Nick Westby: Major for Westwood will help Cowen retire at the pinnacle

THE triumphant European Ryder Cup team earned their just rewards at last week's BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards and the short-listing of Graeme McDowell and Lee Westwood emphasised what a strong year it had been for British golf.

But one man overlooked by the broadcaster – though not necessarily Colin Montgomerie, who paid tribute to him in his acceptance speech when presented with the coach of the year award – was a true golf coach in Pete Cowen.

Cowen has been one of the top tutors on the continent for a number of years, but in 2010 the Yorkshireman moved into an elite band of the world's top coaches.

For years, the roles Butch Harmon and then Hank Haney played in Tiger Woods's meteoric rise to the top of the game has been lauded as pivotal.

And whenever the regeneration of Nick Faldo's game from competent professional to six-time major winner and most successful British player of all time is discussed, the part coach David Leadbetter played in remodelling his swing is never far from people's lips.

Cowen should now be mentioned in the same breath after his stellar year.

Granted, it is a drum I have beaten before in these pages, but the evidence speaks for itself.

Firstly, the statistics.

Rotherham coach Cowen won two majors in 2010, a Ryder Cup, saw one of his pupils reach No 1 in the world and has three players in the top 20.

McDowell won the US Open in dramatic style to become the first player under Cowen to lift one of the game's coveted titles. Then just a month later, his unheralded South African pupil, Louis Oosthuizen, surprised everyone by winning the Open at St Andrews.

Westwood's second-place finish and a third place for Sweden's Henrik Stenson completed an unprecedented top three for Cowen.

Westwood continued his ascent under Cowen – the two teamed up in early 2008 – when he ended Woods's five-year reign at the summit of world golf at the start of November.

A month earlier, Westwood and McDowell had played pivotal roles in that never-to-be-forgotten European victory at Celtic Manor.

But it is not just statistics that make Cowen such a key figure in golf.

It is his manner, his approach to the game, and his own personal take on the mental side of golf.

Cowen – whose 2010 accomplishments did receive acknowledgement when he was named the UK's coach of the year – keeps his players on their toes by rarely praising them; ensuring they know the hard work still lies ahead.

"The road to success is always under construction," is a favourite phrase of his.

When he walks the practice range at European Tour events, anything up to 24 players under his guidance can come up to him and seek his advice.

From Westwood and McDowell to Yorkshiremen Simon Dyson and Richard Finch; Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia to Johan Edfors and Darren Clarke.

Closer to home, his base at The Grange in Rotherham is a hub for local golfers to tap into the knowledge that the top players in the world are privy to.

Cowen has spoken recently of retirement in 2011. For him, it would be the perfect time to bow out, on top of his game – and if Westwood were to land that elusive major next year that might tip him over the edge.

But for golf, it would be a big loss.

European golf is currently riding the crest of a wave, thanks to men at its heart like Cowen.

For the best part of a decade, golfers in the United States and around the world – from South Africa to Australia – have dominated the big individual tournaments, leaving the Ryder Cup as Europe's only offer of a reprieve.

Now the European Tour is providing major winners on a regular basis and has begun to dominate the official world golf rankings, the order to which so much merit is placed.

Six of the world's top 10 are from this continent with only four from America, all of which are 34 or older. Only Westwood is in the same age bracket.

Seventeen of the top 50 players in the world are European.

It stands to get much better with some of the biggest tournaments outside the four majors now sanctioned by the European Tour.

Woods leads a healthy US contingent who will decamp to the Middle East in January and February for a four-tournament gulf swing, while the Dubai World Championship and the HSBC Champions tournament in Shanghai are two of the most lucrative season-ending tournaments in the world.

For years, the European Tour has played second fiddle to the US PGA Tour, with murmurings of a worldwide tour undermining its status.

Now, having spread its wings to all corners of the globe, the European Tour has assumed the mantle of the game's global competition, leaving the stagnant PGA Tour – whose response

has been the FedEx Cup – in its wake.

The decision of Westwood to shun the PGA Tour to stay loyal to its European counterpart and continue to plot his schedule to his own benefit, is another blow for the American pay-masters who, for the first time in more than 15 years, do not have the game's top player performing on their stage.

McDowell's decision to base himself in America next year, though, emphasises the lure of the majors.

With three of the four top prizes on offer across the pond, the States will always retain its pull.

What it does add up to, though, is an exceptionally strong sport heading into 2011, with characters and quality operators like Westwood, McDowell, Rory McIlroy, Woods, Ian Poulter, Phil Mickelson and Yorkshire coach Pete Cowen ensuring the game continues to prosper.

CELEBRATIONS CAN BE PUT ON ICE

WE'VE been here before and thought we had done enough.

After thrashing Australia in Adelaide, there was only one place the famous Ashes urn was headed and that was back home to Blighty.

Then came day two of the third Test in Perth, pace bowler Mitchell Johnson producing that devastating spell as the Aussies fought back.

On to Melbourne and the fourth Test and the pendulum has swung back to England after a terrific opening day when captain Andrew Strauss and his team backed by the Barmy Army pooped the Christmas party for 90,000 pom-bashers at the MCG.

Hopefully, though, we have learned not to get too far ahead of ourselves – and remember that the Aussies will not give up without a fight.

England are in a commanding position but day one's exploits will count for nothing if the job is not completed over the coming late nights.

The hard work remains for England. The time for celebrating and lauding it over a sports-mad nation that have had too many opportunities to taunt us, is almost upon us.

But let us get to the finish line first.