March 29, 1999 12:00 PM

Strolling the fairways, they looked as mismatched as a sleek panther and a weather-beaten walrus. But from the day he turned pro in 1996 until earlier this year, Tiger Woods, 23, and his chunky caddy Mike “Fluff” Cowan, 51, were pals on and off the course. “Mike introduced Tiger to the hotels, towns and places to eat,” says golfer Peter Jacobsen. “He was like a father figure.”

Now the family outing is over. In a cordial yet firmly worded statement, the ’97 Masters champion announced March 8 that he was ending his 29-month partnership with Cowan and handing the bag to Steve Williams, a former caddy for Raymond Floyd and Greg Norman. “It is time to move on,” said Woods.

And Cowan, who became the world’s most famous caddy (and earned some $200,000 on the PGA tour alone last year), could only sigh. “It was a great ride while it lasted.”

At this point no one’s saying why Woods took back his sticks. Some wonder if the superstar was annoyed by a recent interview in Golf Digest, in which Cowan revealed the terms of his salary ($1,000 a week) and bonuses (up to 10 percent of Woods’s winnings). Others suggest that Fluff’s eagerness to sign autographs and parlay his Tiger-related fame into commercial endorsements and golfing videos might have irritated his boss.

Tiger’s father, Earl Woods, denies rumors that the caddy’s engagement to 22-year-old Jennifer Young (for whom Fluff left longtime girlfriend Lynne Boyer last year) led to his firing. “Tiger’s been taught not to judge people,” says the elder Woods, adding, “Tiger outgrew Fluff.”

Jacobsen, for whom Cowan caddied for 19 years, thinks it more likely that Cowan was a casualty of Woods’s slump on the PGA tour, where the once-dominant golfer won only a single title in 1998. “You’re always looking for something to get yourself going again,” Jacobsen says.

A professional caddy since the year after Woods was born, the Grateful Dead-loving Cowan not only knew the length and warp of every golf hole on the circuit but also helped the coltish Woods keep his hot-wired ambitions from derailing his talent. “He knows me and my entire game,” Woods told PEOPLE in 1997, in the midst of a streak that would bring him an astonishing six tournament victories in only nine months on tour. “He’s one of my best friends.”

Their bond was tested during Woods’s sophomore slump, and by February the golfer seemed to be contemplating a change. First he tapped high school buddy Bryon Bell to carry his clubs at the Buick Invitational in San Diego, explaining that he wanted to help his friend pay for medical school. Woods won that tournament, and when Cowan returned the next week for L.A.’s Nissan Open, he found his boss suddenly uninterested in his advice. “Mike thought, ‘I think I’m gone,’ ” says Jacobsen. And he was right.

Although it’s too soon to tell what he’ll do next, Cowan says his future won’t include feeling sorry for himself. “I don’t allow myself to be [sad],” he says. A superior golfer himself, Cowan knows to keep his head down and his eye on the ball.

Peter Ames Carlin

Tom Cunneff in Los Angeles, Gerald Burstyn in Rockville, Md., and Don Sider in West Palm Beach, Fla.

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