SUNSET BEACH, N.C. - Gary Cowan is 63-year-old stroke survivor with designs on qualifying for the 2003 Senior Tour this fall. Yes, the same Senior Tour that has become a comfortable home for 50-years-young types like Hale Irwin, Tom Watson, and Jim Thorpe.
At this point in the story, the average American golf fan might be saying to himself, "Yea, right!"
The average Canadian golf fan, however, is probably thinking, "Don't bet against this guy, you hoser!"
You see, Cowan isn't one of these Johnny-come-lately retired executives with too much time and money on his hands just looking for a new hobby. The Waterloo, Ontario resident is, by popular vote of the Royal Canadian Golf Association, the greatest amateur golfer in Canadian history.
Cowan won the Canadian Amateur in 1961, was six times the runner-up, was three times the low amateur in the Canadian Open, played in eight Masters, was the low amateur at Augusta National in 1964, won the North-South Amateur in 1970 and the Porter Cup in 1969. In the early 1990's, he enjoyed a brief stint on the Senior Tour, but wound up playing in the Winston-Salem, N.C. - based Senior Series Tour after losing his card.
In 1994, it appeared that Cowan was on the verge of a golf renaissance. He finished runner-up to Lee Trevino in a Japanese tournament with a strong field that included Trevino, Arnold Palmer, and Gary Player.
But three years later, Cowan suffered a massive stroke the day before he was to leave Ontario for a Senior Series Tour event in Delaware,.
He awoke that morning, went back to sleep for ten minutes, and then discovered he couldn't move his legs and one of his arms. A close friend rushed him to the hospital before any irreparable brain damage occurred.
Miraculously, Cowan was out was at Westmount Golf & Country Club four days later hitting range balls. His focus, though, had shifted from his golfing career to simply relearning how to live his day-to-day life.
"The doctor said the best thing I could do was get out and start playing golf," Cowan says during the middle of a sub-75 round at the Thistle Golf Club (at right). "I couldn't hit the ball 30 yards, and I had no idea what club did what. The entire right side of my body was so weak, I couldn't fire the club through the ball. But I had other more important things to work on, like remembering how to get around, remembering names for things and other basic functions."
Based on his performance at the Thistle, Cowan has conquered the little things, and is well on his way to professional caliber golf. He has spent the past six years relearning the game, improving his strength, and sharpening his mind by teaching at corporate outings. His unique golf swing - a lightening quick takeaway coupled with a top position that never gets the shaft near parallel - enables him to pound the ball 260 to 280 yards off the tee.
His patented shot is a knockdown pitching wedge that flies under the wind and checks up like a yo-yo just a few feet from the pin. Cowan has made his way to the Grand Strand to play 18 holes a day for two straight weeks with his good friend Marty Ekster. They ride each other, chide each other, and push each other to the point that Cowan is breaking 70 by the end of his visit.
Still, Cowan remains realistic about his chances of cracking the Senior Tour.
"Based on how I feel right now, they (the chances) are not very good," he says. "But that is not to say that by the end of the summer, I may feel differently. I won't know until sometime in the fall, but I would really like to have one more go at it. This will probably be my last chance, because it is just getting too competitive out there. If I am not shooting par or one or two under every time out then I have no chance to make it."
In 1990, Cowan finished sixth at the Senior Tour Q-School, and was exempt for 1991. He went on to collect a meager $65,000 in earnings that year and did not earn his card back. In 1992 Cowan played in 16 events by way of sponsor exemptions and qualifiers.
The last Senior Tour event he played in was the 1998 Home Depot Invitational in Charlotte, N.C, on account of a personal invitation from Arnold Palmer. Cowan never broke 80 over the three days, but a moral victory never tasted so sweet.
"That was a special experience, and gave me the confidence that I could still make a living teaching and playing this game," Cowan says.
Making a living in golf wasn't something that appealed to Cowan at an early age. He didn't turn professional until he was 52-years-old, and worked in the life insurance business during most of his amateur career.
"I wanted to raise a family, and the purses on the professional tours just weren't enough to get by one unless you were consistently at the top," he says. "I had traveled the world playing golf when I was in my late teens and early 20's, and I had seen enough to be satisfied."
One of Cowan's fondest memories from the height of his Amateur career was a practice round at the Masters played with the legendary Ben Hogan. Cowan was on the putting green late Tuesday afternoon when he heard through the grapevine that Hogan wanted him in his foursome for Wednesday's 10 a.m. tee time.
"He said he wanted to see how this Canadian boy played the ball," Cowan says.
As he walks off the ninth hole on the Thistle's North Course, Cowan is smiling like that Canadian Boy of yesteryear. He recently remarried, has four healthy children, an amateur legacy that is the stuff of legends, and a new lease on life that could culminate in one last shot at competitive golf.
"It has always been my goal to get back, because I love to play competitively," Cowan says. "I don't really like to play for fun. I don't want that to sound the wrong way, but I have to have the fire in my belly to make it interesting."
July 9, 2003