SURREY, ENGLAND | In accepting the European Tour’s inaugural “Special Achievement” award for his coaching feats, Pete Cowen came up with a startling suggestion. Namely, that Europe could field two teams who could beat the Americans in the Ryder Cup at Medinah.
Most of the 480 guests at the Tour’s annual dinner at Heathrow laughed a little nervously while, over on the top table, Jose Maria Olazabal winced visibly. Just behind the Spaniard, the octogenarian John Jacobs was shifting awkwardly in his seat.
When Olazabal was called to the stage, he did his best to take the heat out of the remark, saying that he fully expected the Americans to be a tough proposition. As for Jacobs, his lingering look of disbelief told all.
Long afterwards, the Tour’s founding father was still wondering at why Cowen would have said such a thing. “For myself,” said Jacobs, “I wouldn’t have wanted the flak he’s going to get if things go wrong. After all, we had our strongest ever side two years ago for Celtic Manor and we only just won.”
Luke Donald was similarly uneasy. “That’s great if Pete really thinks that,” he began. “As I see it, though, there’s absolutely no room for complacency. The Americans are playing well this year.
“What Pete was probably trying to say,” he continued, “was that it’s going to be a tough to make the A team.”
Tom Lewis was another to go down the “What Peter was probably trying to say” route when, in fact, no-one needs less help than Cowen in the matter of getting his message across. As a coach, you don’t have the kind of success he has known if your communication skills aren’t up to scratch.
In the cold light of day, Cowen, who is so loyal to the European Tour cause that he refuses to teach Americans, was unrepentant.
“No,” he said, “I wasn’t joking. People have been coming up to me to ask about it and I’ve been telling them that I meant what I said. To be honest, I get fed up with those who sit on the fence. They go on and on about how difficult away matches can be when they should be sending out positive vibes.”
He then proceeded to reel off the names of the 24 players who could make his two 12-strong teams: Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood, Luke Donald, Martin Kaymer, Graeme McDowell, Ian Poulter, Justin Rose, Padraig Harrington, Robert Karlsson, Paul Casey, Nicolas Colsaerts, Paul Lawrie, Rafael Cabrera-Bello, Martin Laird, Brian Davis, Sergio Garcia, Thomas Bjorn, Alex Noren, Simon Dyson, Peter Hanson, Carl Pettersen, Alvaro Quiros, Darren Clarke and Miguel Angel Jimenez. (The above, incidentally, cannot afford to sit back in that Cowen had a couple of young ones he was anxious to throw into the mix.)
If the US team wins, this legendary teacher is not going to suffer too much in the way of abuse. The reason, here, is that he is about to retire.
“You know when your time’s up,” he said.
That his old friend, Australia’s Ramsay McMaster, dropped dead at 49 has made him acutely aware of the fact that the day has come when his family should be getting the kind of attention he currently gives to his players. Already, he has had a session with Bob Rotella on how someone who has been as busy as he has for so long should set about winding down.
You ask Cowen to name his proudest coaching triumphs and he opts first for how he increased Westwood and Clarke’s combined tally of wins from one in 1993 to 23 seven years later.
After that, he opted for Westwood’s second coming. He has revelled in being part of a return journey in which he and Dr Steve McGregor, the highly trained sports’ scientist, have worked tirelessly on marrying the player’s fitness to his swing.
“At the start,” said Cowen, “Lee had to train to be fit enough to do the training.”
His three “major” triumphs, starting with McDowell’s triumph at Pebble Beach, got the next mention: “Lots of people will tell you they have coached a major champion when they were not necessarily coaching him at the time he won but, in Graeme’s case, I was very much involved.”
Oosthuizen’s win at St Andrews was all the more meaningful in that Cowen had each of the top three players that year as Westwood came in second and Henrik Stenson third.
When people ask Cowen what he teaches, he will most likely come up with a cryptic, “I teach players to win tournaments.” He is not normally given to boasting or self-promotion but he could not resist saying that no-one else has a strike-rate to match the 160 titles won by his pupils over the last 16 years.
The other question he gets asked ad infinitum is, “Will Westwood win a major?”
“Absolutely,” he said.
As a reply, it was entirely in keeping with those positive vibes he is sending out about Medinah.