Calling all Innovators – Pete Cowan Interview Part 2

In the second part of Pete Cowen’s exclusive interview with Robin Barwick – ahead of his appearance at The Golf Show 2013 – the renowned coach talks about winning on the European Tour in 1976, gambling with club golfers and how PGA professionals need to innovate.
Before establishing yourself as a coach, you spent nine years on the European Tour. What was the highlight of your playing career?

I won the Zambian Open in 1976 on the Europpean Tour’s winterprogramme. The best player there was Jack Newton – who had lost to Tom Watson in a play off in the 1975 Open at Carnoustie and he had won the first two tournaments in Africa that year.

Everybody had backed him to win all three events, but I holed a 10-footer on the last to beat him by a stroke. The first person to congratulate me on the 18th was the local bookie, who had stood to lose a fortune had Newton won.

Virtually every tour player as coaching input of some description today, but that wasn’t the case in the 1970s. Did you employ a coach yourself?

In 1978 I went to America to have lessons off Gardner Dickinson, who had learnt from Ben Hogan. People say coaching is expensive now, but even 35 years ago he charged $200 an hour.

If a world-class coach charged $200 an hour in 1978, what would the equivalent fee be today on Tour?

An awful lot of money – probably $2,000 an hour. Someone like Sean Foley or David Leadbetter would charge more than that. A corporate day with Sean Foley could cost around $40,000. When a coach has taught Tiger Woods he can command that level of corporate fee.

What took you from the European Tour and into coaching?

In 1979 I finished 57th in the Order of Merit, but I lost money on the whole year, so I thought, “That’s me done”. I was only 28, but in those days there was no money in the game.

I ended up back at my home club – Dore & Totley – a course I had been chased off many times by the pro when I was a kid, when I used to go looking for lost golf balls to sell back to golfers.

There were some very competitive golfers there, and on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons I would play the members for lots of money. It was a tradition started by Arthur Lees – the Ryder Cup golfer and head pro at Sunningdale for many years, and a great gambler – when he was pro at Dore & Totley. Twice a week I could enhance my weekly wage quite considerably. I had just come off the tour, so even giving the members plenty of shots I could wipe the floor with them. Back then at Dore & Totley, 65, 5 under par, would have been a bad round for me. I kept on having to give the members more and more shots, but even so they had to play very well to beat me.

Coaching was tricky because there was no practice ground, so I had to teach across the first and 18th fairways, and then I moved to Lindrick, where there were great practice facilities and a good golf course. That was where I started cultivating my coaching.

As someone who has been a professional for over 45 years, what do you see as the greatest challenges faced by PGA professionals today?

We need to encourage more people to play golf. It is harder to get kids playing golf because they want to play their computer games and get instant gratification. They did a survey in Australia recently, asking parents why their kids were not playing as much golf as they used to, and the most popular response was that golf was too difficult for kids. Their kids could not improve at the game quickly. The second reason was that the parents themselves were playing less, so they were taking their kids with them to the course less. The third reason was that the game is too slow. We need to make golf more appealing to kids and we need to make it quicker.

How do you think this can be achieved?

Golfers want to hit golf balls – most of them don’t want to bother putting. My idea is that every putt should be a quarter of a shot. There is a lot of skill in hitting a three-iron 220 yards over water and to within six feet of a tight pin, but then if you miss the putt you score three. In my system, that two-putt would cost you half a shot, so you would walk off the green with a 1.5 instead of a three. With normal scoring, a golfer who misses the green by miles but then escapes with a chip and a putt, walks off with a three, but in my system he would get 2 ¼. This would mean that the player who hit the better tee shot would still be better off.

The other advantage is that if putts are only worth ¼ shots, players are going to take less time over them, so pace of play should improve. I think it could be a scoring system for certain competitions. It is just one idea.

Will you deliver any other key messages to the pros at The Golf Show?

The other point is that a lot of PGA professionals have stayed in the nest for too long. These pros need to fly the next and be innovative, and find ways to make their career successful. Sometimes in life you need to take a gamble.

I took a gamble with my coaching on tour, because my fees are related to the success of the players. It costs me £100,000 a year to be on tour because I pay all my own expenses, and I only get paid if my players do well. If you want to be the best at something it takes hard work and a little bit of a gamble.