King of Clubs

updated 06/02/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/02/1997 01:00AM

ONE IS 21 AND AS SMOOTH OF FACE as a peach; the other is 49 with a shaggy, walrus-style mustache. One sips amaretto and Coke—"a pitiful drink," says the other, who likes his beer straight out of the bottle. One listens to Boyz II Men, the other is a die-hard Grateful Dead fan. "Some of the people I consider heroes he doesn't even know," says Mike "Fluff" Cowan, veteran caddie for youngest-ever Masters champion Tiger Woods. "He has never heard of Otis Redding or the Everly Brothers. Never heard of Buddy Holly!"

Not that Cowan is complaining. Since signing on to dispense clubs and counsel to Woods last August, Cowan has helped steer Tiger to five victories (and more than $2 million in winnings) in his first 16 professional events, highlighted by Woods's history-making 12-stroke win at the Masters. "I was of some help," says the modest Cowan of that magical April week. "I helped him like I help him every tournament, with club selection, reading a few putts and making it fun for him." Woods is far less reserved. "Fluff is one of my best friends," says Tiger. "He and I can talk about anything. He knows me and my entire game, knows my adrenaline level. On the course, he and I go over every shot selection."

And that means Cowan occasionally contradicts perhaps the most talented golfer ever—sort of like telling Picasso he's using too much blue. "Tiger's not going to get an automatic 'yes' out of me," says Cowan, a 2-handicap golfer. "He pulls a lot of clubs on his own and will kind of look at me to make sure I like it, too. And if I don't, I'll speak up." Beyond imparting on-course smarts, Cowan chips in with some off-the-course advice. "Mike is a stand-up guy who knows what to do in all situations," says PGA pro Peter Jacobsen, for whom Cowan caddied for 18½ years. "Tiger is only 21 and still has to mature, and having Mike on the bag can help him a lot."

Obviously, the pairing has also paid off for Cowan, nicknamed Fluff for his resemblance to former pro Steve "Fluff" Melnyk. While on the PGA tour, most caddies receive a salary of $500-$1,000 a week, plus 5 percent of a player's earnings (10 percent if the player wins), meaning that Cowan's haul for the Masters alone was likely around $50,000. What's more, Cowan has quickly become the most famous bag handler in the business. "I go into my gas station, where they never bothered me before," he says, "and now they're like, 'Look, it's Fluff.' "

The Winslow, Maine-born only child of Colan Cowan, a housepainter, and his wife, Lucy, a factory worker, young Mike began playing golf with his father at age 8. He won local tournaments as a student at William Penn College in Iowa, but without a sponsor or enough money to get started on the PGA tour, he gave up on turning pro. "At a time when I should have been doing something," he says, "I spent years hitchhiking across the country."

Realizing he couldn't make a living with his thumb, Cowan took up caddying for PGA players in 1976. Two years later he crossed paths with a colorful pro named Peter Jacobsen; the two clicked and stayed together through 1996 and six tour wins. "I had a great time with Peter," says Cowan. "He made me part of his family"

But after Jacobsen injured his back last August, Cowan was available when Woods, a tour rookie fresh out of Stanford University in search of an experienced caddie, asked him to carry his sticks for the year's final seven events. Sensing that Woods "was going to make history," says Cowan, he persuaded Tiger to hire him full-time. "It was probably the hardest decision I ever made," says Cowan of leaving Jacobsen, still a close friend. "I cried the whole time I was telling him."

Otherwise, hooking up with a prodigy like Woods has been like hitting the caddie jackpot, assuring Cowan of generous paychecks as well as roughly 25 weeks of vacation a year. "Mike does nothing better than anyone I know," jokes Lynn Boyer, 41, a clinical application specialist at Dade International, a medical equipment company. Boyer has been Cowan's companion for 13 years (he was married in 1967 and divorced three years later), though neither feels the need to formalize their commitment. "In our hearts," she says, "we're married." The couple share a modest three-bedroom condo in Columbus, Ohio, which barely contains Cowan's CD collection but which he's reluctant to abandon for ritzier digs. "We just put new carpets in," he says, "and I want to enjoy them."

Indeed, there is much for Cowan to savor lately. "I love my job," he says. "It's a great way to make a living." Never mind that Woods thinks Little Feat is a medical condition—Tiger is leading Cowan down a fairway to heaven. "Watching him win a major in his first year was wonderful," says Cowan. "Like being in the front row at a Grateful Dead show."

ALEX TRESNIOWSKI
JOANNE FOWLER in Columbus and CARLTON STOWERS in Fort Worth

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