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WORLD OF GOLF: Pete Cowen is right, struggling Brooks Koepka faces his biggest test

You can always rely on Brooks Koepka’s short-game coach Pete Cowen for a straight-shooting verdict.

Asked about the struggling American’s prospects of successfully defending the season’s first major in San Francisco next week, or his WGC title defence starting in Memphis on Thursday, the blunt Yorkshireman replied: ‘If I was a racehorse trainer, I’d say he had absolutely no chance!’

After he had stopped laughing, Cowen added, in a more serious vein: ‘We all know Brooks is the man for raising his game at the big events – and this is going to be his biggest test yet, because he knows he’s not swinging the club well and he’s not happy with his game. But we all know golf, so let’s see if we can help put him back together again.’

When you think where Koepka was 12 months ago, Cowen and his fellow coaches have quite the rebuilding job. Back then at the Open at Royal Portrush, Koepka rounded off a stellar 2-1-2-4 run in the four majors by flying to Memphis and winning the WGC-FedEx Invitational. He was so far ahead at the top of the world rankings that he appeared uncatchable in the medium, let alone the short term.

Now look at him on his return to Elvis Presley country. All shook up doesn’t begin to cover it. Never mind winning, he has not even featured on a leaderboard since Rory McIlroy beat him to £12.2million for the FedEx Cup in Atlanta last September.

Koepka dismissed talk at the time of a growing rivalry between the two and subsequent events have unwittingly borne him out. He is not even among the top 125 who will contest the first of the three FedEx Cup play-off events next month, much less the finale which is open to the top 30. After lapping the field at the top of the world rankings a year ago, Koepka is now down to sixth.

What’s eating the 30-year-old Floridian? Cowen gives short shrift to the chatter that Koepka is struggling with the knee problem that saw him have stem cell surgery and be sidelined for three months at the end of last year.

‘When you get an injury as bad as that you’re never 100 per cent right again,’ said Cowen. ‘But I don’t think it’s a problem. That’s finding excuses for the fact he’s swinging it badly. We don’t need excuses, we need to sort it out.’

Cowen believes it is more a question of attitude. ‘When he’s at his best, he’s bulletproof. He doesn’t care what other people are doing, he just puts results on the board,’ he said. ‘The US Open at Shinnecock Hills in 2018 was a classic case in point. With his caddy Ricky Elliott, I was talking it through with him, how he played every hole in the final round, he was all over the place at times. But he had belief he would win. He had body language that said, “I’m going to get the job done”. That’s what we need to get back.’

Cowen has suggested Koepka take a leaf out of Tiger Woods’ playbook. ‘It used to be a cliché when Tiger was struggling, he’d tell everyone that he might not be playing well but he was getting there,’ he said. ‘Brooks needs to think of it in terms of work in progress.

‘Everyone has to go through these mental tests but I’ve no doubt he will come through. It’s such a funny game, it wouldn’t surprise me if it was this week in Memphis, given he’s got such a good record at that course.’ As for San Francisco next week, Koepka will have the chance to become the first player to win the USPGA Championship three years in a row since it became a stroke play event in 1958.

No wonder Cowen and the rest of the coaching team are in Tennessee this week, battling to make sure Koepka doesn’t show up lame.

Gary Player will be 85 in November and is almost looking ahead to that birthday with relish. Currently based in California, I had a long conversation with the South African legend last week, when he revealed his latest ambition.

‘I want to be the first man in history to beat his age by 18 shots,’ he said, with the usual reservoir of enthusiasm in his voice. ‘One shot for every hole. Wouldn’t that be something?

‘I’m currently playing beautifully, averaging a score of 72. I’ve beaten my age hundreds of times — so, with that extra year, I might just do it.’

He’ll never stop, will he? Even now, every chat with Player offers a telling insight into how he managed to win more than a faintly ludicrous 150 tournaments – and why his name remains top of virtually every list of historic achievements by non-American golfers.

‘Our game is in a good place. Equipment improvements and distance are here to stay. We need a serious premium on accuracy. Golf courses don’t need to be longer. Make the rough on tour knee high, fairways fast and firm, so it’s fair for all players.’

Ernie Els enters the great distance debate with some provocative thoughts, clearly dismissing the idea that there should be a tour golf ball that doesn’t fly so far, or curbs on equipment. As for the knee-high rough… spoken like a true (two-time) US Open champion.

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