30 Mar 2017

Mike Walker on how Danny Willett won the Masters

Unless you are part of the inner circle of life on Tour the name Mike Walker wouldn’t register in any way. Learning his craft from Pete Cowen over the past ten years Mike has worked with some of the best players in the business but like Pete, the quiet unassuming Yorkshireman from the north of England, keeps himself-to-himself and goes about his job under the radar of the media and the golfing spectators.

Danny Willett changed things

Even when Danny Willett won the Dubai Desert Classic, Mike was still able to keep a low profile. That all changed in the early morning of April 10th 2016 when Danny knocked in the final putt on the 18th green at Augusta. All of a sudden people wanted to know how the Englishman managed to keep his cool and more importantly his swing under immense pressure. At that point everyone wanted to know who was behind crafting the 2016 champion’s swing – Mike’s cover was blown.

How Danny won the Masters

Worldwide Golf caught up with him to ask how Danny won the Masters, how the players gear up for the opening Major of the season and why Thomas Bjorn talks with a Yorkshire accent!

 

How and when did you first start working with Danny?

Mike Walker: About three years ago Danny’s management company approached Pete Cowen and myself for a second opinion of his swing. He’d just missed the cut in Switzerland and wanted to sort things out. His main problem was conceptual – how he understood his golf swing and what he was doing by keeping the golf club in front of him. He was picking the club up in the takeaway and then it was dropping in the change of direction and he couldn’t understand why. He was trying to keep the club in front of him a bit too much.

He would then adjust things in the transition phase and that’s where Pete and I stepped in. Danny puts in a lot of graft on the range and it wasn’t long before we were able to get him setting the club on the right path.

 

How has your life changed as a result of Danny winning the Masters?

Mike Walker: Ironically, not much has changed for me. I’m now probably known more by the general golfing public as a leading coach and not just Pete’s number two. There has been a lot more media attention although I’ve always tended to keep my head down and involve myself with the lads on Tour. But when one of your players wins a Major people tend to be a little more interested in the behind the scenes stuff. I’m pretty much flat-out working with our players, so things were never going to change that much for me. It was great to receive the appreciation and that all the hard work standing on the range pays off.

 

Do you believe Danny would have won if he hadn’t been paired with Lee?

Mike Walker: We will never know, but people forget that Danny was 12th in the world at the time and tied third at the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral just a few weeks before and had regularly been coming down the final stretch with the likes of Day, Fowler and Dustin Johnson. He’s one of the game’s elite iron players. Just look at his stats from 200 yards in, it’s one of the best in the game. That’s what won him The Masters. To be that accurate from that distance enabled him to find the safe areas and leave himself makeable putts.

 

What are the main challenges as a coach preparing your players for The Masters?

Mike Walker: It’s very hard to periodise a player’s training in golf. In more physical-based sports, it’s easier to get an athlete to peak for certain weeks but it’s difficult to do that in golf. In terms of coaching and talking to players as they prepare for a Major, I’m not doing anything radical or different. The key for the player is to try and ensure that the weeks leading up to it are organised in a way that will help them perform at their best when the Major comes along. Tour players are just like the rest of us – many have families and commitments, so most of the preparation is down to scheduling. Playing just the right number of golf events without burning yourself out is key to success.

 

How does the Masters differ from any other tournament?

Mike Walker: It’s true to say that a rookie will struggle to win the Masters. It’s no surprise that Fuzzy Zoeller was the last to achieve the feat back in 1979 as course knowledge is what makes Augusta National tough to negotiate. You need to know where the safe areas are, not just on the greens but also on the fairways. Everyone knows what the greens are like but normally finding the fairway is good enough. Being on the wrong side of the fairway can short side your approach to the green and you just can’t play for the centre, hope to two putt and move on. The likelihood is you will be in three-putt territory.

 

Which are the toughest holes at Augusta and why?

Mike Walker: Obviously there are plenty of tough holes around there and the three that standout are holes 4, 10 and 11.

Augusta National 10th hole

The 10th is ok if you hit a good drive but you’re still left with a lot of club into the green. If you miss it right and end up in the bunker and the pin is cut on the right it’s extremely difficult as it all slopes down to the left. Hole 11 has gotten longer and longer so you’re hitting more club into a green – and that is not an easy approach on the eye with any club, let alone a long iron. The fourth is hard because it’s just such a long par-3.

Augusta National 11th hole

The greens are so unconventional, throwing a long club at them means it’s difficult to get the ball to stop and behave the way it normally would. Danny won it last year because of his precision with his irons but he putted absolutely unbelievably that week as well. He actually hit fades all week. There’s only really holes 2 and 13 where you need to draw it, and you can arguably hit a 3 wood off the tee on 2 and try and draw it around the corner and let the slope take it down the fairway and it’s easier to shape a 3-wood than a driver.

 

Is it true you were in bed at home when Danny won last year and you missed a flight the following day?

Mike Walker: Yes, it is. I went to bed just before they made the turn in the final round. Spieth looked comfortable at the top of the leaderboard. I had just fallen asleep when my phone started going mental. At that point I realised something dramatic had happened. It was when Jordan made a quad at the 12th. I was out of bed immediately, glued to the television. Danny was hitting it great and looked full of confidence. When he knocked in that final putt the celebrations started! I will not go into too much detail but I’d set my alarm for 04:00 am in order to catch the morning flight to the Spanish Open. I never heard the alarm and it’s still the only flight I’ve ever missed!

