Pete Cowen, whose number of charges in this week’s Open Championship runs comfortably into double figures, often will tell a pupil what he does not want to hear. In 2016, he did it to Brooks Koepka ahead of the US Open at Erin Hills. “Your attitude stinks,” he said, along with a few other such niceties.
Cowen’s irritation centred around Koepka’s inability to accept bad shots, with particular reference to a Colin Montgomerie-type tendency to let his shoulders slump at the slightest or no provocation.
After Koepka won at Erin Hills, he sent Cowen one of the Erin Hills flags. It bore the message, “Thanks for the bollocking.”
It came as no surprise when Cowen mentioned Koepka among those of his students he sees as having a touch of the X-factor. Then, having slotted such others as Rory McIlroy, Ian Poulter, Henrik Stenson and Matt Fitzpatrick into this category, he explained what the X-factor suggests to him: “It’s the ones who don’t get stage fright.”
When I asked what percentage of competitors in an Open field do get stage fright, his reply was short and to the point: “The majority.”
By way of delving further into this side of things, Cowen referred to the host of different winners on this year’s European Tour. “Because of COVID-19, performing on a stage hasn’t really come into it,” he began. “They haven’t been tested on that front. If there isn’t a crowd to see you hit a bad shot, your next shot is nothing more than that – a next shot. If, on the other hand, there is a crowd watching your every move, that's when it becomes obvious who can cope and who can’t.”
For a member of his stable who was born to be on the golfing stage, Cowen picked out the now 26-year-old Fitzpatrick, an eight-times winner in Europe and a player who tied seventh in the 2016 Masters. “Stage fright,” he said, “is something Matt’s never had. Even when he was 12 or 13, there was never any sign of it, and nothing was any different when he won the 2013 US Amateur or played in the ’16 Ryder Cup.”
For a rather different trait which is probably no less valuable in terms of what it can do for a golfer, Cowen put forward “a need to win.” Tiger Woods came first on this score.
“Tiger felt he had to prove himself to the world and probably still feels that way,” said Cowen. “As for Koepka, he is always wanting to prove it to himself. He pushes himself all the time, telling himself, ‘I know I’m the best.’ Rory had that feeling and you could tell it from the way he would go around the place with his chest out. It’s still in there somewhere and we’re trying to get it back. Great players want to show off and Rory needs to realise just how good he is.”
Having watched a fair bit of Wimbledon in the past fortnight, Cowen said that no-one, when it comes to staying calm in a crisis, has ever impressed him more than Roger Federer: “He used to be a bit of a hothead but, today, he simply doesn’t react to a bad shot.”
“Learning to play ‘ugly’ is a big part of golf,” said Cowen, the winner of the UK’s 2010 coach of the year award (an all-sports honour). With Koepka’s improvement in this department having been covered, Cowen moved on to Poulter. “Ian,” he said, “is more accepting than most of a mediocre day; he can still stay out of trouble and he can still post a good score. On another day, as we all know, he has these flashes of brilliance which lift him up among the leaders.” At last week’s abrdn Scottish Open at the Renaissance Club, Poulter summed up his current credentials like this: “I’m getting older all the time but I like to think I’m getting a bit wiser, too.”
“Branden Grace,” added Cowen of another of his students, "is someone else who doesn’t mind how he plays as long as he wins. Stenson, on the other hand, is the total opposite. He’s not happy to have played well or even very well. It has to be perfect.”
“Learning to play ‘ugly’ is a big part of golf.”
This was the point at which the 2016 Open champion stepped in to say that he and Cowen, who have worked together for 20 years, are not unalike.
“Pete can be too technical, where I try to be too perfect,” Stenson said. “We both have to compromise. But Pete’s knowledge is second to none. Let me give you an example. … He has this rare ability to give first-class demonstration whenever one’s needed. He can walk into a bunker and hit the shot he wants you to hit straightaway. That kind of thing gives so much more verification to a coach.”
When Cowen first read the COVID-19 instructions for players and coaches at this year’s Open, he was under the impression that he would only be allowed to coach one of his charges. He had just about convinced himself that it would hardly be the end of the world “when the aim of any good coach is to make himself obsolete.” Then, though, he discovered that he could coach the lot of them, so long as he adhered to the social distancing regulations.
For a hands-on teacher, how is that going to work?
His reply, accompanied as it was by the widest of smiles, went a long way towards capturing the man.
“I’ll bark at them.”
Top: Pete Cowen and Rory McIlroy before the Abrdn Scottish Open