The life of the average golfer is one filled with fun stories with friends, memorable shots, travel and emotional meltdowns. Fortunately, this is not the story of the average golfer; this is the life of Gary Cowan. Sure, his life is filled with all of the above memories but, only a handful of people in this world experienced the joy of winning national championships, travelling to every corner of this world, representing their country in international competition and playing golf with legends such as Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead, Lee Trevino and other Canadian legends like Al Balding, Stan Leonard, George Knudson and Marlene Streit. Gary’s impressive record is only a part of this story.
Born on October 28, 1938, in Kitchener, Ontario, to Richard and Helen Cowan, Gary was the only boy in a family of 3 children. Helen was a stay-at-home mom and Richard joined the Kitchener Police Force after WWII. Gary’s parents separated when he in Grade 5. With three children to support, and his dad not around, Helen got a full-time sales-clerk job at Reitman’s, a women’s clothing store. Gary was now on his own even more. He became more independent and more industrious, and Gary also started a part-time job at Reitmans cleaning up after the store closed.
No matter the season, Gary spent most of his time outdoors playing hockey and baseball. A swamp near Gary’s house would become the frozen pond where Gary learned to skate. Come summer, he turned to baseball and Gary would play catch for hours with friends.
Gary had discovered golf only a few years before and enjoyed hunting for golf balls and using his beloved 5-iron bought by his dad. When Gary turned thirteen, it was getting harder for him to balance his time between playing his two favourite sports in the summer. The time had come for Gary to choose between baseball and golf. The decision was easy. Golf is a game to play forever, and baseball is not, so golf won out. That was the last season Gary played baseball for the East Ward team.
Gary had been a runner-up in the 1959 Canadian Men’s Amateur Championship, where he lost against John Johnston, and runner-up in 1960, where he lost against Keith Alexander.The 1961 Canadian Men’s Amateur Championship took place at Edmonton Country Club, Alberta. To make it to the final, Gary first had to beat Nick Weslock in the quarterfinals. In the semi-finals, Gary won against Jeff McGrath. Gary was pitted against Ted Homenuik for the Canadian Men’s Amateur title. From the inception of the event, the championship had been played as match-play and to become the Canadian champion, Gary had to best Ted in a 36-hole final. After the morning rounds, Ted was leading 1-up. After lunch, and the final 18-holes, the tension increased. The pair matched pars for the first 5 holes. On the 24th hole, Gary made a birdie to even the match. After a birdie on the 29th hole, Gary was 1-up, only to lose it on the 30th hole. Back and forth this battle continued. Gary would win a hole and then Ted would gain one back. On the final 36th hole, a 180-yard par 3, Gary hit his shot 10 feet from the hole, while Ted was 40 feet away. Ted missed his putt and Gary won the match 1-up. As the papers described the victory, it was a “true test of endurance” as both men had played more than 180 holes of golf that week. Finally, at 22, after being the runner-up twice, Gary proved all those critics wrong who had started to call him “golf’s bridesmaid”. A local reporter interviewed Gary about his Canadian Amateur win; he was asked who his toughest opponent had been, his reply, “the course … to win you have to beat the course, not the man.”
Long before it became known as “that tradition unlike any other” and Tiger Woods donned his first green jacket, Gary was lucky to visit Augusta National Golf Club, first as a guest of Moe Norman, and later as a player in the major tournament. Between 1962 and 1973, Gary competed in eight Masters tournaments, was low-amateur in 1964 and played the course more than two hundred times. Gary’s first trip to play at The Masters was in 1962 after winning the Canadian Amateur Championship (in 1961). On the Monday, Augusta Nationals members had a dinner for all the foreign players and that is where Gary first met Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts – the founders of the Masters Tournament and Augusta National Golf Club. Although Gary didn’t make the cut he got to play the first round with Henry Picard (1938 Masters champion) and Johnny Revolta, and the second round with Horton Smith (1934 and 1936 Masters Champion) and Vic Ghezzi.
