Ex­plor­ing the in­cred­i­ble golf ca­reer of Kitch­ener’s Gary Cowan


The in­cred­i­ble golf ca­reer of Kitch­ener’s Gary Cowan

Agolf fan could spend a long time watch­ing Gary Cowan on the prac­tice range at West­mount Golf and Coun­try Club. It’s spe­cial when you get a chance to see a mas­ter in his el­e­ment.

On this oc­ca­sion, de­spite a strong wind putting a chill into an oth­er­wise beau­ti­ful day, most of the well-struck balls come to rest in a small area that would make them easy to re­trieve.

One stray goes left of tar­get. “That one will get me in trou­ble,” Cowan says.

And then one goes a lit­tle fur­ther than the bunch. “There’s the best one.” No warm-up. No spikes. No prob­lem. Cowan is un­fazed by the pho­tog­ra­pher who is cap­tur­ing this ses­sion. He’s play­ful with her, let­ting her know she has no rea­son to fear be­ing slightly ahead and to the side of him.

“You can stand right here if you like,” he says, point­ing to a spot a cou­ple of feet away from him. “The ball is go­ing there,” he says, in­di­cat­ing a straight line.

When you’re deal­ing with Canada’s best am­a­teur golfer of the 20th cen­tury, there is no rea­son to doubt he knows where the ball is go­ing. The mas­ter is in his el­e­ment. The swing may have short­ened up a bit over the years and the balls may not fly quite as far as they once did, but this 78-year-old’s swing is fluid and ath­letic.

You have no rea­son to sus­pect he suf­fered a stroke in 1997 that af­fected the right side of his body.

Cowan had shared ear­lier that he used golf as a mea­sur­ing stick dur­ing his re­cov­ery.

“One of the doc­tors didn’t know that I played golf, and he said prob­a­bly the best thing you could do is get out on the golf course and walk around.”

That was when Cowan knew the game he loved could help him get bet­ter.

He couldn’t hit the ball 30 yards when he tried four days af­ter the stroke. And he says he couldn’t hit a low shot or get out of a bunker for a long time.

But a ther­a­pist in Lon­don had ex­plained to him how the body will re­cover over time so he car­ried on. “I could see changes al­most daily,” Cowan says. But there is one abil­ity that has not re­turned.

“To this day I can’t whis­tle,” he says.

“I used to whis­tle all the time. I used to whis­tle to the birds when I prac­tised.”

Two United States Am­a­teur ti­tles. One Cana­dian and nine On­tario am­a­teur vic­to­ries. Eight ap­pear­ances at the Masters Tour­na­ment, in­clud­ing fin­ish­ing as the low am­a­teur in 1964. The list goes on . . . and on . . .

There’s plenty of ma­te­rial for a mem­oir, which he says peo­ple have been nudg­ing him to pro­duce, but speak­ing into a voice recorder about his ex­pe­ri­ences when he’s by him­self just doesn’t feel right to him.

Prompt him, how­ever, and time flies by as he set­tles in at a ta­ble near a win­dow in West­mount’s lounge area that bears his name.

The table­top of­ten be­comes a putting sur­face as he uses his fin­gers to in­di­cate the po­si­tion of a flag and each player’s ball, as well as the pro­gres­sion of their putts in key sit­u­a­tions.

For the per­son lucky enough to be re­ceiv­ing the his­tory les­son, it brings the achieve­ments on his re­sume to life.

At times play­ful, at times a lit­tle dev­il­ish with a sparkle in his eye when a par­tic­u­lar story is amus­ing, he re­calls in vivid de­tail mo­ments such as the 1971 U.S. Am­a­teur cham­pi­onship.

Af­ter a poor drive on the par-four 18th hole, a bo­gey five was def­i­nitely a pos­si­bil­ity and would have landed Cowan in a play­off the next day. Ed­die Pearce, the player wish­ing for the play­off, was done for the day and stand­ing among the spec­ta­tors be­side the green, not far from the flag, watch­ing it all un­fold. From deep in the rough, Cowan struck his sec­ond shot. Not only did it make the green, it rolled into the cup.

