MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Everyone needs a Pete Cowen in their lives.
There’s a fine line between pointed criticism and verbal abuse, but somewhere between a much-needed intervention and some unfiltered tough love, Cowen, the no-nonsense Englishman who coaches some of the game’s very best ball-strikers, arrived at that tipping point with Brooks Koepka.
There’s no question that Koepka needed to redefine his truths following months of uncharacteristically poor performances, but challenging a player who has a four-pack of Grand Slam trophies can be, let’s say delicate, but then there was nothing delicate about Cowen’s impromptu heart-to-heart with Koepka on Sunday.
“There was a lot of expletives I can't say during this, probably get fined, but yeah, he beat me up pretty good,” Koepka admitted following the first round at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational. “You get a little down, you play as bad as this, it's hard not to be a little bit down on yourself and trying to figure out why. You're kind of thinking negatively or waiting kind of for that first bad shot or first bad thing to happen.”
Not only did Koepka clean up his version of Cowen’s tête-à-tête, but he also came in a tad light on the actual subject matter. Poor play because of some sort of swing flaw or mechanical issue is one thing. Those issues can be dealt with and mitigated. Poor play because of a bad attitude is something altogether different.
“When you’re not playing that well it’s not that big of a deal. You think you’ve lost your game totally but you haven’t. You’re crying wolf as well, saying, I don’t know if I really want to play. You can’t cry wolf, because if you cry wolf too often no one listens to you,” Cowen told GolfChannel.com.
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Cowen, who contracted COVID-19 in March and said the virus kept him “down” for the better part of five weeks, had been unable to travel to the United States until last week and Koepka’s missed cut at the 3M Open, his second short week in his last three starts, allowed him extra time with Cowen.
Sunday, Cowen sat Koepka down much like he did in 2017 shortly before the U.S. Open at Erin Hills. The message, according to both Cowen and Koepka, was eerily the same.
“A few home truths of where he’s at and what he needs to do. I said the same thing to him at Erin Hills. I said, ‘With an attitude like that you’re not winning anything,’” Cowen said. “He needs it sometimes and there aren’t many people who can do it to him.”
When he spoke with the media Wednesday at TPC Southwind, Koepka acknowledged that his ailing left knee is still not 100 percent and that he understands the process back to contender might take some time.
It took less than 24 hours.
Koepka birdied his first four holes on Day 1 in Memphis and added two more before the turn and was 5 under. To put that in context, in his last three starts Koepka is a combined 10 over par.
“I played good and drove it well, putted well, chipped it well. Did everything very solid. Missed it in the correct spots and never really felt like I was having to work too hard out there,” said Koepka, who is the defending champion this week and at next week’s PGA Championship.
That’s diametrically at odds with his play this season that’s felt so much like work.
At this juncture it’s important to point out that the last time Cowen “had a go” at Koepka in 2017 he won his first of four majors. In fact, if you’re connecting dots, there’s a common thread here. After every one of Cowen’s, let’s call them pep talks, his players won major championships. There was Henrik Stenson just before The Open in ’16 and Darren Clarke just before he won the ’11 Open Championship.
“It’s worked out pretty well before. It’s nice, really,” Cowen said.
Not sure “nice” would have been Koepka’s take directly after Sunday’s chat, but he’s certainly come to understand the importance of Cowen and value what he has to say even if it’s not easy hearing it.
“He got on me pretty good. And I love it, hopefully he doesn't have to do it too often, but when he does,” said Koepka, who is two shots ahead of Rickie Fowler and Brendon Todd after a first-round 62. “That's why I think him and Butch [Harmon] are way different than any other coach, they know exactly the right thing to say, when to jump on you, when to kind of lay off. I appreciate everything that Pete does, even though he is chewing me out.”
Everyone needs a Pete Cowen in their lives.