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
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
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
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
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
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?
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
Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine