Friday 20 September 2019

No fluff with this Cowen

Yorkshireman's stable of talent on full view in Lahinch even if - much to his annoyance - some of the holes are not

Pete Cowen has been the man behind several Major winners in the last few years. Photo: Getty
Pete Cowen has been the man behind several Major winners in the last few years. Photo: Getty

Dermot Gilleece

In a secluded corner of the practice area at Lahinch, a lone figure was quietly pitching balls in delightful morning sunshine. After noting the various distances they had landed from the target, he began the process all over again.

Here was golf in glorious isolation, yet Pete Cowen didn't seem bothered by my intrusion. Mind you, there was no glowing smile of recognition, but that's his Yorkshire way.

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As one of the world's top golf coaches, he is at Lahinch to tend the needs of seven leading players, including Ireland's Graeme McDowell and Pádraig Harrington. And he's rated especially highly right now, after guiding America's Gary Woodland to a Major success in the recent US Open at Pebble Beach.

"We've had 10 Major wins in the last nine years," said Cowen, betraying absolutely no modesty regarding his involvement with Brooks Koepka, Woodland, McDowell, Harrington, Darren Clarke, Danny Willett and Henrik Stenson.

"I love Irish players because they're such individuals," he went on, as if in acknowledgement of his surroundings. "Here, everybody comes to golf having learned the game in a different way, perhaps by observation, or from another sport. They pick up what they like and make it work."

It wasn't the sort of opening you'd expect from a coach, but Cowen's enduring popularity seems to be based essentially on his honesty. Players like him as a straight-talker who sells facts rather than flannel.

This is his first time in Lahinch. "I've walked the course," he said. "First seven holes are very funky but the rest are straightforward." There was a pause before he continued: "I don't like blind holes. I go with the [Ben] Hogan philosophy that if we were meant to play blind holes, God would have given us radar."

Again, there's no accompanying smile. I remind him of Tommy Armour's much loved assertion that there's no such thing as a blind hole to anyone with a memory. "Once it's blind, it's always blind," Cowen insisted. "The thing is you're hitting into a blind spot, however you want to dress it up."

We then talked of 2005, when this Sheffield native, as a 54-year-old, took up an appointment as coaching consultant to the Golfing Union of Ireland. He reflected warmly on working with national coach, Neil Manchip, the various provincial coaches, and the cream of the country's young golfing talent which, at that time, included Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry.

Cowen played regular tournament golf from 1970 until 1980, which meant involvement in the embryonic years of the PGA European Tour. Though he never made the top flight, he captured the 1976 Zambian Open and shared sixth place behind Des Smyth in the 1980 Greater Manchester Open.

"I'd packed up the tour by the time I was 29, which would be pretty young these days," he recalled. "The problem was that even when finishing 50th in the Order of Merit, it wasn't possible to make a living back then. So I took a club job."

He went on: "From the early 1980s onwards, I took to coaching and had quite a lot of success. Then I went to the Tour School in 1988 because a few players that I coached were saying how difficult it was. I'd never been to the school before and my thinking was that it would be interesting to experience it from a player's rather than a coach's perspective. The upshot of it was that I got a tour card while the players I was coaching didn't.

"I then played five or six tournaments the following season, but as a club pro it was very difficult to play more, because the Tour would ring you on a Wednesday afternoon to see if you were ready to fly straightaway to France or Germany. With prior commitments, you simply couldn't respond to those arrangements. So I quit once more, and played my last Open Championship at Troon in 1989."

He attributes his lack of playing success largely to a flawed temperament which he simply failed to overcome. And he wasn't a particularly good putter. But he stressed the importance of having played the game at a high level.

"As a coach, I believe the demonstration of skills is very important," he said. "Theory can be found in books, and you can't keep saying to a player 'Trust me, this will work.' You must be able to show them how it's done and I like to think that I can still hit all the shots."

More than 40 years ago, back in 1978, Cowen thought it appropriate to slake his thirst for knowledge from one of the top coaches of the period. "I paid $200 an hour for lessons - $2,000 for 10 lessons over two weeks," he said. "Everybody thinks coaching's expensive now, but you have to pay to learn. And I paid back then."

The tutor was Gardner Dickinson, a successful American tour player who became Hogan's right-hand man. His base was Frenchman's Creek which is still there, in West Palm Beach.

When Cowen asked if Dickinson could arrange to have him watch Hogan hitting shots, the reply was: "I could do, but when you'd turn up he might decide I'm not hitting balls today. Bugger off. If I were you, I'd stay here and watch Jack Nicklaus and Jack Grout [the Bear's coach] working together for the next two weeks. Which is what I did. Just basic stuff. Nothing new, but fascinating nonetheless."

From the more mature Irish players currently in action, Cowen rates Clarke as "probably the most naturally talented." Reminiscent of Christy O'Connor Snr "who had an unbelievable talent for hitting a golf ball." "I played with Christy in the Gallaher Ulster Open at Shandon Park," he went on. "I'll never forget it.

"Saturday morning and he arrived on the first tee looking a little rough around the edges. The first was a driveable par-four and he topped his drive no further than the ladies' tee. Without blinking an eyelid, he simply walked forward, driver still in hand and proceeded to swish the ball off the deck onto the green. I will never forget it."

He went on: "Rory McIlroy is probably the most talented hand-eye co-ordinated player you'll ever see. Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. That's why he can win by 10, because he's so far ahead of the rest.

"By definition, however, he has to be inconsistent: brilliant one week, not quite so good the next. Greater emphasis on technique could bring greater consistency, but that would take something away. It would diminish his remarkable talent.

"He's simply a genius at golf. He's like a guy who can juggle 20 balls without knowing how it's done. When you're that talented it's a tough thing to figure it out. Each one of us has a special talent for something and the sad thing is that some of us never find out what it is."

The environment of Irish players prompts remarks about McDowell's competitive intensity, the progressive brilliance of Lowry and Harrington's endless curiosity - "I say to Pádraig, you don't need to be a coach because I'm here."

As the ultimate commitment to his craft, Cowen turned wistfully towards a group of players pitching balls to a practice green nearby. "Every morning I wake up, I think there's got to be a better way of playing this game," he mused. "I've got to find it." His own, impossible dream.

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