, will tell you that Sergio is the best striker of the lot. It's the way Sergio moves those shoulders that makes Billy's observation spot on.

● ● ●

MY VOTE FOR THE BEST SWING OF ALL TIME: Sam Snead. I played 36 holes with Sam at a tournament in Kenya in 1980. He shot 69-69. I actually led him after those rounds, and I still have the note he wrote for me: "To a wonderful player, Pete Cowen. Regards, Sam Snead." Sam in his prime had this incredible hyper-mobility that was unique in that he was strong enough to control it. He was 68 when I played with him and still carried a 1-iron. It wasn't there just for show—he could drill it. There was the wonderful rhythm, of course, but it also was amazing mechanically. Even with the length and power of his swing, Sam never suffered a serious injury from playing golf that I'm aware of. That alone says a lot.

● ● ●

MECHANICALLY, SAM EMBODIED ALMOST PERFECTLY MY CONCEPTION of the full-swing motion resembling a spiral staircase, going back and coming through. Sam's sequential coiling and uncoiling was timeless and without flaw. There was none of this lateral-motion stuff, nor was it simple turn then unturn. Sam's engine was much more dynamic than that. You could imprint a silhouette of Sam, and it would be a great imprint for anyone to follow today. There's only one player today who comes close to matching it, and that's Henrik Stenson.

● ● ●

DARREN CLARKE AT HIS BEST is one of the two or three best ball-strikers I ever saw. His ability to hit the ball solidly, to control his trajectory, is fantastic, especially with the driver. I prefer a slightly lower, penetrating, bullet-like ball flight that connotes the word drive. I prefer it to the arcing, rainbow flights you see in some other players. The ball flight I like works on any course and is especially effective when it's cold and wet, or when the air is heavy. Nick Price had that. So did Ian Woosnam. Thomas Pieters has it.

● ● ●

EUROPEANS, who develop swings in adverse conditions on courses that often aren't well-groomed, gravitate toward controlling ball flight and trajectory. They apply pressure on the ball in a more stable, less-manipulative way than the Americans, who generally are more focused on achieving a higher flight with maximum speed. Is one style better than the other? I shade toward the European way, but depending on the player, it can go either way.

● ● ●

IS BEN HOGAN'S Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf still relevant? No. I've read it hundreds of times, and it's increasingly clear that what Hogan thought he did in the swing isn't what he did at all. It's a smart book, and I can absolutely see how he arrived at his beliefs, but that doesn't make it a good how-to manual. Coaches who know what to look for can derive value from it, but average students, no. It will only confuse them.

● ● ●

ONE OF MY FAVORITE STUDENTS at the moment is Thomas Pieters. I've taught him since I took part in a Belgian golf program when Tom was 13. He is unique. It's rare when a player follows your instruction without question, but if I were to tell Tom, "Go stand in the corner for two hours, and it will make your golf better," he would head for the corner. I'm not taking full credit for the success he's had so far, because his coach at Illinois, Mike Small, really turned him into a player. Personality-wise, Belgians seem to either be very strong, driven characters, or they're not. Tom Pieters is a strong character, and a strong Belgian is something to behold.

● ● ●

I'M ALSO COACHING a Yorkshireman named Jonathan (Jigger) Thomson. He's 20, a leukemia survivor, and his pro career is well underway. Jigger is 6-9 and, needless to say, quite long. It's impossible to look at his sheer size and not wonder if that isn't the future of golf. They say in boxing that a good big man will always beat a good small man, and you wonder if one day it might hold true in golf.

● ● ●

IF YOU WANT TO STAY YOUNG by hanging around young people, don't demand special treatment and oodles of respect. They'll want to take the mickey out of you by calling you "old fart" and stuff like that. Let them—it's a test and a sign that you're welcome. And give it right back.

● ● ●

NEW KIDS continue to show up at the Pete Cowen Academy, but it's getting harder to get them interested in golf. We offer footgolf, table tennis, basketball and soccer, anything to get them to take up golf. I cringe slightly at the other activities. But with the disappearances of caddies, there are fewer inroads to golf. We have to try new things.

● ● ●

IT BREAKS MY HEART to tell you this, but my academy has been burglarized 22 times. It's not in the best part of town. They break in every way possible—last time was through the roof—and trash the place. There is nothing here to steal, yet they break in anyway. Not one person has been caught, and every plea I've made to the police and local councils for a bit of security has been ignored. I have put a great deal of my own money into this place. It's a labor of love, and I carry on because I grew up here, still live near here and want to be an asset to the community. But I'm near my limit. There's an open area near one of our greens, and the environmental agency in the U.K. just issued permission for a guy to move a million tons of toxic waste there. Can you imagine that happening, what with all the kids running about? It's outrageous but somewhat typical of what's going on in the U.K. these days.

● ● ●

YOU NEVER HEARD OF DAVID MOORE. He was an English kid we toured with back in the 1970s. An absolute brilliant player, unlimited potential, destined for greatness. He could do things with a golf ball the rest of us couldn't do. In the winter of 1976, there was a series of tournaments in Zambia. Big events, excellent purses. All the best Ryder Cuppers were in the fields as well as Jack Newton, who'd just lost an Open playoff to Tom Watson at Carnoustie. The towns in Zambia were remote with few hotels, so we stayed with host families. A few days into it, David asked me who I was staying with, and could he possibly arrange to stay with us as well. "I don't like the atmosphere of the house I'm in," he said. "Something is not right with the guy who is hosting us." I sympathized and looked into it, but the house I was in was full of guests. A few days later, David and another pro attended a party at a rugby club. The host and the host's wife were there, and the guy got drunk and accused David of having an affair with his wife. Which was insane, because David scarcely knew them. The husband left. A couple of hours later, when David and another player arrived back at the host's house, the husband opened the front door, drew a gun and shot David in the head. Killed him. My inability to get David into another house has always haunted me.

● ● ●

YOU NEVER STOP DISCOVERING THINGS. Ever notice how you'll sometimes put backspin on a buried lie from sand? I've developed a technique for doing that. It has to do with "rippling" the sand. Come over to the academy, and I'll show you how it's done.


WATCH: GOLF DIGEST VIDEOS