No one is shedding any tears for Cowen, who gets a share of a player’s winnings. His overflowing stable of pros has won six majors — including Henrik Stenson, who is the reigning British Open champion, and Brooks Koepka, who won the United States Open at Erin Hills last month and credits Cowen for his improved short game.
In January, Golf Digest magazine called Cowen “The Best Teacher No One Knows.” That is fine with him. He goes out of his way to avoid self-promotion and will not even reveal how many players he teaches, other than to say, “It’s a lot.” (When pressed, he counted 11 players in the U.S. Open field alone under the watch of him and his colleague Mike Walker.)
At some point, Cowen has worked with virtually every European Ryder Cup player of the last 20 years and helped Graeme McDowell win the 2010 U.S. Open, Louis Oosthuizen and Darren Clarke win the British Open in 2010 and 2011, and Danny Willett win the Masters in 2016. His students have won more than 200 titles worldwide and as many as 18 in a single season.
“If there is such a thing, he might be the best teacher in the world,” said Bill Harmon, the respected golf professional at Toscana Country Club in Indian Wells, Calif.
Cowen was a journeyman pro who slept in a van and ate cooked beans on toast almost every night to make ends meet. During the winter, he worked at a grinding-wheel factory and cleaned the grout between tiles with a toothbrush at a kitchen job to support his golf.
David Feherty, an NBC Sports golf commentator, met Cowen on the Safari Tour in Africa, where Cowen won the 1976 Zambia Open. “We called him Wombat, but I have no idea why,” Feherty said. “I remember he was very hard on himself.”
Cowen, who once broke three clubs in a round, admits that a quick temper doomed his playing career. “It destroys you,” he said. “I couldn’t accept hitting one bad shot on the course because I’d hit thousands of balls on the range.”
He abandoned the professional circuit in 1980 after finishing 57th on the European Tour Order of Merit the previous season. He was 28, had a 2-year-old daughter and accepted a job as a club professional in England.
Cowen said understanding why he failed as a player is one of the reasons he has been successful as a coach.
“I have to make sure that players don’t fall into the same trap,” he said. “I used to fine Henrik 500 pounds and give the money to a charity if he threw or smashed a club. There has to be a consequence. I wish someone had gotten ahold of me when I was a kid.”
Cowen studied the golf swing with the American pros Gardner Dickinson and Jack Grout, who worked with Jack Nicklaus, and he obsessed over the technique of Ben Hogan. Cowen coached Lee Westwood to World No. 1 in October 2010, ending Tiger Woods’s 281-week reign.
Cowen and Stenson connected shortly after Stenson’s game started to slide in 2001. Not long after Stenson won his first European Tour tournament at the Benson & Hedges International that May, he suddenly could not hit the fairway. At the European Open, he walked off the course after nine holes and contemplated quitting. Stenson’s caddie at the time suggested Cowen could help. He spent three years rebuilding Stenson’s swing before he won again.
“He hasn’t gotten rid of me since,” Stenson said. In 2006, he won twice and holed the putt that won the Ryder Cup for Europe. Stenson won the 2009 Players Championship before losing control of his driver again and tumbling to No. 230 in the world ranking at the beginning of 2012.
“He wants to be perfect,” Cowen said. “He’s got three types of hitting the ball: good, very good and perfect, and he can’t accept good and very good.”
Stenson rediscovered his swing in 2013, sweeping both the PGA Tour’s season-long FedEx Cup and the European Tour’s Race to Dubai. All that was missing from his career was a major championship trophy. Speaking ahead of the U.S. Open in June 2016, Cowen conceded that his only remaining goal was to see Stenson achieve his major moment.
“I love him to death,” Cowen said. “It’s a personal thing with me. I have to get him over the line. I have to do it before I go. I’m trying desperately to get him over the line. I could probably retire then.”
Stenson withdrew from that U.S. Open before the second round, citing a neck and knee injury. But at the very next major, he shot one of the greatest final rounds in a major championship, a record-tying 63, to outduel Phil Mickelson at Royal Troon.
What finally got Stenson across the finish line at a major to become the first male Swede to do so? “I gave him a bollocking in June,” Cowen said. “I told him I think I wanted it more than he did. At Troon, Henrik was so calm and focused.”
Cowen oversaw Stenson’s warm-up session before the final round, but after escorting him to the first tee, Cowen’s work was done.
Then, he climbed into his car, headed south to his home in England and listened to the final round on the radio. He never sticks around for the celebration, but he enjoyed the sweet sound of success.
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