Commentary

Carrying 'Fluff's' bag is more than just heavy lifting

Updated: November 4, 2008, 5:36 PM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

AVENTURA, Fla. -- It isn't every day you get to caddie for the most famous mustache in golf, see a pacemaker in action, watch two almost-holes-in-ones with $290K at stake, and get called a "no-caddying mother" (but in a good way).

Thank you, Fluff.

[+] EnlargeGene and Fluff
ADT Skills ChallengeGene Wojciechowski and Mike "Fluff" Cowan ponder club selection.
Yes, Fluff -- as in Mike "Fluff" Cowan. I had his bag for the just-taped ADT Golf Skills Challenge at The Fairmont Turnberry Isle Resort & Club, which will be broadcast late next month on NBC. And, no, I don't think it's humanly possible to squeeze the name of another corporation, hotel or broadcast network into this paragraph. (Wait -- yes, there is: ESPN).

Caddying for Cowan is like trying to tell Peyton Manning how to drawl. Cowan has spent 33 years carrying a refrigerator on his shoulder -- 18 with Peter Jacobsen, three with Tiger, the last 10 with Jim Furyk. That isn't a resume, it's a Hall of Fame acceptance speech.

This is the 17th year of the Skills Challenge, but the first in which professional caddies were invited to do something other than wipe down club grips. It's a brilliant idea, mostly because you get to see grown men shake.

There are four teams: Rocco Mediate and caddie Matthew Achatz; Greg Norman and his son, Gregory Norman Jr.; Fred Couples and caddie Joe LaCava; and the Reunion Twosome of Jacobsen and Cowan. They compete in eight different skills categories for a total purse of $820,000, which is more than Kenny Perry got for winning the John Deere Classic this season.

Technically speaking, Cowan is a pro golfer. He cashed a T-6 check in the 1976 Iowa Open for $280. That wouldn't pay for Norman's teeth cleaning these days.

"It was huge at the time," says Cowan, when we talk a few days before the competition.

Cowan, 60, fell into a membership at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md. He usually shoots in the mid-70s, plays for $5 or $10 Nassaus (on rare occasion, $50), and has won a couple of caddie tournaments (first place: $100). Before he arrived here, Cowan spent a couple of days in Naples, Fla., with Jacobsen working on his game. Not that it matters. He's just happy to be invited.

"All I know is I've got a club in my hand and I ain't cleaning it," he says in that Maine accent of his.

That's my job. I'm in charge of lugging Cowan's set of Srixons (Srixons?), protecting his ancient Jackie Burke Jr. putter (rust on the clubface), digging out the dirt in the grooves, making sure he has cold bottled water, asking the driving-range guy for laser distances, keeping the caddie groupies away, and providing moral support.

"We got to negotiate," says Cowan. "What kind of percentage you want? You got to want something."

Generally speaking, Tour caddies get 10 percent of the winner's check, 7 percent of a top-5 finish, and 5 percent of any paycheck. After a few minutes of intense haggling, we settle on zero percent.

"Nothing?" he says. You can tell Cowan doesn't do a lot of pro-bono caddie work.

You know about the pros. Norman and his cart-path-wide shoulders almost won the British Open this past summer. Mediate almost won the U.S. Open. Couples' swing is still as smooth as aged bourbon. And Jacobsen, who has played in this silly-season event 16 times (and won three times) has seven career Tour victories and a U.S. Senior Open championship. Plus, his Golden Tee video game is sports bar legend.

Handicapping the caddies is a little dicier. Norman's son lettered on his high school golf team, is a student at the University of Miami and looks like he borrowed Ray Lewis' biceps and forearms. LaCava supposedly has huge game. And Achatz, who came this close to becoming a waiter before Mediate gave him a 2008 gig, is rumored to be a solid player.

My man? "I'm playing so poorly that my only concern is that I don't embarrass myself," says Cowan.

If things go south fast, Cowan has already warned me. "I'll be yelling at you," he says. "You'll want to walk off after the first hole."

The resort is located between Miami and Fort Lauderdale, in a master-planned community with ocean-view high rises that have a certain USSR/state-housing feel to them. But with pastels. Nearby I see lots of joggers, lots of tans and a huge supermarket called Kosher Kingdom.

