AUGUSTA — Jeff Willett had just come off a high point in his caddying career, and there seemed to be more to come for the Winslow native. His player, Nick Taylor, was coming off a victory in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, his second in 11 years as a pro, and was seeing all aspects of his game fall into place.

And then came the coronavirus, slamming the brakes on all that momentum.

“It’s too bad,” said Willett, a Thomas College graduate. “Obviously, Nick was playing some decent golf, and to win at Pebble was great. … We were building toward having a career year for him, and obviously for me, too, but the coronavirus and the halt to the year has put a damper on that so far.”

Nick Taylor, right,walks on the eighth fairway with his caddie, Jeff Willett, during the third round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational on March in Orlando, Florida. AP photo

Unlike most COVID-themed stories this spring, however, there’s a bright side to the tale. The PGA Tour is planning a return without fans on June 11 for the Charles Schwab Challenge, allowing Willett to hopefully pick up where he left off with Taylor, as well as return to an environment he’s called home since 2002.

“It’s been tough. I miss the competition, and I miss seeing the boys every week,” Willett, 48, said. “Hopefully we can get back to where we were and continue this good run.”

Elsewhere on the Tour, Mike “Fluff” Cowan, a fellow Winslow native and Jim Furyk’s longtime caddie, is feeling the same itch to get back to the game and resume his 45th season on the bag.

“The (fans) will be missed. But if that’s the way it’s got to be, then so be it,”  said Cowan, who guided Furyk to victory in the 2003 U.S. Open and who also caddied for Tiger Woods during his breakthrough win at the 1997 Masters. “I’m looking forward and hoping that we are able to go back to work when they’re thinking it might start. It does give you something to look forward to.”

Both Willett, in his fifth year with Taylor, and Cowan, in his 22nd with Furyk, are mainstays in a field where turnover is constant. Willett said he’s started to feel a chemistry set in with Taylor that wasn’t there when he first paired up with the 32-year-old Canadian in 2016.

“Being with a guy for five years, obviously you learn everything about his golf game,” he said. “I know pretty much everything he’s thinking before he asks me. … As this relationship’s grown, he wants more from me. He values my opinion and he needs to hear it from me.”

Understanding the player goes beyond the swing. Taylor, who had shown flashes since the end of last year but struggled to put it all together for a full tournament, jumped in front at Pebble Beach and stayed there into Sunday with rounds of 63, 66 and 69. But he had only a one-shot lead on Phil Mickelson, and was going to be paired with one of the biggest names in golf for the final round.

“I told him right before we went to the first hole, ‘It’s just me and you,’ ” Willett said. ” ‘It’s not Phil, it’s not Phil’s crowd. It’s me and you.’ I think he took that to heart.”

In the windy conditions, Taylor shot a 70 to hold off Mickelson and secure the win. It was an example of a caddie knowing how to reach his player, though Willett knows he can’t get complacent.

“The old saying is you’re only as good as your last read,” he said. “You can give him five straight great reads, and then you give him that one bad read and that’s all that’s remembered.”

That’s a lesson that Cowan learned many years ago. He has major victories and decades of experience under his belt, but he’s been able to stay in the game because he knows who comes first.

“He’s the boss. I give him whatever input I can give him, and if he decides that he wants to do something that I’m not thinking, I just get out of the way,” he said. “Any caddie that thinks he has the final say in a situation is full of canal water.”

Cowan doesn’t have to worry about lost momentum with Furyk. The 49-year-old has struggled so far in 2020, missing the cut in all three tournaments he’s played this year, and Cowan isn’t sure how the break will affect him.

“We weren’t in the midst of a really good start to the season,” Cowan said. “The only way we’ll be able to tell (if the off period helps) is if and when we do begin, he is ready to perform and does perform. Then I guess, in hindsight, you could say the break helped. But until that point, I don’t know the answer to that.”

Caddie Mike “Fluff” Cowan walks by the second tee of the Silverado Resort North Course during the first round of the Safeway Open PGA tournament on Sept. 26, 2019, in Napa, California. AP photo

Cowan said he’s had conversations with Furyk since the season was halted, but those haven’t been to talk shop.

“We talk a little bit just to see how one another is doing, but I don’t ever inquire as to how much he’s practicing,” he said. “He’s a grown man. That’s up to him.”

Willett said Taylor has used the time off to return to Canada, but will likely be back working on his game two to three weeks before the season is set to resume. There’s plenty to look forward to — with his Pebble Beach victory, Taylor qualified to play in his second PGA Championship, and first Masters tournament.

Willett will be right there with him.

“There’s still a chance to have a good year,” he said. “Our goal is still the top 30. If we can stay in that top 30, it would accomplish a big goal for him.”


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