In February 1957 Gary received a call from one of his Rockway friends, Thel Scheifele, asking Gary to go to Florida with him. He was driving Moe Norman south, who was playing in the Masters that year. Gary was still working full-time for Dominion Life, so the decision on whether to join this crew was not an easy one. The trip would take about five weeks, so Gary would have to give up his job. To convince Gary, Thel said that they would be playing golf every day. It took Gary one week to make the decision. Golf won, and Gary handed in his resignation to Dominion Life and got ready for an unforgettable road trip. Gary was now unemployed, so when he got back to Kitchener he asked Mr. Tucker if he could work for him at Rockway. He agreed, but Gary would have to talk to Mr. Franklin, who was the secretary-manager, who would have to clear his employment with the City of Kitchener since the municipality owned the golf course. Mr. Franklin and the city approved, so in May Gary started work in the pro shop.
On September 12, 1990, at the age of fifty-two, and after nearly thirty-seven years competing around the globe as an amateur, Gary decided to turn professional and give the Champions Tour a try. Without anyone in the golf world knowing, he filled out the required paperwork and submitted his application to enter the first stage of the Senior PGA Tour qualifying tournament.
In early October, Gary packed a bag, jumped in his car, and headed south to Pensacola, Florida to practice for the regional qualifier in Texas a month later. After an opening 80, Gary shot 73-77-73 for a 303 total; Gary had played well enough to finish 22nd, just good enough to advance to the Tour’s final qualifying stage in California that following month.
In late November, Gary flew to California and joined 101 other players in this gruelling seventy-two-hole contest. Only the top eight would receive their PGA Tour cards for the 1991 season. In the first round, Gary fired a one-under-par 69, just two shots off the lead. In round two, he faltered a bit—shooting a three-over-par 73—and slipped into a nine-way tie for 14th . In the final round, after a pair of long drives on 17 and 18, left Gary in perfect position to the green to birdie the final two holes. His four -round total of 282 had Gary tied for 6th. Gary was now a member of the Senior PGA Tour and he received his first professional cheque, for $1,375 USD. Overnight, Gary was officially a professional golfer.
Gary’s rookie year on the Senior PGA Tour was disappointing. He finished sixtieth on the money list with $71,199 in twenty-eight events. That might sound like a lot of money, but that worked out to $2,500 per tournament, and with that money Gary had to pay all of his bills, travel to each event, etc. The one positive from his rookie year – Gary finished the second half of the season winning more money and posting better scores. Unfortunately, Gary would have to re-qualify to play in the 1992 season.
Gary failed to finish in the top eight to get his full-card for 1992 which meant that he played in fewer event (fifteen, in the end). Those two seasons made up the entirety of Gary’s short-lived Senior PGA Tour career. Gary would continue to play professional golf on The Senior Series Tour with three victories, until his stroke in 1997.
In August, Mr. Tucker invited me to play with him at the 1954 PGA Tour’s Labatt Open at Scarboro Golf & Country Club, in a special Pro-Junior day on the Monday. I played nine holes with Mr. Tucker and a touring pro named Milon Marusich. My highlight that day was not me playing with my mentor, but it was watching an exhibition by the legendary “Babe” Zaharias.
The Texan, who had won the U.S. Women’s Open in 1948 and 1950 and before that, had won 17 tournaments in a row from July 1946 through August 1947, was a golf star. She hit the ball so pure with every club. Watching Babe at Scarboro on that memorable Monday is something I will never forget. Inspired by Zaharias, I started to practice even harder.
When final school exams arrived in 1954, Gary’s head and heart were already halfway to the course. There was always a minimum amount of time you had to stay in the exam room as well as a maximum time you had to finish these tests. Gary couldn’t have cared less about the upper limit, for as soon as the clock struck the minimum, he was gone—making a beeline to the golf course, whether or not he had finished the exam. Following this pattern throughout the exam period. In the middle of my Grade 10 year, Gary got a call one morning from the principal, Father Hauser, asking to see him in his office. After sitting Gary down, Father Hauser looked at him in the eyes and got right to the point. “Cowan,” he said, “you don’t belong here. The only thing you think about is golf! It’s clear you are wasting your time at St. Jerome’s. You need to go to a place where you can learn a trade.” And, just like that, Gary’s high-school career was over. Gary knew Father Hauser was right so he signed up to attend Lougheed Business College. Gary signed up for a General Office course, and his mother helped convince the owner of the school, Mr. Lougheed, that if Gary cleaned and swept the floors and kept the washrooms tidy, he would give Gary free tuition. Penmanship was one of the subjects Gary took and to this day, Gary remembers the advice his my teacher gave him: “Your name is your own and you will have it for the rest of your life. People will judge you and your capabilities by how well you write it.” In the spring of 1955, Gary graduated from Lougheed and landed his first full-time job at Dominion Life as a clerk in the Premiums department.
