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.
How do you see the future of the European Tour?
There are a lot of difficulties. Take the British Masters, where Tommy Fleetwood did a great job as host this year. Hardly anyone from the Ryder Cup team showed up. The camaraderie we were told about didn’t make much difference. Where were Tommy’s mates? I had no players in the British Masters but I had 11 in the US PGA the following week. The fields have been tumbleweeds from the Middle East to just before the Open. No one will travel from the States. They want to play maybe 25 events, make $3-4m and sit at home.
That’s just human nature, right?
In a way. But the players who separate themselves want more. Brooks plays all over the world and he did it before he broke through. He was prepared to do the hard yards. If you want to make the Tour more interesting, make only the top-60 exempt. The rest should fight it out. That’s the way to create more good players.
I’d also have a World Tour. That’s what the public wants. It would be dominated by the PGA Tour though, so it would be about making money. No-one I can see is ‘growing the game’ right now. Not the R&A, not the USGA, not the English Golf Union. All they are doing is helping the people already within the game. They’re not looking outside that. I sympathise, though. Golf takes too long. I’d build three loops of six holes on new courses. The 18-hole model doesn’t work anymore. You can play six holes in 90 minutes after work. All the loops would be full, rather than a golf course half-empty. The only growth area is Topgolf. Non-golfers can enjoy that.
So what’s the solution?
There isn’t one. Golf is a niche sport. It’s not for the masses. But everyone needs to realise that. Kids are not going to play golf in great numbers in our weather when they can play it on the computer. We’ve also missed two or three generations because the parents have stopped playing. And there are no caddies anymore. That’s how I got started – to pay for my football boots.
When you look at a golfer, how do you rate them? It can’t be just the swing.
My first test is to look them in the eye and see if there is anything there. I could tell with Graeme McDowell right away. He’d had a decent career before 2010 when he won the US Open. But I looked him in the eye after he shot a good score in the first round that week. He’d played well and maybe should have scored lower than he did. But he wasn’t fazed. “I’ve got a big one in me, you know,” he said.
"Millions want to be great. But few need to be. Tiger needed to be." – Pete Cowen
Koepka is the same. It’s more about how they are as people than as golfers. There are millions who can hit the ball well and there are plenty I look at on the range and wonder how they earn as much as they do. There’s something there you can’t see.
You visited Gardner Dickinson – a Hogan protégé – many years ago. How did it go?
I was a Hogan man. I asked Dickinson if he could arrange for me to watch Hogan hit balls. This was 1978, so Hogan would have been about 66 and still hitting decent shots. I didn’t go, though. Dickinson told me he could ring up and ask and Ben might agree. But then I could get there and he would change his mind. You could never predict his mood. So Dickinson suggested I stay and watch Jack Grout teaching Jack Nicklaus for two weeks. I was in Palm Beach at the time, so I did. But I still wish I’d been to see Hogan.
Was there ever a Hogan secret?
His body action. He had a better engine than anyone else. He was perfect. Dickinson did tell me that Hogan did more ‘dry drills’ than anyone. In other words, he made swings without hitting a ball. I understand that now. You cannot get better just by hitting balls. It’s impossible.
Let’s say you hit 400 balls and play a round of golf every day. When you are on the course, every swing takes about 1.5 seconds. Your 40 full shots take one minute. How many great shots did you hit? Maybe six. That’s nine seconds of good work.
You now go and hit 400 balls, which takes four hours. The 400 multiplied by 1.5 seconds is 600 seconds, or 10 minutes. You’ve done a day’s work and in that day you have spent 11 minutes on physical movement to try and improve that physical movement. You’ve also done more poor movements than good ones. You’ve actually got worse, in theory. So the whole thing has been counterproductive. But everyone does that. You cannot get better just by hitting balls. It is physically impossible. How are you going to do it? Hogan’s dry drills.
What are the main coaching challenges?
Think about this. Just about every one of us comes to golf having played a moving ball game. It is hand-eye coordination and instinct. Now the ball is sitting there, not moving and you have to hit it. But it’s not instinctive any more. That’s why people end up learning all the wrong movements. Golf is not complicated. There are only three things you have to get right. You have to start the ball on the correct line with the correct flight and the correct spin. When you can do that, go and chip-and-putt. There isn’t anything else.
Who has been your best pupil?
Probably Ian Garbutt, although Thomas Pieters is close. He was the first player who ever did everything I asked of him. As a kid, he won everything. He didn’t win on Tour, but swung like ‘Iron Byron’. If he’d putted better he’d have won lots of events.
What has been holding Thomas back?
His temperament. And I think I may be part of his problem. I’ve allowed him too much rope. I’ve allowed him to be the perfectionist that I was. So he has to sort that out. He’s getting there. He’ll be alright.
What about your most difficult pupil?
The most difficult – and the most complicated – has been Henrik Stenson. But also the most satisfying. I’ve made the biggest difference with Henrik, although Lee comes close.
How bad was Henrik when he came to you?
Horrendous. He had something but he couldn’t hit a wide range with a 5-iron. He could hit two consecutive drives 400 yards apart. How he got that bad is a question I’ve asked myself. He had won the year before. His swing was such that he could miss the ball either way. So it was technical. And the bad got worse and worse. Eventually, he couldn’t get the club back.
I told him we had to take out one side of the course. Eliminating one bad shot is not too hard for a good player. But I doubted he could get all the way back. Two years in I felt that way. And I was on commission.
I think I got £40 out of him in that time (laughs). He couldn’t afford me, really.
To be fair, I only teach people I like. If I like someone I will help them. Sometimes for nothing. If I put ‘£500 per hour’ up on the wall at my range I wouldn’t get many customers. I’d get laughed at. So I’d rather do it for nothing or not much.
So how do you get paid by Tour players?
I get a percentage, which is how I would like all coaches to get paid. When I took on Lee and Darren I said to Chubby – their manager at the time – that I would only charge them if they finished in the top 10. If they did, I would get five percent. I paid all my own expenses.
It was a bit of a punt on my behalf. They hadn’t been successful yet, but I thought I could make it work. I was right. In the next five years, Lee won 25 times and Darren won about a dozen. So I did well and I got plenty of other clients. It got to the point where Chubby asked me to reduce my fees. I reduced it to four percent, but made it four percent of everything they won. That was a bad decision. In the first year I lost £75,000.
I still pay all my expenses. I don’t want players saying they pay me to come. I’m really a consultant. That would be my advice to any young coach. If you think you are any good, test yourself. Do what I did. No retainer. No guarantees. Start your own business and believe in yourself.
Finally, what is the biggest misconception punters have about the golf swing?
That it is difficult. It’s not. It’s martial arts. It’s a movement that can be improved. If we had all been taught properly, no-one would be thinking it is hard. If a young girl can do a forward somersault and land on a four-inch wide beam, the movement we are all making is not that hard. The challenge is getting rid of that misconception. If people stopped trying to ‘hit’ the ball and focused on making the right movement, they would produce better shots.