Also hop­ing for a dif­fer­ent out­come, Cowan is con­vinced, was the United States Golf As­so­ci­a­tion of­fi­cial who had been shad­ow­ing him. The con­grat­u­la­tory hand­shake from that per­son gave Cowan a good laugh. But his fun wasn’t done. Five years ear­lier, when he won the U.S. Am­a­teur for the first time, there had been an ar­ti­cle writ­ten from the an­gle of how

pop­u­lar Amer­i­can player Deane Be­man had lost the cham­pi­onship, as op­posed to how Cowan had won.

With the me­dia gath­ered in 1971, Cowan set things straight.

“Some­one in charge says, ‘Who’s go­ing to ask the first ques­tion?’ “And I piped up, ‘I am.’ “And I said, ‘Is there any­one here from Sports Il­lus­trated?’

“A guy sheep­ishly right in front says . . . ‘I am and I’m go­ing to do a much bet­ter job than’ what­ever, what­ever, what­ever.”

Cowan’s point had been made. The fi­nal line of that year’s story read: “With­out ques­tion, the 1971 Am­a­teur would be re­mem­bered as the one Gary Cowan won.”

Rob Stra­han, West­mount’s head golf pro­fes­sional since 1990, has known Cowan for 37 years – and known of him even longer. Stra­han said when he ar­rived at ABOVE: Gary Cowan poses near the third hole at West­mount Golf and Coun­try Club. West­mount is his home away from home. FAC­ING PAGE: A trio of pho­tos cap­tur­ing mo­ments from the fourth and fi­nal round of the 1971 U.S. Am­a­teur golf cham­pi­onship, which Gary Cowan won in spec­tac­u­lar fash­ion at the Wilm­ing­ton Coun­try Club in Delaware. ON THE LEFT, Cowan waves his arm as his putt drops into the cup on the fifth green for a birdie. TOP RIGHT, Cowan raises his arms in the air, twirling his nine iron on the 18th hole. He had just used the club to knock his sec­ond shot from the rough into the hole 135 yards away to se­cure a three-shot vic­tory. BOT­TOM RIGHT, Cowan poses with the cham­pi­onship tro­phy while toss­ing into the air the ball he had used on the fi­nal hole.

West­mount in 1980, as as­sis­tant pro to Gus Maue, he got to know Cowan as an ex­tremely tal­ented player and a strong per­son­al­ity.

“Elite play­ers like him . . . in all sports . . . they just have that self-con­fi­dence. Some­times you can take it as ar­ro­gance but it’s not that. To be that level you just have to have that in­ner con­fi­dence in your­self.”

Stra­han says peo­ple will of­ten judge a golfer based on their great shots, but he sees it the other way. He likes to watch how a player han­dles a mis­take be­cause in golf you can’t rely on your goalie or a de­fence­man to bail you out.

Stra­han says Cowan has that abil­ity to get him­self out of trou­ble.

“Prob­a­bly that’s his strong­est suit when­ever I’ve watched or played with him. How he makes birdies when he’s in the mid­dle of the woods or some­thing.”

Sounds a lot like what the crowd at Wilm­ing­ton Coun­try Club in Delaware wit­nessed in 1971.

Stra­han says the West­mount com­mu­nity has a lot of re­spect for Cowan. Spe­cial sta­tus, how­ever, is not some­thing Cowan de­mands.

He just goes about his busi­ness, Stra­han says. He’ll play with any­body and mixes well with the newer, younger mem­bers.

“Right now I play with a lot of the younger guys,” says Cowan, who plays to about a five hand­i­cap. “I call them younger, they’re 25, 30, 35, but they’re guys that I like to play with be­cause I can help them if they want. And if they don’t want any help, I don’t give them any help.

“They all have their nick­names for me. Mr. G and this and that and the other thing. Coach.” And let’s not for­get The Leg­end. “Every­body calls me that,” Cowan says, but it doesn’t bother him.

“It’s nice to see,” Stra­han says of Cowan’s coach­ing. “In­stead of just keep­ing his own great love for the game just to him­self he spreads that around to fel­low mem­bers.”

