John Huggan sits down with world-renowned coach Pete Cowen – whose clients have included Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia – to talk everything golf.
Let’s start with the important stuff. Why do you only dress in black?
It’s easier for travel. I don’t have to think in the mornings and it looks fairly smart. Plus, in the last year I played the Tour, 1979, I had a sponsor whose company colours were black and yellow. When they went bust I was left with all this black and yellow clothing. I didn’t like the yellow.
Okay, I get that part of it. But why black? You could wear any colour now.
I could. But I’m going to wear black until they find a darker colour.
Describe yourself as a player …
I was a journeyman, a percentage player. I was that way because you had to make money every week in order to play the next week. But I failed because of my temperament more than anything else. And I wasn’t a great putter.
My last full season in 1979 I finished 56th on the Order of Merit (Bernhard Langer was 57th). And I lost money. I was 34th in the Open when Seve won at Lytham and I lost money that week, too. For a good reason. I made the cut and was drawn with Lee Elder in the final round. I couldn’t find my caddie, ‘Silly Billy’. And when I asked where he was I discovered he was in a mobile prison cell just down the road. He had been arrested for non-payment of fines. So I had to pay £200 to get him out. I won £600 that week but lost money because of that.
So what were your strengths and weaknesses as a golfer?
I only won one tournament, the 1976 Zambian Open, which was part of the European Tour back then. John Paramor’s (now chief referee) first job was to interview me. I beat Jack Newton by a shot. The year before, he had lost a playoff for the Open to Tom Watson. Jack had won the previous two weeks and was favourite to win again. I holed a 10-foot putt on the last to beat him. The first guy to congratulate me was the local bookmaker. He would have lost a fortune if Jack had won again. I won about £4,000. Johnny Miller got £6,500 for winning the Open that year so it was a pretty good week for me. And it set me on the road to buying my own flat.
But by 1979 I couldn’t make it work financially. Only the top-60 on the Order of Merit were exempt – I still think that should be the case. Now, we don’t allow youngsters to come through. Today, there are many players not on the Tour who are better than guys who are. It’s job protection, nothing more. And it won’t change. No one is going to vote themselves out of a job.
So, to sum up, I had no problem with most aspects of the game. But I was a poor putter. Although at one time I owned 26 course records. I was good over one round.
So what held you back?
I was a perfectionist. I couldn’t accept a bad shot. I was hitting 1,000 balls per day. I once snapped three clubs in one round – at a time when I had to repair my own clubs. If you think Matt Wallace gets mad now, he was nothing compared to me. He takes it out on his caddie; I took it out on myself. If I hit a bad shot, I would hit myself on the back all the way to the next shot. My putting was awful. My wife could never watch me hitting four-foot putts. She knew I was going to miss.
Where do you stand on consistency?
I think it is overrated. You can’t be consistent if you don’t hole putts every week. Jordan Spieth did it for two years. He had consistency. But he was putting great every week. Jason Day did it, too.
So it’s all down to putting?
Of course it is. That’s why I say putts should count as one-half or one-quarter of a shot. The best players would win every week. Think about it. A five-year-old child can hole a three-footer. But he or she can’t hit a 2-iron over water from 260 yards. So which one should count for more? There’s no logic to golf. And it’s not fair.
What would you do with a young Pete Cowen if he came to you now?
The reason I am reasonably successful as a coach is that I understand why I failed. All the things I tried, I know not to teach kids. After 53 years as a pro I’ve tried most things. Most of them don’t work. So I know what avenues not to go down. That’s true of temperament particularly. And you have to be a good putter.
Look at Justin Rose. He was a poor putter. Yet at the US Open [at Pebble Beach] he averaged 24 putts per round to finish tied 3rd. He must have played very poorly for him. With those stats he would have won by 10 shots if he had hit the ball well.
I always ask players what they are trying to achieve. Most people right now are trying to produce hitters. But the guy who can make a score will always beat those guys. I know a million good hitters. I don’t know a million good players.
I’m a bit concerned that there might be only one way to play at the highest level. Do you share that feeling?
I’m not sure. Look at Brooks Koepka. He isn’t competitive every week and that isn’t because he doesn’t give a shit. So we have to delve deeper. I’m not sure he knows himself.
Why can Rory win in Canada by seven shots then be way below that level a week later? The game levels things out. And there are always going to be horses for courses. Look at Matt Fitzpatrick. He is not the biggest guy, but he has his PGA Tour card. So he can compete.
So you’re not worried that, at the very highest level of the game, golf is becoming one-dimensional?
No. Look at Nicklaus in the 1970s. People were saying the same things about him. In the 1970 Open [at St Andrews] he drove the 18th green every day. Off the same tee they use today and using persimmon woods and balata balls.
I talked with Andy North at the US Open. He reckons that Nicklaus at the top of his game, using today’s equipment, would drive the ball 400 yards.
That’s a bit of an exaggeration but he wouldn’t be far off. He certainly would have been unbelievably long. The ball has changed the game dramatically. Today’s balls are self-correcting. We used to hit balls OB regularly. If you hit one out the neck in a crosswind, it went OB. It didn’t finish in the semi-rough like it does now.
Is that a bad thing? Not for amateurs.
True. But the problem is, do you actually correct the bad swings? Or do you correct the equipment? Now, everyone on Tour drives the ball well.
Why is golf the only sport that has messed with the venues to suit the equipment, rather than the other way round?
I’m not sure. But the threat of litigation from the equipment companies must be a factor. They are powerful. And everyone calls that progress.
Is golf not supposed to be more art than science?
It’s still a bit of both. But the percentages are changing. Think of it this way. Why do spectators go to watch golf, which is essentially a boring game? Billy Foster – who caddies for Matt Fitzpatrick – told me he went out to look at the pins on the second day of the US Open. He had to walk outside the ropes and when he came back he told me he couldn’t watch the golf. It was just too slow. He stood for 10 minutes at one point just to cross a fairway. It was unwatchable.
“Golf is a niche sport. Always has been. It’s not for the masses.” – Pete Cowen
So why do people go? What are they watching? Is it the personalities? That was the case with Tiger, when he was destroying the field almost every week. You need a dominant figure. And characters. And big personalities. When I ask kids who they like to watch, they nearly always say one of the big hitters. They want to watch huge drives and big personalities. That’s what people want, more than the game itself.
There is a small percentage of geeks who are into the game.
There are loads of anoraks, but basically people go to watch people. Seve was the perfect example of that. Without Seve – or Tony Jacklin before that – European golf would have struggled.
I once played Tony in the PGA Matchplay at Dalmahoy. I beat Peter Butler in the morning, then took Tony on in the afternoon. He was a double major-champion at the time. And I beat him on the last. The sponsors were gutted.
A few years later I was playing in a big pro-am at Mere in Cheshire. Tony and I tied for the best score. So I got up and made a speech in which I said I wasn’t sure if Tony was getting better or I was getting worse (laughs). He laughed … eventually.
Newton was the same when I beat him in Zambia. All the dignitaries, including President Kaunda, were there. When I was speaking I said how nice it was to beat a schoolboy hero. Jack is the same age as me. So he shouted from the back of the room: “F*ck off you pommie bastard.” (laughs)