Mr. Tucker offered Gary a job “shagging” balls for members taking lessons. He also raked bunkers and picked chickweed out of the greens and tees. Like other juniors before—and after—Gary, since they were too young to officially get hired, Mr. Tucker offered playing privileges in exchange for labour.
Mr. Tucker often gave Gary free golf advice at Rockway – not just on the fundamentals of the golf swing, but also on the fundamental values to possess. The two most important were: play golf by the rules and respect other people’s property. These are two lessons that Gary would carry with him for the rest of his life. It showed Gary the value of money and responsiblity.
Kesselring reading about him in the paperlike many kids, one of my first was a paper route when I was seven. I delivered the Toronto Star throughout the East Ward. A weekly subscription cost 18 cents and that is how I first learned to count by 18s. I started at the corner of King and Ottawa, but since on some streets only a few houses subscribed, my route stretched for miles. One day, I took a rest between deliveries, sat down on the curb, and opened the paper to the sports pages.
During the NHL season, I often read the box scores to see how many goals my favorite player (Maurice “Rocket” Richard) had netted the night before and whether my beloved Montreal Canadiens had won. On that summer day, with the NHL season over, the headline that caught my eye was about Kitchener golfer Gerry Kesselring. The Rockway member had just won the Canadian Junior Golf Championship for the second year in a row. Something deep inside me stirred. I felt I wanted to do something like that one day. I didn’t really know what ‘that’ was, but it was definitely one of those Aha! moments.
Baseball and hockey were Gary’s passion as a boy. His family did not belong to any golf club nor did any of his friends. A friend had asked Gary if he wanted to go look for some golf balls near Rockway Golf Club. The two spread out and looked in the tall grass.. After a few minutes, Gary was the first to find one. He picked up a little white sphere near the eighth hole and read the inscription on the dimpled surface—Spalding British Honor. Gary called to his friend, “Is this a golf ball?” It was only when a potential business opportunity of finding golf balls and selling them to golfers that Gary first became interested in the sport. Unfortunately, Gary’s sales quickly came under scrutiny when someone had told the Rockway Golf Club pro shop that a kid was selling golf balls to members.
Gary was summoned to speak to Lloyd Tucker, head professional and superintendent to the club. After a stern lecture, Mr. Tucker told Gary from that day on he could sell the golf balls he found to him and Mr. Tucker would in turn, sell them to his members. Gary earned a nickel, a dime—or even 15 fifteen cents if it was a really good one—for each golf ball. With his earnings, Gary bought lunch at the course, usually a hamburger, a pop, and an ice cream. Not long after that adventure,Gary asked his father to buy him a golf club. He agreed and they went downtown to Riordan’s Sporting Goods on Queen Street and bought Gary a hickory-shafted 5-iron. That was Gary’s first club, and it rarely left his side. Gary used that club to hunt balls and hit his first shots in the field and dirt laneway near our house. Gary would hit balls that he had found for hours, retrieved them, and then hit them again.
At the 1967 Masters Tournament, Jerry Barber approached Gary and asked him if he had a game arranged for Tuesday and proceeded to invite Gary to play. After a good warm-up Jerry and Gary walked to the first tee and standing there was non other than Ben Hogan! Jerry introduced Ben and Gary to each other. During the round, while walking with Ben up Augusta’s fairway, Gary had mentioned that it was seeing his biopic film Follow the Sun in 1951 that gave Gary the impetus and inspiration to dedicate himself to the game and take it more seriously. Hogan’s response was, “I’m pleased to hear that… that makes me feel good.” What a treat it was for Gary to get a front-row seat to watch Ben play and learn a few new tips in the process.
It wasn’t until twenty-five years later the Gary learned the truth about how that game with Hogan came to be. In 1991, Gary’s first year on the Senior PGA Tour, he played a number of games with Jerry Barber. Every time Gary played with him, he thanked him for the invitation to play with Hogan back on that Masters Tuesday in 1967. He always shrugged it off and just said no problem. One day, he finally revealed the secret he had kept from Gary for all those years about that practice round. Barber grinned, turned to Gary and said: “Gary, I have to tell you it was Ben who asked to play with you that day. He wanted to see how the Canadian he had heard so much about played the game.” Gary was completely surprised and humbled to hear that his childhood golf idol had actually asked to play a round with him.