The four teams meet at 8 a.m. Monday for breakfast, intros to the sponsors, an explanation of the rules and a request from NBC producers to keep their presidential election views to themselves. Then off to the driving range we go, where I'm handed a caddie bib, Cowan's bag (about half the size of the one he carries these days for Furyk), and a towel.

I had e-mailed Tiger's caddie, Steve Williams, for advice, but all I got back was a very polite, "You'll do fine," and "Fluff will take care of you." But what about details? So I called a former caddie who launched into a long list of dos and don'ts. All I remember is something about having your towel half wet and half dry.

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I jot down Cowan's club distances (all into the wind): wedge, 110 yards; 9-iron, 125; 5-iron, 165; 4-iron, 178, driver, 230-240. Cowan has a compact swing and his ball flight is low and with a draw. Mine is high and with a shank.

There are eight skill challenges: long drive, mid-iron, greenside bunker, pitch over hazard, trouble shot, chip shot, putting and short iron. Each player hits three balls. The player/team that gets closest to the hole wins that skill. Simple.

In fairness to NBC, I don't want to give away everything that happened. But I can tell you that Cowan, who hit the very first ball of the competition, didn't even think about carrying his opening drive 240 yards over water. Instead, he hit it toward the bailout area Jacobsen called "Senile Gulch." Of course, Jacobsen didn't exactly bomb it himself.

"I'm hitting it so short I can hear it land," Jacobsen says.

Did I mention it's sort of hot? Hot enough that you feel like you're walking on the face of the sun. Hot enough that as everybody assembles in the fairway for the mid-iron skills competition, a spectator collapses.

Jacobsen's caddie, who just happens to be Jake's son-in-law and is completing his final year of med school, rushes over to help. Norman grabs an umbrella from his bag and uses it to shade the spectator from the sun. Police cars arrive. Soon a Miami-Dade Fire Rescue truck barrels onto the course.

"Is he OK?" says Fluff.

It looks like it. The man, who is 67 and says he's had a couple of bypasses, slowly sits up. The fire rescue attendants place him on a stretcher. The man smiles.

Jacobsen's son-in-law comes over and says the man's pacemaker saved the day, and the guy's life. Suddenly I'm not so worried if Cowan should hit a 5-iron or 6-iron into the wind from 161 yards to an island green. But if I were, I would go with the 5-iron.

Cowan doesn't ask me for advice, which is surprising since I have minutes of caddie experience. But he does pull the 5-iron, so there. Then he hits three indifferent shots, hands me the club, and I pull out a tee to clean the grooves. Whooee.

Not much to report from the greenside bunker thing. I clean more grooves. Norman retrieves one of Cowan's balls and instead of tossing it to me, whips it over my head and into the water.

"You know, that's coming out of my paycheck," I tell Norman.

He doesn't laugh.

I can tell you that as the competition moves along a few things become apparent:

" Achatz should get out of the caddie business.

" Jacobsen is the world's nicest guy.

" Cowan is low maintenance (always the caddie, he rakes his own bunker).

" NBC needs to invite the caddies every year.

During a lunch break, the players sit at a reserved table and are entertained by magician Matthew Furman. The guy does card tricks, bends a fork without touching it, correctly reveals the maiden name of Mediate's mother, and somehow knows the ATM pin number of a golf writer who is covering the event. If only he could have made Achatz disappear.

One of the neat caddie perks is telling the NBC guy which club your player is hitting on a shot. The NBC guy then relays the information to the announcers. Everybody feels important.

I did think about messing with the guy. On the Trouble Shot competition -- 72 yards, over water, downhill, playing about 66 yards, hurting wind -- I almost told the NBC assistant that Cowan was hitting a 1-iron. Just to see if he was paying attention. On the putting competition, I did tell him that Cowan was using a putter. He didn't laugh, either.

I wish I could tell all the details about the thrilling, come-from-behind victory. Or describe the two almost-holes-in-one in the final skills challenge. Or reveal which caddie actually threw Mediate to the ground after the final shot. We'll leave that for the show.

When it was done, Cowan did what all great golfers do: he blamed his caddie.

"You no-caddying mother," he said, smiling.

"Hey, top-five finish," I said.

"No," he said. "Top four. So you sure I can't do something for you?"

What the heck. I let him carry the bag to the clubhouse.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

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