x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Advice that ensured Darren Clarke's hands on the Jug

Just days before the British Open, the Northern Irishman wanted to quit, but swing coach Cowen tells Neil Cameron how he told his ward to sleep over his insecurities. The rest is history.

Darren Clarke, right, shares a joke with Pete Cowen, his swing coach, have a chat during the pro-am prior to the Irish Open last week in Killarney.
Darren Clarke, right, shares a joke with Pete Cowen, his swing coach, have a chat during the pro-am prior to the Irish Open last week in Killarney.

Darren Clarke was sick of watching his iron shots fly wildly off course at the range and his relatively-simple putts rolling past the hole on the practice green.

He had had enough and wanted to go back home to Northern Ireland, or so he told long-time coach and friend Pete Cowen. This was on the Tuesday evening before last month's British Open Championship at Royal St George's on England's Kent coast.

Cowen knows Clarke better than most, having worked with him as a swing coach since 1996. He told him to take a deep breath, get a good night's sleep, and wait to see what happened the next day on the final practice session.

That is when things clicked into place. With the wind screaming in his face, Clarke managed to send his ball further than some people go on holiday and he could not miss a putt even if he tried. So he did not go home and, instead, went on to play the best golf of his life to win his first major championship.

Cowen can laugh about his man's insecurities now, but how he wishes he had them on record so next time he is in Dubai at the Emirates Golf Club (EGC), where he has enjoyed a long affiliation, he could prove to the guys at the academy just how close the winner of that famous Claret Jug was to turning his back on the tournament before it started.

"One of the first things I said to Darren after he won ... was that I wished I had taped the conversations we'd had on the Tuesday when he was ready to get on a plane and go home," Cowen said. "It would have been hilarious to see his face when they were played back to him.

"He was miserable out on the driving range. He honestly didn't see any point in playing. Then on Wednesday he started to get a good feeling standing over the ball, which he took on to the tournament."

The turnaround was remarkable.

"His ball striking over the four days and his ability to control the flight of his ball was utterly immense," Cowen said. "The best I've seen from him. I wanted to see the weather come in so we could have a proper links competition, and that's what we got, which suited Darren.

"You wouldn't have thought there was any wind the way Darren hit the ball over the four days.

"He played by the far the best golf, and I don't think there has been a more popular winner of the Open because he is one of the crowd. This is not an aloof star that doesn't have time for anyone."

Cowen was not tempted to trot out a line about him being one of the few to believe that Clarke was ready to surprise the world's best players at Royal St George's.

Not that he thought his big mate was finished, but rather this was someone who had not competed at one of the big four for some time and did not have great form going into the British Open.

"Nobody expected this. I wouldn't blame anyone for seeing Darren, at 42, being past the stage of winning majors," said Cowen. "He came close in 1997 and in 2001 at the Open, which is the tournament he always prioritised."

"Now he is exempt in all the majors for the next five years. So that gives him 20 more tournaments, and it wouldn't be over the top to suggest he could win at least one of them. That's what his aim is now, that and to get back into the Ryder Cup team."

Cowen is a popular face in Dubai, especially at the EGC, where the knowledge he passes on to the instructors there is of the highest quality.

The Sheffield-born 62 year old, who was a tour player himself, currently works with world No 2 Lee Westwood, last year's US Open champion Graeme McDowell and the man whose title Clarke took, the 2010 British Open champion, Louis Oosthuizen.

"Pete is the best in the business," Clarke said recently. "He is a man whose judgement on just about anything I trust. I owe him a hell of a lot."

The relationship between coach and player can be difficult. Indeed, the history of golf is littered with players walking away from people they have worked with for years after some missed cuts.

This was never going to happen with these two, who enjoy a particularly special bond for reasons more important than Clarke's ability to hit a small ball around a field.

"Darren has sometimes got a second opinion from Butch Harmon in the past, when he was in America, but always came back to me when he returned to Europe and it's a situation that's worked really well for us.

"When I first started working with him in 1996 he had won just once, a tournament in Belgium in 1993, but that was it. Then over the next five or six years his career really took off and he was one of the best players in the world.

"Darren has had his ups and downs. I knew his wife, Heather, before they were even married and was there all through her illness. Her death in 2006 [from breast cancer] was tragic and the way he dealt with it and his sons says a lot about the man as a human being."

Cowen's deal with the Academy at Emirates Golf Club runs until 2012 and they have been able to utilise his training methods and award-winning techniques (he was voted the UK's best golf coach last year).

He is far from a stranger to the UAE, his relationship with the country goes back almost as far as the one with Clarke, to the extent that he can remember a time when players hitting the ball off grass, and not sand, was deemed a minor miracle.

"I played the very first Desert Classic here back in 1989," said Cowen. "In those days, just having one grass course in the desert just blew people's minds. They would come just to have a look at it, as if the course was the eighth wonder of the world.

"Emirates Golf Club is a fantastic venue and I have always enjoyed the time that I spend here. I just love Dubai and, while I spend a lot of time travelling, I get back as often as I can. The UAE is one of the fastest growing parts of the world for golf. It's quite difficult to explain just how fantastic the courses are to people who have only ever looked at this area on a map."

Cowen has said he will not take on any new players, because he does not want to be 80 and still be travelling the world and talking about where a player's head should be on the back swing.

Although Westwood claims that the coach would spend 24 hours a day on the range if he could because it is what he lives for.

And Westwood is one of the main reasons why retirement is not on his mind.

"Lee will win a major. I have absolutely no doubt about that. It could even be the US PGA this month," said Cowen, who you can sense wants this more than anything else.

"I have worked with Lee even longer than Darren and I would love to see him make the breakthrough. When you look at the times he's come close and finished second, the guy who beat him has always played out of his skin. Phil Mickelson at the Masters in 2010 was a perfect example of that.

"This is going to happen to Lee soon and I will be there to watch it."

And that will be another story for Pete Cowen to tell the guys next time he is in Dubai.

ncameron@thenational.ae


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