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Interview with Pete Cowan

His record speaks for itself. Over the last 20 years, this savvy Yorkshireman has refined the techniques of many of Europe’s finest players and earned a reputation in the business as a pro’s pro with a relentless love for the game of golf. John Hopkins caught up with him during a rare break at Olympic Club

Gi: The list of players to have sought out your advice is long and distinguished – who do you consider to be your greatest success?
PC: That’s a tough starter. I always had what I considered a development programme, even when I was teaching Joe Bloggs as a club pro. Ian Garbutt became the youngest English Amateur champion at 17 – he was the first player I coached to national success. As far as I was concerned he was just like Ben Hogan. He used to hit everything dead straight, Garby. If he could have putted he’d still be out on tour now, there’s no doubt about that. Nicola Buxton won the English Amateur twice in a row during our time together and I suppose it was as a result of the success of these and other amateur players that the pros started to get interested. It was around 1995 that I began working seriously with Lee [Westwood] and Darren [Clarke]. In the latter part of the 1990s the players I coached became the backbone of the Ryder Cup team – Clarky, Westwood, Paul McGinley and David Howell.

Gi: Who is the best iron player you have coached?
PC: Has to be Westwood.

Gi: Best driver?
PC: At his best, Clarky.

Gi: Best chipper, best short game?
PC: Thomas Bjorn, without a shadow of doubt.

Gi: Best putter?
PC: I think Howler [David Howell] in his prime was probably the finest putter I’ve seen on tour.

Gi: How do you explain Darren’s form since his win at St George’s?
PC: Clarky thoroughly deserved to win the Open last year and yet he thinks it’s the worst thing that has ever happened to him because he has not played anything like he can since. It's just a reaction. Ask Harrington. People do get a reaction to winning big tournaments. You've just got to deal with it.

Gi: You’ve coached three major winners in McDowell, Oosthuizen and Clark – you could retire on that!
PC: I’m 62 next January. I’ve got a few contracts to fulfil. But when I’ve fulfilled those contracts I’ll be looking to ease up a little. The unfortunate thing is – and I hate to say this – but I don’t want to teach young players because I know from the experience I have had you can have real nice kids early on and then they become successful, make a lot of money and they change. And they change for the worse.

Gi: What would be your advice to any young player just starting out?
PC. To live your life and conduct yourself as a professional based on the three R’s: Respect for yourself. Respect for others. And third – and most important – responsibility. You’ve got to have respect for yourself. You have to respect the people who have helped you, whether it is your mum, your dad, the dustman – anybody who has helped you on your way. And you have to take responsibility for your actions. Live your life by the three Rs and you’ll be fine. That is what I tell the kids and that is what needs to be taught at school. The lack of respect everywhere in the world is a joke.

Gi: What’s the most common fault among amateur golfers?
PC: Not getting the basics right. They start trying to hit the ball without putting any foundations down. It’s like building a house without putting down any foundations. That’s why people find golf such a difficult game. They don’t learn how to synchronize the arms and the body. Get those fundamentals right and you can build from there. That’s why I call my coaching system ‘The Pyramid of Learning’ – you build from the ground up.

Gi: What surprises you most about professionals?
PC: That they don’t understand the true mechanics of the golf swing – which is probably a good thing.

Gi: If they did you’d probably be out of a job!
PC: Not necessarily. For me the key is what matches in a golf swing. A lot of good pros don’t understand how a swing works at its best. And yet that is all they have to do to play consistently good golf. They have to understand the golf swing better so they know what the matching movements are. Some of them match it for periods of time through the year but they don’t know how to match it consistently, and that is why their form dips up and down. Someone like Westy [Westwood] plays at a high level all the time because his mechanics are sound and he understands the golf swing.

Gi: How do you cope with all the time you spend on the range. You hardly ever seem to stop and eat.
PC: I don’t eat. I weigh 11-4 or 11-5. I try and have a decent meal every day but by the time I am half way through it I’m done. I have to leave the rest. It’s been like that my whole career. I have been a pro since I was 15. That is 47 years. I have a bad stomach. I have ulcers and I have an hiated hernia and that is through bad diet – you reap what you sow. But that's what I’m here for. I am here to work.

Gi: Is this a characteristic that was drummed in to you by your parents. Was your father a workaholic?
PC: Not really. It was me. I have always been fired with determination. When I was at school I always had to be first to arrive, no matter what. If somebody beat me to school in the morning I was mortified. I ran all the way to school to make sure nobody was there before me. Then you were known as a good runner, he best runner in your school, best sportsman. I always played football for the year above because I was better than the year I was in.

GI: What position did you play?
PC: Right half. Number 4 as it used to be. I wanted to be a professional footballer but I got injured when I was 15. I desparately wanted to be a sportsman. I lived at the side of Dore & Totley golf course. I used to caddie to get enough money to pay for my football boots, not to play golf. In fact my, career in golf may surprise a lot of people. I never had a handicap and have never been a member of a golf club. I have taken all the PGA qualifications but I never had a handicap. When I was told I couldn’t be a footballer I made up my mind that I would make it in another sport. I knew there was a job going at a local club so I asked the pro if he would take me on as an assistant. We were in a fish and chip shop at the time. ‘What’s your handicap?’ he asked me. I told him I didn’t have one but that I was willing to learn. ‘Right, for your cheek I’ll give you a six-month trial.’ And that was me sorted. I was there first thing in the morning till last thing at night.

