His Own Back Yard
Thursday, July 5, 2007
When Mike "Fluff" Cowan caddied for Tiger Woods at Congressional in the 1997 U.S. Open, he had one of the greatest tournaments of his life. Woods flailed around the six-inch rough for four days and eventually tied for 19th place. But Cowan had a week he'll never forget.
"I had the bag and I was waiting for Tiger to come out and a young woman came up to me and said, 'Fluff, would you mind taking a picture with me?' " Cowan recalled recently. "I said: 'Sure. Why not?' and then I think I said something smartass like I usually do, and the rest is history."
The woman, Jennifer, was from Washington and apparently she didn't mind the smart-aleck stuff. She eventually became Cowan's wife, and the two are now parents to Bobbie, 4 1/2 . They live in Rockville and belong to Congressional, where Cowan plays 20 to 25 rounds a year to a single-digit handicap.
Cowan's current employer, Jim Furyk, No. 3 in the world rankings, surely will be the beneficiary of Cowan's local knowledge when he plays in the AT&T National this week, three weeks after tying for second place with Woods in the U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club, a shot behind Angel Cabrera.
Cowan's road to becoming one of the most recognized caddies in the world began in his native Maine, when he began carrying his father's bag as a youngster and started playing at the age of 8. In high school, he never came close to breaking 80, but when he went off to William Penn University in Iowa, his game took a turn for the better.
"The first time I saw the course my freshman year, the fairways were pretty baked out but the greens were perfect," said Cowan, 59, who got the "Fluff" nickname years ago from his fellow caddies because he bore a slight resemblance to former pro golfer and broadcaster Steve Melnyk, who also was known by that nickname.
"I started hitting it longer and started progressing from there to where I could shoot some pretty good scores," Cowan said. "By my sophomore year, I was number two man on the golf team, and I played number one my junior and senior year. It was really in my mind back then that maybe I'd like to give professional golf a go and see what happened."
Cowan comes from a working-class background. His father was a house painter, and there simply wasn't the sort of family seed money available to support a budding golf career. Cowan had no idea how to go about finding a deep-pocket sponsor to finance his way around the mini-tour circuit, so in 1976, he took a job as an assistant golf pro at Martindale Country Club in Auburn, Maine.
He worked part of that summer, but got fired by a cost-conscious head pro who said he couldn't afford to have Cowan around. That same year, one of his golfing buddies came back to Maine after living in California, and the two of them noticed that the PGA Tour would soon be stopping in Hartford. They decided to drive to Connecticut and see if they could pick up a bag and make a little money caddying.
"I worked the Monday qualifier for a guy named David Smith," Cowan recalled. "He didn't make it, but I was so green, I didn't know enough to go back to the tournament course to see if I get another bag for the week. I figured my guy was out, so that was it for me."
But Smith asked Cowan if he'd caddie for him in the qualifier the next week in Flint, Mich. It was the middle of the summer, and he had nothing better to do, so he headed to the Midwest with his buddy, Bruce Willette.
They figured they could either caddie or try to qualify themselves to play in state open tournaments. By the time they got to the Iowa Open, the two pals had only enough money for one entry fee. Cowan had been playing well, so he entered and Willette caddied for him. When Cowan shot 69 in the final round, he earned $285, enough to get them to the next tour stop in Las Vegas.