The Open: Rotherham coach Pete Cowen’s graft pays off with Henrik Stenson’s Troon triumph

Sweden's Henrik Stenson celebrates with the Claret Jug after winning the Open Championship at Royal Troon (Picture: Danny Lawson/PA Wire).
Sweden's Henrik Stenson celebrates with the Claret Jug after winning the Open Championship at Royal Troon (Picture: Danny Lawson/PA Wire).
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Fifteen years ago, Rotherham golf coach Pete Cowen was asked by a friend to run his eye over a sinewy Swede with ambitions of breaking into the big time.

“He was a hard worker, with plenty of talent, but he had a very poor technique,” were Cowen’s first impressions of 25-year-old Henrik Stenson.

“He was a big, strapping lad who’s never been frightened of hard work, but when we first started he was a terrible manipulator. By that I mean the ball can go all over the place because it’s just down to hand-eye co-ordination and timing.

“A lot of players play with that but they’re not very consistent.”

A decade and a half of swing coaching and mental counselling later, the Cowen-Stenson partnership was celebrating its finest hour at the Open Championship at Royal Troon on Sunday.

Stenson defeated Phil Mickelson in a shootout for the ages, a weekend-long head-to-head in which the two of them rendered irrelevant the other 79 players left in the field after the cut.

Their play on Sunday in particular, matching birdie with birdie, was major championship golf at its best.

And when Stenson finally accelerated away from Mickelson, all the hard work came to a glorious fruition.

“When you’re under the most extreme pressure as he was this week, you’ve got to rely on the mechanics in your golf swing to make sure it’s not going to break down under pressure, and I think he proved we’ve done a good enough job of that,” said Cowen.

“It’s got to go down as one of the best final rounds ever, two heavyweights hitting each other as hard as they could.

“Henrik said on the 14th that he knew he wasn’t going to get the tournament given to him so he had to get the punch in, and that’s what he did with birdies on 14, 15 and 16 – he got the punch in.

“It is a proud moment, especially when you’ve had a journey as long as I’ve had with Henrik.

“I’ve tried to get rid of him a few times, and him me... these close associations are quite rare these days.

“My wife calls him my third son, so that’s good enough for me.

“He had some highs before with the big tournaments he’s won, but the Open is the icing on the cake. It’s the one he wanted.”

Not that Cowen was there toasting the success at the side of the 18th green. By that time, the Yorkshireman with a reputation for being hard to please, was already heading back home.

“I was shouting at the radio on the way home, but I don’t do all that rubbish at the end, I don’t like all that hugging and kissing, it’s not me at all,” laughed Cowen, who had been with Stenson on the range before he set off on his final round.

“We know we’ve done the job, we know he’s crossed the line; he know’s that and I know that, let’s get on and win the PGA Championship in two weeks’ time.”

A month ago, such thoughts of his pupil winning one major in a summer, let alone two, was the furthest thing from Cowen’s mind, who for the first time in 15 years was left to question Stenson’s desire.

The world No 7 had just withdrawn from the US Open after playing 16 holes of his second round in 10 over par. Stenson cited “minor neck and knee issues”, but Cowen read between the lines and saw a kick up the backside was needed.

“I didn’t like what I saw,” he said. “I didn’t like the body language, so I just asked him, ‘does it mean more to me than it does to you, because you might as well have stabbed me in the heart as do what you did to me there’.

“He said ‘I’ve twisted the knife into my heart enough times, you can have some of it now’.

“It wasn’t a betrayal, but it was a disservice to the hard work we had done. I had to just shake him out of that apathy.”

Nine days later Stenson won the BMW International Open in Germany, and now he is the Open champion.

Sweden’s first winner of a men’s major is the fifth pupil from Cowen’s stable to win one of the game’s big prizes, after Graeme McDowell (US Open) and Louis Oosthuizen (Open) in 2010, Darren Clarke (Open) the following year and Sheffield’s Danny Willett (Masters) in April.

Willett is predominantly under the tuition of Mike Walker, Cowen’s right-hand man for the last 12 years. They have 20 players between them and Cowen is tipping Brooks Koepka and Belgium’s Tom Pieters to be the next to make the breakthrough.

That is if he is still putting off a retirement his successful young charges continue to delay.

“As soon as Henrik sends me the Aston Martin he promised me when he won his first major, I’ll retire then,” laughed Cowen. “I reminded him on Sunday night.”