Gi: If you did have a handicap what would it have been?
PC: Oh, rubbish. Six weeks into the job there was an assistant’s tournament at Dore & Totley, the course I was at in Sheffield, and my boss entered me for the event. He gave me three new balls. I remember distinctly the out of bounds was over the wall and I pulled three over the wall and holed a 40-foot putt for a ten – but a four with my fourth ball! I shot 109 and 100 – but I finished. I was mortified. I threw myself into practising and six months later played my second tournament and shot 79, 73. They always had a big pro-am at Dore & Totley and it was caddying in the same fourball as Tony Jacklin that really spurred me. This was 1966, and watching Tony play I thought this is not a bad life, getting well paid and driving around in a nice car. I’ll do that. Within three years I was playing in the Brazilian Open with Gary Player. But I still wish I had tried football. That has always been my first love.

Gi: If you had to divide coaching into the mental side and the physical side, what would the proportions be?
PC: I think you have to understand the physical side to understand how the mental side works. I always say a psychologist can't do his job until I have done mine. It is all very well a psychologist saying “you've got to think positive” on the first tee. If you’re stood on the range hitting it everywhere, what do you do? Your mechanics have to be pretty sound. I always say I can’t make everybody hit it perfectly straight but I can bring the deviation down to an acceptable distance so that when they stand on the first tee they’re comfortable that their deviation is within the parameters they have set themselves and then they just tighten those up all the time. That’s all it is, tighten up, tighten up.

Gi: As a player you had a reputation for practising until your hands bled. And getting really worked up.
PC: My hands would be in bits. They were split. I had tape all over them. It was quite painful. Nick Price was the same. You look at Nick Price's hands. They are so calloused it is a joke. That is what we did. We used to beat balls to try and get better. We didn’t understand the swing, didn’t understand the physical elements that would allow the mechanics to get better. I could have spent a fraction of the time and been miles better as a player had I known then what I know now. And I wouldn’t have slipped a disc with the amount of practice I did. It was through the repetition of poor technique.

Gi: How many years were you out there as a player?
PC: It was nothing. I’m proud of the fact that I was good enough to play with Gary Player and I beat Jacklin when he was at his peak (in the Benson and Hedges matchplay in 1971). The sponsors were mortified. I had beaten Peter Butler, a Ryder Cup player, in the morning and then Jacklin in the afternoon. Just after that I slipped my disc and couldn’t play. But when I was on I had some good days – at one time I owned 25 course records. Over one round I could do it but over four rounds it broke down – plus my temperament was appalling. On the plus side, slipping my disc lead to me understanding the golf swing a lot better. I had to take the pressure off my back and that taught me the physiology of it. I couldn’t hit balls for two years. So I tried to understand the swing and how it worked, how the muscle structure worked.

Gi: And you returned to the circuit?
PC. I came back a better player but it was just so tough to make money. These lads today think they’re badly done by financially. I finished 54th in the Order of Merit in 1979, my last year on tour, and lost money. I finished 33rd in the Open when Seve won at Lytham (tied with Ray Floyd and Christy O’Connor) and I lost money on the week. I was 28 years old. I had to take a club job. I had a wife and young family.

Gi: How did you make the transition from being a club pro to working with the game’s elite?
PC: As a club pro I was coaching everybody, beginners, good players. I could still play a bit, too. Dore & Totley is a pretty short course, and I couldn’t shoot more than 65. I used and they couldn’t beat me. I suppose I developed a reputation because of that. Didn’t mean anything but that’s why people came and had lessons off me, because I could demonstrate. I can still demonstrate. Certainly in bunkers and short game, I can do it as well as anybody.

Gi: Are you happy with the state of coaching in golf? Is it better than it was 20 years ago.
PC: Oh yeah. The reason being that people understand the physical part of the equation, the body, the biomechanics, how the physical part works. The 3-D stuff. I have been saying that the golf swing is a three dimensional movement for 20 years – that’s key to my teaching. Now it is proven with all the incredible technology that we have available today. Nothing is a guess anymore. Great cameras, great equipment, and the players themselves are athletes. The downside is that the one thing I always wanted pro golf to be it is not. I wanted it to be a sport. It’s not. It’s a business.

Gi: What is your definition of a sport? How can it be as good as it is and still be a sport?
PC: That I don’t know the answer to. It is pure business. I spoke to Alvaro Quiros – bearing in mind English is not his first language – and he was saying that in order to play well he has to enjoy his golf. He loves golf, the same way I do. He doesn’t want to play badly and score. He wants to play well and score. Five-and-a-half hour rounds is not entertainment. I have to watch golf on TV because it is part of my job but I find it the most frustrating game to watch. How are we going to get young kids interested in this sport? This is the question that needs to be addressed. We have to make it fun. Make it attractive and get the enthusiasm back so that the kids recognise golf as a great sport and get them playing again. I only wish I knew how to go about doing that...I wish the R&A and the USGA would get together and ban this frigging long putter, too! But that’s another issue.

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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