By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
By the end of that season, Cowan found himself working for a journeyman pro named Ed Sabo, who also asked him to work for him the following winter on the tour's West Coast swing. Cowan kept moving up in the caddie pecking order, and by 1978 found himself looping for Larry Nelson when Sabo wasn't playing in an event.
"Nelson was on his way to being a real gun," Cowan said. "I did the Players Championship with him in 1978, my first real splash in the big-time. We had a chance to win, finished in the top five and the whole experience was a great eye-opener for me. I also got to know Peter Jacobsen at that time, and I knew he had an open bag. I was learning the ropes a little and I decided to make a change. I dropped Sabo and picked up Peter's bag. Best move of my life."
Cowan stayed with Jacobsen for 18 years, often living at Jacobsen's home in Oregon in the offseason and literally "becoming a member of his family." At the 1996 PGA Championship, Jacobsen had to withdraw with a back injury and headed home to heal. He told Cowan he didn't know when he'd be back, but wasn't going to play again until he got healthy.
Cowan went back to his home, in Columbus, Ohio, and thought he'd take a little time off, as well. But one day, the telephone rang, and 20-year-old Tiger Woods was on the line. He was about to turn professional, he said, and wondered if Cowan would be available to caddie for him the rest of the year.
"I called Jake," Cowan said, referring to Jacobsen, "and he said to me: 'It's something you better do. Go do it.' I'd seen Tiger play at the British Open at St. Andrews in 1995. We were actually paired with him and Ernie Els, and Peter said to me walking down the first fairway: 'This is really something. We're playing with two guys who are going to be the future of golf.' He was so right."
Cowan was simply awed by what he observed in Woods's game at close range over the next few weeks.
"I was seeing things I'd never seen before," he said. "The shots the kid was hitting, the length off the tee. It's just blowing my mind. I was also hearing another caddie was going to make a play for his bag. I'm thinking no way, this is my bag if I want it. And I wanted it."
Telling Jacobsen he was making the switch to Woods "was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," Cowan said. "He took it hard, but he was gracious. It took me hard, too. I told him face to face, and I started bawling like a baby. In hindsight, I know now that I did what I had to do. It was a chance to be a small part of Tiger's beginning, and it was more than I could say no to."
Cowan was on the bag for Woods's historic 1997 Masters victory, his first major championship, but less than two years later, it was Woods who decided to make a change. He has never said why, and Cowan said he has never asked. There was speculation that Woods was not happy with Cowan's burgeoning public profile, including several endorsements and TV commercials, not to mention Cowan talking about his compensation package in an interview with a national golf magazine.
"But I don't know and I never will know," he said. "This happens all the time -- players firing caddies. He never said 'You did this' or 'You did that.' From a golf aspect, we won only one time in 1998. Maybe he thought we were getting stale. I just said, 'The best of luck to you, and thanks for the fun.' I have absolutely no ill feelings toward him. I like him. He's a great guy, and he's always been kind to me."
At that point, Cowan again thought seriously about going off to play golf professionally, perhaps on the senior mini-tour circuit. He'd made enough money to bankroll himself, but before he could pack his clubs and head down the road, Furyk called and asked if he'd take his bag.
"I knew I'd make more money caddying for Jim than I would playing myself," Cowan said. "That was '99, and we're still at it. He's just a great guy, down to earth, a very real person and a great player. He also lets me caddie. He asks me plenty, and he makes very few mistakes. We do yardage together, we discuss what's going on, and then he'll just pull a club.
"One of the biggest compliments I can give any player is that Jim has never blamed me for a bad club. Not once in eight years. He'll just say, 'Aaah, I didn't hit it right.' He won't put it on me. Tiger was never one to blame, either. And Tiger listened, all the time."
Cowan dotes on his daughter and said he's given "zero thought" to giving up the caddying life. "I don't see quitting anytime soon, not with a 4-year-old. There's nothing I could do to make a living like I do now."
Cowan has come a long way since his first job caddying in a tour event in 1976, when he was paid $20 a day and 3 percent of whatever his man made that week. He won't say how much he earns now, but caddies of his caliber generally get 10 percent of any win, and a slightly smaller percentage of anything their man earns that week. Furyk was second on the PGA Tour money list last year with more than $7 million.
"You get a player of Jim Furyk's caliber and class, you make a nice chunk of change," Cowan said. "It's all good."