High Profile Player-Coach Splits in Golf
RORY McILROY is one of the most naturally gifted golfers of his generation.
The Northern Irishman has won four majors and 20 titles on the PGA Tour. But throughout his career he has struggled for consistency and in 2021 he decided that it was time to seek the help of Pete Cowen, a Yorkshireman with a stellar reputation. Within weeks, McIlroy had won the Wells Fargo Championship. It turned out to be something of a false dawn. To be frank, 2021 was a year to forget for the Northern Irishman. It reached its nadir at the Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits when he ended up in tears after beating Xander Schauffele in the singles. It was the only point McIlroy contributed and, for the first time in his career, he did not play all five matches.
McIlroy decided it was time to go back to what he knew best, to trust his instincts and his swing - and he promptly went out and won the CJ Cup in Las Vegas.
It has brought into question the future of his relationship with Cowen and lifelong coach Michael Bannon. Of course, McIlroy would not be the first golfer to decide to part company with a coach. Below are some of the most high-profile splits.
2003 - Tiger Woods and Butch Harmon
Woods is arguably the best golfer the sport has ever seen. When he turned professional in 1996 he had Butch Harmon looking after his swing. Together, they won eight majors but then, in 2003, Woods announced that their time was over. Tiger decided the time had come to change his swing in order to move to the next level. It was also rumoured that he felt Harmon was spending a little too much time trying to cash in on his relationship with Woods.
2012 - Tiger Woods and Hank Haney
After leaving Harmon, Woods spent nine years working with Hank Haney, adding a further six majors to his CV. Yet again, Woods was the one who called time on their relationship as he once again went in search of a new golf swing.
2014 - Tiger Woods and Sean Foley
Tiger’s relationship with Foley lasted just two years, during which time he failed to add to his major tally. It came as no surprise when he announced that their relationship was over.
2017 - Tiger Woods and Chris Como
For most of his three years with Chris Como, Woods was battling to overcome injury. Their relationship was pretty fruitless and in 2017 Woods announced that, from now on, he was going to look after his swing himself. It turned out to be a decent decision as he went on to win The Masters in 2019.
2015 - Phil Mickelson and Butch Harmon
Harmon admitted that coaching Mickelson was a challenge. They would spend hours working together on the range, with Harmon encouraging the left-hander to shorten his backswing in order to keep the ball in play. And Mickelson would then step onto the first tee and ignore everything that Harmon had told him. But Mickelson had huge respect for Harmon and actually flew to Las Vegas to personally inform him that their time together was over. “I respect him as a person and as a teacher and as a friend, and just wanted to talk to him in person about it,” Mickelson said.
2017 - Danny Willett and Pete Cowen
The highlight of Willett’s career came at Augusta in 2016 when he took advantage of Jordan Spieth’s 12th-hole meltdown to win The Masters. The Englishman was playing the best golf of his life at the time and paid fulsome tribute to Cowen for the part he had played. But soon afterwards Willett began to struggle with injury and his game went south. He cast a miserable figure and decided that the way forward was to sack both his caddie and his coach. Willett later admitted that he had not been in a good place.
2020 - Jason Day and Colin Swatton
Day and Swatton were far more than golfer and coach. Day had a troubled childhood and Swatton took on the role of father figure for the Australian. Not only did he coach him, he also worked as his caddie and they were together when Day became world number one and won the US PGA Championship. So it came as a huge surprise when he announced in 2020 that he was dispensing with Swatton’s services as both coach and caddie. “It's been a long and successful road working with Col,” said Day. "I have just decided I want to make a change and work on my own as it pertains to my golf swing.” It may not be best decision Day ever made.
2013 - Lydia Ko and Guy Wilson
Wilson had every reason to feel somewhat aggrieved when a 16-year-old Lydia Ko sacked him after 11 years together. They started working together when she was just five and he had taught Ko everything she knew about the game. But Ko sacked him because he could not devote enough time to her career on the professional tour. Wilson said he was “incredibly disappointed” at the split, which came less than two weeks after Ko signed with management giant IMG. Wilson said: “When I first met her the golf clubs were taller than she was and she didn’t know the first thing about a driver or a putter, but now she has one of the most envied swings of the women’s golf world.” It is interesting to note that Ko has had problems finding a regular caddie.
2020 - Justin Rose and Sean Foley
Rose would be the first to admit that he is a deeply methodical golfer rather than being a natural talent. You only have to watch him on the course for confirmation. And it was Sean Foley who helped him to develop the swing that took him to the US Open. But in 2020 Rose began to struggle and decided to leave Foley. His fortunes did not improve and the pair are now working together once more - and Rose’s form has improved.
2021 - Brooks Koepka and Claude Harmon
Harmon coached Koepka during his time on the Challenge Tour and was still by his side when the American won his four majors. Nobody was more surprised than Harmon when Koepka opted to sack him. Harmon said: “You get players that say, ‘Listen I’m just tired of hearing the same thing’ and I’ve always been one that would say, ‘Well listen, I’m not gonna make stuff up, I can try and tell you something different but we kind of know what you do as a player and if you’ve had success.’ We had an eight year run of some incredible golf and Brooks is at a stage of his career having gone through an injury where maybe he wants to hear something different and that kind of stuff happens.”
1998 - Nick Faldo and David Leadbetter
Faldo won six majors after asking Leadbetter to rebuild his swing. The pair worked together for 13 years and Faldo admitted that he owed his success to his coach. So you could forgive Leadbetter for being slightly miffed when Faldo told him by letter that their relationship was at an end. ”It’s disappointing when you work so hard with a player for so many years,” said Leadbetter. “We had a good relationship. Sometimes you need a fresh outlook I suppose. Still, it was a bit of a shock."
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