Pete Cowen, a PGA Master Professional and renowned coach to many of the world’s finest golfers, will be a headline speaker at Golf Show 2013 in Harrogate. Here, in the first part of a two-part interview, he speaks exclusively to Robin Barwick about life on tour, wrapping clubs around trees and about Lee Westwood’s putting
The PGA Championship – the final major of the year – was played at Oak Hill last month. Was that a busy week for you?
It was a busy week, but I am on tour for 30 weeks a year so I am used to it. We had Henrik Stenson who finished third, Graeme McDowell and Mark Warren who both finished 12th, and Martin Kaymer who finished 33rd, so we had a few players up there but obviously they didn’t win, and that is all we are looking for really.
Graeme is number nine in the world now and Henrik is 10, so it is nice to have two players in the top-10.
The driving range at tournaments looks a friendly place, but is there an undercurrent of competitiveness between coaches?
There is competitiveness on tour but it does not manifest itself in anything nasty. There is a bit of jealousy if one coach has players who are performing particularly well. That goes for the players and the coaches – they can get jealous of each other – but luckily I have never really had a problem like that because the players I have coached have always been very successful.
It must be hard for young, ambitious coaches to get a foothold on tour.
I have never asked a tour player if he would like me to coach him. You just don’t do it, and I have never seen another coach do it. The player has to ask the coach. If a coach went up to a player and said, “I could help you,” he would not last very long.
So the way to get established is to through a development process. For me it started when I was the pro at Dore & Totley back in 1979, and I started by just coaching the general public and the members. You have to be a quick-fix-it coach in that circumstance, and I must have been one of the best because I was busy. At the same time I started a development programme with young kids, teaching them the game the way I would have liked to have been taught, had I been given the opportunity to start playing golf all over again.
Eventually I worked with three or four youngsters who became very successful at national level, winning the British Amateur, English Amateur and English Ladies Amateur. These successes came in pretty quick succession, and then your reputation grows, and then the pros begin to hear about you and asking for you, and that is how it snowballs. Success as a coach is always based on results and I like my players’ results to do my promoting for me. Over the last 16 years, players I have been coaching have won over 170 tournaments on the main tours.
What does your work with Callaway involve?
I talk to the Callaway staff pros about their equipment, make suggestions about changes they could make, and particularly with regard to their wedges. I spent nearly a week at the Callaway factory earlier this year looking at all the new product, as well as some in the pipeline. Callaway has got an awful lot of great equipment, and the new X-Hot fairway wood is probably the best fairway wood I have ever hit.
Next year, for the first time, Callaway will set aside a few days when I will be available to work with groups of their customers on coaching theory and practice. It will be an experience that money can’t buy, because I don’t normally work with anyone other than the tour pros.
Your first job in golf was as an assistant at Hallamshire in Sheffield. Was this a formative experience?
It wouldn’t happen today, because I was 16, I couldn’t play golf, and I just went along to ask for a job cleaning shoes and clubs because I didn’t know what else to do with myself. I wanted to be a professional footballer until I had a bad injury at the age of 15. I knew there was a job going at Hallamshire, and I knew the pro, Stuart Brown, because I had caddied for him once at Dore & Totley. Stuart was a great player and he was the European Tour’s rookie of the year in 1970. I bumped into him in a fish and chip shop, asked him if I could be his assistant and I promised to work all hours God sends to get better, and he gave me a six-month trial.
I worked hard but mainly I wanted to play even though I was useless. Six weeks into the job, Stuart entered me into the Yorkshire assistants’ championship as it was being held at the Hallamshire. He gave me three new balls for the tournament, and on the first tee I hit all three of them out of bounds to the right. I shot 109-100, but six months later I shot 79-73 so Stuart kept me on.
Three years later and I was playing with Gary Player in the Brazilian Open.
How would you describe your game as a Tour pro?
My long game was great but my putting and temperament were hopeless – a good coach tends to learn more from their mistakes than from their successes. I would smash clubs – three in a round was my record – but I would snap clubs over my knee quite regularly.
Sorry? Three clubs in one round?
Three clubs in a round on tour, but no-one saw as there were no TV cameras! I shattered one by bending it into the ground, snapped another over my knee and smashed another one around a tree. It was hopeless. You’d go mad with a player today behaving like that. Stenson has a good reputation for smashing his clubs but he’s got nothing on me. I tell him he is a 10-handicapper in smashing clubs compared to me. It’s funny to talk about it now, but it’s pathetic behaviour. I couldn’t accept hitting bad shots and that is why I was such a poor player in the end.
Your past work with Lee Westwood helped to establish your international profile. Did this begin when you were at club professional at Lindrick?
Yes, while he was a member at nearby Worksop. Lee was 16 when I first met him and you could see he was very talented. His long game was to die for – as straight as an arrow. A lot of people were worried about the fact Lee bent his left arm, but he has a 17-degree natural bend in his left arm, he can’t straighten it so the bend is a constant, so there is no point worrying about it.
Years later, in 1995, Lee was having some struggles – he had played in 11 tournaments and had only won £7,000, so a third of the European Tour season had already gone and his manager Chubby Chandler called up to ask if I would have a look at him. So I looked at Lee’s swing and Chubby asked what I thought, and I said, “If he does as I say I think Lee will do well in the second half of the year”. In that second half of 1995 he earned over £500,000.
The key to turning Lee’s game around was giving him one stock shot which meant he couldn’t go left. For the first five years I worked with Lee we took the left side of the golf course out of play, and during that period he won 25 tournaments. Then he had a rough time, stopped working with me, then came back and reached world number one.
We stopped working together at the US PGA a year ago. Chubby said it was because I was giving Graeme McDowell too much time, and not enough to Lee. That was a good story – we’ll leave it at that. Lee is a nice lad and I wish him well. We have had some great times – he has done really well for me and I have done really well for him.
There has been a lot of talk about Westwood’s putting since the PGA Championship. What do you make of it?
When I first saw Lee play golf he was a wonderful putter, which you wouldn’t think now. His putting at the PGA Championship was abysmal, to say the least. By the end of the tournament he looked shell shocked – as if his putter was going to go off in his hands. There is one thing that makes every golfer look ordinary, and that’s age. With age, some people get more nervous than others and you can’t do anything about it.
Pete Cowen, in association with Callaway, will be speaking at Golf Show 2013’s Teaching and Coaching Conference on Thursday, October 10.