LEMONT, Ill. – Mike "Fluff" Cowan is going back to the Ryder Cup, a competition that has changed since he caddied in his first one 25 years ago at The Belfry.
The competition is as intense as ever. The biggest difference might be his suitcase.
"We got next to nothing back then — a couple of sweat shirts, I think," Cowan said. "We certainly get treated better than we did at my first one. Now we get all kinds of clothes. We fly over on the charter. They pay us nicely. Some guys say it isn't enough, but I think it's enough. The competition ... there's nothing like it."
No other American brings as much experience to the matches as Cowan, and few have seen so much through so many players. Jim Furyk, his current boss, will be the fourth player for whom Cowan has caddied at the Ryder Cup.
He was on the bag for Peter Jacobsen in 1985 at The Belfry and for Fred Couples four years later (Couples hired Joe LaCava the following season). Jacobsen returned to the Ryder Cup in 1995, and Cowan worked for Tiger Woods at Valderrama in 1997. This will be his fifth straight Ryder Cup working for Furyk.
The biggest regret is playing on only two winning teams — the comeback at Brookline in 1999, and last time at Valhalla.
His favorite memory was two years ago at Valhalla, when Furyk won the cup-clinching point on the 17th hole, the matching ending with a handshake when Miguel Angel Jimenez conceded Furyk a short par putt.
"It was a matter of circumstances, but having Jim actually be the clincher, that was pretty much a nice memory — a thrill," he said.
As for the worst?
Cowan went back to the 18th hole at The Belfry in 1989, when Couples was in a pivotal match against Christy O'Connor Jr. All square on the 18th, with Couples having blasted a 300-yard drive, O'Connor hit 2-iron to about 3½ feet for a birdie he never had to putt.
"One of the most phenomenal shots in the history of the game," Cowan said. "Freddie had a 9-iron and flared it out to the right. I felt awful for him. That was probably my worst memory, although I got to witness one of the greatest shots in the history of the competition."
That wasn't the only stunning loss. Cowan was with Woods when the world's No. 1 player lost to Costantino Rocca in 1997. And he was with Furyk when Paul McGinley made a 6-foot par in 2002 at The Belfry to halve the match and give Europe the outright victory.
As for the most bizarre moment, consider a fourballs match between Jacobsen and Brad Faxon against Seve Ballesteros and David Gilford at Oak Hill in 1995.
Thinking that Faxon was in for par, Jacobsen rapped his long birdie putt about 4 feet beyond the hole and picked it up. Only then did he realize Faxon had taken a penalty drop from behind a willow tree in the fairway.
"That might be my worst memory, now that I think about it," Cowan said. "I don't even want to go into it."
But he'll go to Celtic Manor looking forward to these matches as much as he did 25 years ago.
"It's always been an intense competition," he said. "I guess just like the rest of the world of golf, it's gotten bigger. But it's the same intensity. The players treat it the same way."
Matt Kuchar's win at The Barclays was a reminder how consistently well he has played this year. He is leading the PGA Tour money list and has the lowest adjusted scoring average.
Dustin Johnson is getting more attention with his victory at Cog Hill. That's his second win, along with a chance at two majors. The notion of a "sympathy vote" for Whistling Straits is silly. What resonates with players is not that Johnson failed to win, but that he put himself in position to win. Johnson and Phil Mickelson are the only players this year to be in serious contention on the back nine of two majors.
Meanwhile, the PGA of America's award is based on points and shows just how close this is. Stricker is atop the standings with 52 points, followed by Mickelson and Matt Kuchar at 50 points, and Els at 47 points.
Kuchar nudged ahead of Stricker for the Vardon Trophy last night, although that might not be decided at the Tour Championship. Kuchar is likely to play a Fall Series event or two, while Stricker is likely to strap a bow over his shoulder and go looking for deer.
HUNTER'S RIBS: Hunter Mahan makes it sound as though his pre-round routine is eat, stretch, hit balls and pop his ribs into place.
Mahan appeared to show discomfort in his back during the third round of the BMW Championship. He revealed after the round that a couple of ribs on the lower left side were out — and that this wasn't the first time it happened.
"It happens almost every week, but this time it was in a little different place," Mahan said. "It's usually a little higher up. This one was a little low. Usually, it doesn't hurt that much."
Mahan said the ribs popped out of place when he drew a deep breath.
He said all this in such a matter-of-fact manner that when someone asked if it would affect the Ryder Cup, he laughed. Then, he tried to figure out where to put himself on the list if the Ryder Cup had an injury report like in the NFL.
"Doubtful. No, questionable," he said. "Isn't Tom Brady always questionable?"
MASTERS: Kevin Streelman and Jeff Overton are among five players in the Tour Championship who will be making their Masters debut next April. What sets them apart is that they have yet to win on the PGA Tour.
Streelman is getting a lot of attention for only having one good week against a strong field to get to East Lake.
As for being without a tour victory and going to the Masters. It happens more than one might think. There were six PGA Tour members at Augusta National who had never won on tour — John Merrick, Ricky Barnes, Kevin Na, Marc Leishman, Steve Marino and Jason Dufner.
There were five such players each of the previous two years.
DIVOTS: The Tour Championship will only have 25 of the top 50 players in the world ranking, and six of the top 10. ... Steve Stricker, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Jim Furyk and Hunter Mahan are the only players to reach the Tour Championship all four years of the FedEx Cup. ... The LPGA Tour does not resume until the week after the Ryder Cup.
STAT OF THE WEEK: Since securing a spot on his first Ryder Cup team, Jeff Overton has not finished in the top 50 and has a scoring average of 72.8 in his past four tournaments.
FINAL WORD: "I was beating myself up. I wasn't playing against anyone else, I was only playing against myself. And that's probably worse than playing against everybody else." — Robert Allenby on his bid to make the Tour Championship.