BETHESDA -- Funny how things work out. You do the same thing for nearly half your life and nobody notices. Then suddenly you go to work for a star and you become one yourself.
The spotlight -- no, make that the aura -- that surrounds Tiger Woods these days has turned Mike "Fluff" Cowan into the PGA Tour's latest and greatest caddie celebrity. It has followed him to Congressional Country Club for the 97th U.S. Open.
It's a position that Cowan, who just might be the only 2-handicap Deadhead in the country, shrinks from one moment and concedes to the next. Just follow him around the tour for a couple of weeks and see.
There's Cowan at the TPC at Los Colinas outside Dallas a couple of hours before the third round of last month's Byron Nelson Classic. A reporter introduces himself and says that his editors in Baltimore are interested in a story.
"Tell your editors you couldn't find me," Cowan says in his raspy voice, a byproduct of his New England roots and his one pack-a-day cigarette habit. "But thanks anyway."
There's Cowan at the Muirfield Village Golf Club outside Columbus, Ohio, after the first round of the recent Memorial Tournament. Woods is about 20 feet away signing autographs.
A bunch of fans make a similar request of Cowan.
"We love you, Fluff Go get 'em, Fluff Way to go, Fluff."
Begrudgingly, he signs a few and leaves as Woods makes his way to the practice tee.
A couple of reporters want to know if, and when, Cowan would be available to talk.
"I'll be here at 8 [a.m.] tomorrow," he says.
Jacobsen gave blessing
It all happened because Peter Jacobsen pulled up lame last summer. The back strain and bulging disk that had bothered Jacobsen during the first tournament of the year finally sidelined him the last two months.
It was about the same time that Woods, coming off his third straight U.S. Amateur championship and ready to turn pro, was looking for a regular tour caddie. He called Cowan.
"He told me he was going to play in the last seven tournaments," recalls Cowan, 49. "I talked to Peter and he couldn't have been nicer. He said, 'You have a chance to work for a kid who could be one of the great players.' "
It was, by all accounts, a tearful breakup.
"Someone asked me if I was mad at Fluff for leaving," says Jacobson. "I told them that the only thing I was mad about was that Tiger didn't ask me to caddie for him."
Cowan, who had played golf at William Penn College in Iowa and had been an assistant pro at a club back home in Auburn, Maine, knew his life was about to change. He just didn't imagine how much.
"It's crazy, absolutely crazy," Cowan said Monday afternoon, standing in a parking lot while conducting an impromptu news conference with a couple of reporters and a number of fans. "Sometimes you do feel like the fifth Beatle."
Until Woods came along, Cowan's life as a caddie was not much different than most. He estimates he has worked for some 40 players since coming out to work the Monday qualifying round at the Greater Hartford Open in 1976.
But most of the time had been working for Jacobsen, a pleasant man known more for imitating the mannerisms of his fellow tour players rather than his own accomplishments that include six wins and over $4.6 million in earnings.
"All you guys ever saw of Peter was on the outside," says Cowan, who once lived with Jacobsen and his family and remains on good terms with his former boss. "You never saw what was on the inside."
The same might be said for Cowan, who seems as hard as his Rs but is really well, Fluff, inside. All the recent attention, including reports of his own endorsement deal for a line of sunglasses and maybe a book, has barely made a dent on his personality.
"It doesn't mean much," says Cowan. "I understand it, but I don't really get it. All I do is clean 'em. I don't hit 'em."
If it was only that simple. As awesome a talent as Woods is, dTC Cowan's background on the tour, and his own proficiency as a player, have helped in the success that has produced five wins in Woods' first 20 events.
"Tiger is a great player, but I don't know if he would have done what he is doing here without Fluff," Paul Azinger said after playing with Woods during his historic 12-shot win at this year's Masters. "He is invaluable for any player, especially a young player."
Says Jacobsen, "I hope Tiger is listening to him. If he is as smart as he appears to be, he is. I know how much a guy like Fluff meant to me and I didn't have anywhere near the talent that Tiger does."
Player in own right
Cowan's playing ability is nearly legendary in itself among the caddies, and some players. There are stories about Jacobsen's making a friendly wager with fellow pros during practice rounds that his caddie could beat them on a given hole. The day after Woods won the Nelson, Cowan shot 68 on another course in the Dallas suburbs. Woods apparently has developed a pretty strong bond with Cowan. Despite their obvious difference in age and musical taste, they seem to have formed a bond that goes beyond the question, 'Should I hit an easy 8 or a hard 9?' "
Says Woods, "I always say that Fluff is the best caddie in the world. He is not only a great caddie, but a great friend. And with that relationship in there, I trust whatever he says on the golf course."
As amazed as Cowan is at some of the things Woods does on the course, he knows he is still dealing with a 21-year-old who should only be going into his senior year at Stanford. After his star client won the Nelson, swing coach Butch Harmon pulled out Woods' wallet to get a tip ready for the clubhouse attendants.
"Look at this, Fluff, he's got 25 bucks in here," Harmon said.
"Here, give him this," said Cowan, peeling off a $100 bill from a small, crisp stack in his own wallet.
Not that Cowan has gotten Woods to kick back and listen to Jerry Garcia, the rock star over whom Cowan went into mourning with his death two summers ago. He was recently pictured in an article in Sports Illustrated wearing a T-shirt with Garcia's picture on it.
"I think so much of the band and music and what it meant to me, I'd like him to listen to it, to understand it," says Cowan. "But when you get right down to it, it doesn't really matter if he does or if he doesn't."
Cowan's sudden celebrity has happened to others in his profession, going back to the days when Angelo Argea used to hear the sport's growing galleries call his name as he walked in the reflected afterglow of one Jack Nicklaus.
It has happened since to Andy Martinez when he worked for Johnny Miller. To Bruce Edwards during the run of Tom Watson. To Fanny Sunesson, the British woman who has worked for Nick Faldo for more than a decade.
"In most cases, a caddie is just a caddie," Martinez said yesterday. "Why people get so excited about the caddie, I don't know. It's great when you're working for a player and you have that reflected glory. Some players, though, could win tournaments with Bonzo the Chimp."
Martinez, who now works for British Open champion and reigning PGA player of the year Tom Lehman, is thrilled that Cowan is finally getting recognized after 21 years of obscurity. But he also knows that it has become a burden.
"I heard he gets so many phone calls he's going to have to change his number," said Martinez. "But to his credit, Fluff hasn't changed as a person and he's not going to change. He's still the same old Fluff."
Cowan knows that fame isn't the only thing that is fleeting. And he knows his privacy isn't the only thing he should treasure. He knew it before one of his best friends, a caddie named Jeff "Squeeky" Medlin, got sick.
Medlin found his way into the spotlight when Nick Price won the British Open and PGA in 1994 to become the No. 1 player in the world. He is now fighting for his life at the Ohio State University Medical Center, suffering from leukemia.
"He's a battler," says Cowan, who has been instrumental in raising money to help defray the costs of Medlin's treatment, including a couple of bone marrow transplants, and hospital bills. "When you see him and what he's going through and how much he's been through already, you hurt for him."
Cowan fumbles through a pocket of Woods' golf bag.
A plastic bag filled with green ribbons to show support for Medlin.
"Want one?" Cowan asks, his eyes tearing up.
Cowan was wrong.
We found him.
When: Tomorrow through Sunday
Course: Congressional Country Club
Yardage: 7,213 (longest in Open history)
Last year's champion: Steve Jones
Tickets: Sold out
Field: 156 players
Prize money: $2.6 million
Pub Date: 6/11/97