In his lifetime of golf coaching, the late Bob Torrance only found two players whose swings he couldn’t improve: Ben Hogan and Rory McIlroy.
McIlroy, hammered 6&5 today by Ian Poulter in the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, once visited Scotsman Torrance — who guided Pádraig Harrington to three major titles — and asked him for advice.
“I said to him, ‘You just leave your swing alone, don’t touch it for nobody’,” replied Torrance.
Yet McIlroy, under the light touch observation of Michael Bannon since he was a boy at Holywood Golf Club, has opted now to go against Torrance’s advice by engaging the services of Pete Cowen.
A fortnight out from the Masters, when McIlroy will strive for sporting immortality as a grand slam winner, the pair are jumping under the hood together and checking out the mechanics of his golf swing.
Like Torrance, Yorkshire man Cowen is a Hogan disciple who gorged himself on the teachings of the Texan and turned to coaching in his late 20s after a journeyman playing career.
Cowen took Lee Westwood from a ‘short and wild’ hitter to arguably the best driver of the golf ball in the world, transformed Henrik Stenson with a ‘complete rebuild’ of his swing over a couple of years in the early 2000s, and helped Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell, among several more, to major successes.
Truth be told, if the taciturn Cowen — who only half-jokingly describes himself as ‘a cynical, miserable, old fart’ — had a little of Butch Harmon’s chutzpah and fondness for self-promotion, he’d probably be regarded as the world’s number one swing coach.
He also turned Gary Woodland into a major champion and helped Brooks Koepka to align his talent with a previously questionable attitude.
The question now is exactly what he will do with McIlroy’s swing, one of the most aesthetically pleasing motions not just in golf but in world sport.
“Golf is not a difficult movement,” Cowen said in a fascinating life and times interview with the McKellar podcast last April, shortly after he’d recovered from Covid-19.
“Your two feet are on the ground, you’re not going to fall over, it isn’t that difficult a movement. It’s only taking one and a half seconds, so you should be able to perfect the movement because if a young girl can go on a four-inch beam and do a double somersault and land perfectly on her feet, well that’s a difficult movement and yet they can perfect that.”
Cowen believes golf teaching is fundamentally flawed because it typically starts with showing a novice how to hit a ball, and develops from there. For him, it’s all about coaching a movement. The ball should merely get in the way of that movement. And he feels that movement is relatively simple to coach.
“We should be able to hit the ball blindfolded,” argued Cowen. “But we don’t learn properly, unfortunately.”
Cowen was a decent player, just not a great one. His personal tale is remarkable because while he grew up next to a golf course he didn’t lift a club until he was 16 and took on an ambitious six-month trial as an assistant professional. He has never held an amateur handicap either and shot 109, 100 in his first two rounds. Six months later, after grinding himself into the dirt on the local driving range, he shot 73, 70 in a tournament and was retained beyond his trial.
Obsessed with improvement, he travelled to the US in the early 1970s and paid $2,000 dollars — ‘a lot of money then’ — for 10 lessons with the renowned Gardner Dickinson, another Hogan student. At 21, Cowen played in the Brazilian Open with Gary Player and won the Zambian Open in 1976. But his playing career petered out and he blames that on perfectionism and a bad attitude.
Put mildly, Cowen was an angry golfer. Blinded by rage after one tournament, he marched off the course and drove the 90 minutes home before realising he’d left his father among the spectators. Another time, after missing out on qualifying for the Open by a shot at St Andrews, he walked straight into the sea with his clubs on his back. “Only for the lads shouting, ‘Come back you stupid idiot...’”
Cowen sees a similar perfectionist streak, and inevitable frustration, in so many players now.
“If I could have made him a bit less of a perfectionist,” Cowen said of Stenson, “I think he’d have won six or seven more majors.”
And as mild-mannered as McIlroy appears, he snapped a club in anger at the Zozo championship last October. Having slipped to 11th in the world he recently admitted he’s desperate for a ‘spark’ of inspiration. Without a win since 2019, and without a major since 2014, some speculated he may drop caddy and best pal Harry Diamond. Instead, engaging Cowen appears to have been in his thoughts.
Cowen, who observed a much younger McIlroy as a consultant for the GUI, is typically paid on a commission basis now, not too far from his initial deals with Westwood and Clarke when he would take 5% of the prizemoney if they finished in the top 10. Otherwise, he would receive nothing.
“I think it’s the right way to do it because I don’t want to take money off players if they’re not doing very well,” said Cowen.
“I’ve got to knuckle down and make sure they start to earn money otherwise I’m working for nothing.”