There was no shortage of hard news coming out of the World Match Play, but it was a Fluff piece that had everyone talking. For the second time in his last three starts, Tiger Woods had Bryon Bell, and not Mike (Fluff) Cowan, on his bag, bringing the future of the best-known player-caddie partnership in golf into question.
When Bell, 23, caddied for Woods, his schoolboy friend, at last month's Buick Invitational, Woods explained that Cowan had simply asked for the week off, although it marked the first time since Tiger turned pro in the fall of 1996 that he had employed a caddie other than Cowan in a Tour event. Last Wednesday, when Bell was again on the bag at the $5 million Match Play, an event any veteran caddie would be loath to miss, Woods fueled speculation that his relationship with Cowan was on the rocks by offering only a lukewarm vote of confidence after being asked if Cowan would caddie for him at the Masters. "I don't know," Woods said hesitantly. "Probably, yeah."
That's all it took for the other caddies to write Cowan's obituary. "It doesn't look good for Fluff," said one veteran looper. "When a player starts using other people and talking like Tiger, it's usually over."
Cowan, 50, has led all caddies in earnings while enjoying cult status as the wise and steadying force behind Woods. Cowan has landed commercials for a hotel chain, ESPN and the World Golf Village. Last year Cowan ended a longtime relationship with Lynn Boyer and became engaged to Jennifer Young, 22.
According to Tour insiders, Woods has begun to question Cowan's effort, particularly after receiving some incorrect yardages. The situation reached a boiling point two weeks ago at the Nissan Open, during which Woods told Cowan he had decided to use Bell at La Costa. Cowan reportedly was displeased, and the two barely spoke during the final round.
Woods has shaken up his so-called Team Tiger before, firing his attorney, John Merchant, in 1996 and dismissing his agent, Hughes Norton of International Management Group, last October. At the Match Play, after his loss to Jeff Maggert in the third round, Woods would not say if Cowan was destined to be the next to go. "I'm not saying anything to anybody," Woods said. Cowan, reached at his house in Rockville, Md., also declined to comment, other than to say, "As far as I know, everything's fine." Whatever Woods decides, Cowan's fate will probably not become evident until Woods's next start, at the March 18-21 Bay Hill Invitational, in Orlando. If Cowan does not caddie for Woods there, he most likely will not work for Tiger again.
Woods might use Bell in some future tournaments, but Bell, a recent graduate of UC San Diego who hopes to become a plastic surgeon, says he has no desire to be Woods's regular caddie.
Bell has had a relaxing effect on Woods. A teammate of Tiger's at Western High in Anaheim, Bell was on Woods's bag for his third U.S. Amateur title and is familiar enough with his friend's swing to weigh in on mechanics, and Woods respects Bell enough to put up with occasional criticism. "Tiger pays so many of the people who are around him that they probably think about [their paycheck] before they say something," says Bell. "I don't."