If a Cowan mem­oir does come to­gether,

it should be re­quired read­ing for all those younger play­ers.

Un­til then, they might want to opt for the Coles Notes ver­sion in the club­house be­fore tak­ing Cowan on in a match. In the lounge a wall plaque lists his big­gest vic­to­ries. Be­side it is a tro­phy cab­i­net that does wonders to pro­tect his legacy.

“If that wasn’t there, how many peo­ple would know about that?” Cowan asks. “Not very many, be­cause time goes on, eh.”

There were a lot of voices telling Cowan to turn pro dur­ing his hey­day. The re­al­ity at that time was that there was only enough money for a few play­ers to make a good liv­ing.

Arnold Palmer made all the money in the late 1950s and ’60s, Cowan says.

“Un­less you were the top three or four, you weren’t mak­ing that much money,” he says. “But the other thing I wanted to do, be­cause I didn’t have school­ing, was I wanted to see if I could make a liv­ing in the in­sur­ance busi­ness.”

Cowan worked for Mu­tual Life. It was a ca­reer that al­lowed him to com­bine golf and work and then just work all win­ter.

It was a chance to have his cake and eat it too, he says.

With a grow­ing fam­ily, there were mouths to feed. He and Elaine, his wife un­til they di­vorced in 1989, had four chil­dren between 1965 and ’73.

Rob, the old­est, has come clos­est to fol­low­ing his dad’s foot­steps. A part­ner in Cowan Wilkin Fi­nan­cial Ser­vices, he is a 15-time club cham­pion at West­mount and has also had on-course suc­cess fur­ther afield. He says he and his dad play to­gether a cou­ple of times a year but Rob is now the Cowan who has a busy tour­na­ment sched­ule.

His brothers, Todd and Jamie, have both worked in the golf busi­ness. Todd is one of the golf in­struc­tors at Max’s Sports World in Water­loo and Jamie is an artist. Their sis­ter, Sue, lives in Cal­i­for­nia with her fam­ily.

Back when the house was fill­ing up, Cowan stepped away from tour­na­ment golf in 1972 and ’73 to make money.

That meant he didn’t de­fend his U.S. Am­a­teur ti­tle in 1972. And that made a lot of peo­ple un­happy.

“I had about nine let­ters from USGA peo­ple say­ing you should be do­ing this, you should be do­ing this, but that makes me say No, No, No.”

There were other pos­si­ble perks, too, but he wasn’t swayed. He could have played in the U.S. Open that year and says he also had a phone call from Bing Crosby ask­ing him to play in the tour­na­ment spon­sored by the en­ter­tainer.

Cowan did even­tu­ally turn pro at the end of 1990, earn­ing his place on the pro­fes­sional se­nior tour. He played in 29 tour­na­ments in 1991 and 15 in 1992 be­fore trail­ing off.

“He had some good tour­na­ments but didn’t ex­pe­ri­ence the suc­cess he was used to,” Stra­han says. “I give him full marks for try­ing.”

The golf course has al­ways of­fered Cowan a place to go, a place to be­long. In the late 1940s, at age nine or 10, he didn’t know what a golf ball was the first time he tagged along with friends to Rock­way Golf Course to look for lost ones.

He found a ball near the eighth hole and his cu­rios­ity about what to do with it took hold.

It was around this time, when Cowan was in Grade 5, that his par­ents, Richard and He­len, sep­a­rated.

Liv­ing at King and Ot­tawa streets with his mother and two sis­ters, he didn’t have far to travel to Rock­way.

His dad “wasn’t around all that much, so that’s why I sort of spent all my time at the golf course.”

Found balls could be sold at the pro shop for 10 or 15 cents and he soon re­ceived his re­quested first golf club from his dad – a five iron with a hick­ory shaft.

Rock­way’s golf pro and su­per­in­ten­dent, The tro­phy case in the West­mount club­house of­fers a sam­pling of Gary Cowan’s great­est hits. The plate in the mid­dle high­lights his eight Masters ap­pear­ances. There are many more tro­phies in stor­age and he wonders what will be­come of them. Lloyd Tucker, gave Cowan a job col­lect­ing – “shag­ging” – balls for peo­ple who were tak­ing lessons. He also raked bunkers and weeded greens and tees. In ex­change, Tucker would let Cowan play 18 holes on Mon­days us­ing Tucker’s clubs.