 

Will you be watching the whole event this year?

Mike Walker: I will be in an airport at Atlanta! But with Danny defending and with Matt Fitzpatrick looing good I guess anything can happen. I just hope I don’t miss the flight. But I might not be too bothered if the circumstances are the same again!

 

Louis Oosthuizen

Prediction of this year’s Masters:

Mike Walker: I think it’s similar most years. When I was younger, Fred Couples always used to pop up at Augusta, and I think there are certain course specialists out there so you look for people who’ve done well there in the past. Lee Westwood always does well there – he’s like a Fred Couples in that he’s seemingly always there or thereabouts. He’s so precise with the long game and clearly likes the course. He is a natural fader of the ball so it dispels that myth that you have to draw it. So the usual suspects and then anybody that’s playing well in the run up should be in contention. Louis Oosthuizen and Lee are a couple of usual suspects and Bubba Watson – but he has been struggling recently. So I’ll go with Louis. He’s been showing glimpses of form and he likes the place.

 

Pete Cowen and Mike Walker

What’s the best bet you have ever won with one of your players?

Mike Walker: I don’t really bet but back in 2010 Pete had been at The Masters and I hadn’t, and came back home before the opening round and my friend’s father-in-law asked him for a tip and he said to back Phil Mickelson – and he went and won it.

 

Danny went off on an automotive shopping spree after his win – did you follow suit?

Mike Walker: Nope, but Danny kindly gave Pete and me a nice watch each. Which was good of him and meant a lot to us both.

 

Since you started coaching, how has the professional swing changed?

Mike Walker: Mechanically, you are always looking to find ways to improve your efficiency and performance in the golf swing but the mechanics haven’t changed massively. I just think that more recently the experts in the physical world and the advancements in technology have added to the understanding of the mechanical process and possibly validate things that have been done in the past – or have been thought in the past. We have more access to what is happening in a muscular sense and that is helping creating positions that we want in the swing. The mechanics are still the same, there’s just more insight into how the body moves.

 

Mike Walker and Matthew Fitzpatrick

How do you coach players who differ so much physically – like Chris Wood and Matt Fitzpatrick?

Mike Walker: Again, we work closely with the players’ physical coaches. Chris has a quirky movement with his shoulder but once we knew how it functioned we knew how to structure the mechanics of his swing and fitness routine. Matt Fitzpatrick has worked hard with Kevin Duffy, his fitness coach, and has also started to add more muscle, naturally, as he’s matured. Matt has never been a short hitter but we did find that he was a little steep into the ball with the driver. Changing his attack angle paired with more strength means he can comfortably hit it past the 300-yard mark.

 

You have to travel the world to look after your players but what happens when some are playing in the States and some are in Europe?

Mike Walker: The lads all understand that the bigger events such as the Majors and WGC events will always take preference. But between Pete and I we manage what goes on in the States and in Europe pretty effectively.

 

What is it like working with Pete and what does he mean to you as a friend and mentor?

Mike Walker: Without Pete I wouldn’t be where I am today. I will be forever in his debt for what he has done for me. It’s great to be around him after all these years. Not many coaches talk to each other about their business. But this is where Pete and I differ. We talk all the time about everything and that’s priceless.

 

Phil Kenyon, Pete and yourself are the go-to guys on the European Tour and you’re all Northerners. How do your international players react to the humour and no nonsense approach to life?

Mike Walker: They all get used to us pretty quickly and it hasn’t taken us long to convert some of the lads to our way of thinking. In fact, Thomas Bjorn has started to develop a Yorkshire twang in his accent and Henrik Stenson’s got arguably the driest, quick-witted sense of humour out there.

 

With John Rahm and Kevin Na becoming European Tour members do you see a shift in US PGA Tour players playing an international schedule?

Mike Walker: The European Tour’s Rolex Series will be a huge pull for many international players looking to schedule from May onwards. With event prize money of over seven million it’s definitely got the big name players thinking, especially with the final events and the DP World Tour Championship rounding the season off when there’s not much happening on the US PGA Tour.

 

Do you think 18 holes is too long these days? Are the European Tour correct in trying to introduce new ideas such as music on the range and the GolfSixes tournament at the Centurion Club?

Mike Walker: In my opinion, I think it’s quite hard for the governing bodies because to get the best players appearing on leaderboards you need more 18 hole rounds of competition so the cream rises to the top. So a tournament of 18 holes or shorter, it’s got more chance of throwing up a random winner. But if the top players are already qualified and in some kind of elite Premier League for a shorter-format event, then it could potentially be more interesting. The stuff they’ve done with adding music at the driving ranges and a more ‘stadium’ style scenarios is all great. But in terms of format – why not shake it up a bit. There will be an element of finding out what is successful and what isn’t by doing it and I’m sure they’ll get it right eventually. I think they have to do something because at grass roots level everybody is saying participation levels are down and that the game is too slow.

 

Given the choice of the States or Dubai where would you chose to base yourself?

Mike Walker: Dubai over the years has become a home from home for me but I’d struggle from April to September. So I’m going to be greedy and say, the States for the hot months and Dubai for the rest.

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