Even­tu­ally, Cowan got his own set of used Spald­ing clubs and joined Rock­way at age 12 as a ju­nior mem­ber. He’d later work in the pro shop.

He also played hockey in the win­ter – up to ju­nior B – and base­ball in the sum­mer but de­cided at about age 13 to de­vote his non-win­ter months to golf.

“I said to my­self golf will last for­ever, base­ball won’t, so then I went to golf.”

He was fu­elled, in part, by the suc­cess of an­other great Kitch­ener golfer, Gerry Kes­sel­ring.

Kes­sel­ring, who was 10 years older, won the na­tional ju­nior cham­pi­onship in 1946 and ’47.

Cowan re­mem­bers read­ing about one of those vic­to­ries in the news­pa­per. “And I

said to my­self, Jeez, I’d like to do some­thing like that.”

Two Hol­ly­wood movies also in­flu­enced him – “Fol­low the Sun,” a 1951 bi­og­ra­phy of Ben Ho­gan, and “The Caddy,” a 1953 film star­ring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

Cowan proved to be a quick study on the golf course. He played a lot of in­ter­na­tional golf on teams, begin­ning at age 14, and was the On­tario ju­ve­nile cham­pion in 1954 and ju­nior champ in ’56.

The sly smile re­turns as he re­calls the school ex­ams held each June. He says there was a min­i­mum time you had to stay in the exam room, as well as a max­i­mum time you could be there.

“As soon as it hit the min­i­mum time, I was gone,” he says, whether he was done the exam or not.

Straight to the golf course he’d go. And then in the af­ter­noon there’d be a sec­ond exam, so he’d re­turn for the min­i­mum re­quire­ment and then he was gone golf­ing again.

Ex­po­sure to an­other life­long ac­tiv­ity also hap­pened dur­ing those ju­nior years at Rock­way as mem­bers played crib­bage in the club­house.

Af­ter that, Cowan learned to play gin, then bridge.

“Once you play bridge, ev­ery­thing else is sec­ond na­ture be­cause all the time you’ve got to be think­ing.”

Th­ese days, the bridge games are at West­mount.

On the day of the in­ter­view for this story, his play­ing part­ners were wait­ing for him at noon. Cowan just had to switch ta­bles and join in. “I just love it here,” Cowan says. Cowan is a life­time hon­orary mem­ber at about 18 clubs.

“When you’re golfer of the cen­tury a lot of places will make you an hon­orary player be­cause of your tal­ent and skill and what you mean to that club,” Stra­han says.

But it’s clear West­mount has be­come Cowan’s home away from home, a year­round place to find friends.

“I don’t need for a whole lot of things,” says Cowan, who has sep­a­rated from his sec­ond wife. “It’s no fun liv­ing alone.”

His re­la­tion­ship with West­mount goes back more than 50 years.

West­mount ex­tended play­ing priv­i­leges to Cowan in 1962 af­ter he recorded the low­est in­di­vid­ual score at the World Am­a­teur team cham­pi­onship in Ja­pan. Then, in 1966, af­ter win­ning his first U.S. Am­a­teur, he was made an hon­orary life­time mem­ber.

“My younger years were at Rock­way and my older years were here. There’s a lot of re­ally good peo­ple here. And there’s a lot that are gone, too,” Cowan says.

And it’s clear the peo­ple at West­mount have a soft spot for him. Each in­ter­ac­tion seems warm, ei­ther with staff or a small group of ladies get­ting cof­fee when he walks into the lounge.

“He’s got lots of friends and he’s cer­tainly not a wall­flower of any sort,” Stra­han says. “He’s a good guy.”

The mas­ter is in his el­e­ment.

The City of Kitch­ener ring on Cowan’s left hand was part of a gift from the mu­nic­i­pal­ity in recog­ni­tion of his 1961 Cana­dian Am­a­teur cham­pi­onship.

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