SAN FRANCISCO -- The losing caddie, Mike "Fluff" Cowan, was sitting on a bench in the dark and quiet rear of the locker room, his head down, his legs crossed, his face clenched behind a white mustache straight out of the old wild west.
Wearing a golf cap and a blue windbreaker, Cowan was all alone with his thoughts and his bag, the one standing upright before him and carrying Jim Furyk's name. Cowan became a big star tending Tiger Woods' pins at the 1997 Masters, and after Woods tired of his employee's ever-expanding public profile, Fluff helped Furyk to the U.S. Open championship in 2003.
But here he was inside the Olympic Club on Sunday night, a million miles removed from the orgasmic rush of a victory in a Grand Slam event. "Total elation," Cowan said of the feeling. "It's just so wonderful."
Only knowing the ecstasy of winning makes managing the pain of losing far more difficult. At 42, Furyk had played a great tournament, had pummeled Tiger Woods in their third-round pairing, and in the immediate wake of Webb Simpson's triumph and Furyk's failure to force an 18-hole playoff with a birdie at 18, Cowan wasn't in the mood to accept any parting gifts.
"When you have a chance to win the U.S. Open and you don't do it," he said, "it doesn't matter how great everybody else thinks the tournament was."
Furyk should have won the tournament, too, especially after he spent Saturday afternoon beating Woods by 5 shots. He started Sunday as the only man left who hadn't posted a round worse than par, and he was tied for the lead with another former Open champ, Graeme McDowell, who dropped 2 strokes to Furyk over the first five holes.
It didn't matter that he couldn't make a birdie, or that he wasn't striking the ball cleanly through the creepy Sunday fog; Furyk was managing the course on a day when some of the world's best players were spraying it all over the place, inspiring a question straight out of the Casey Stengel playbook:
Can anybody here play this game?
As he stepped to the 16th tee tied for first place and ready to attack back-to-back par-5s, Furyk had just enough control of his putting stroke and his homespun swing -- it looks like he's wrestling a python at the top -- to win the major that would've separated him from an endless parade of one-and-dones.
He'd already made a long par-saver at the 12th that felt like a keeper. "I really felt like I had a lot of confidence in myself and a lot of belief in myself," Furyk said, "and you feel like you're going to win the golf tournament."
But the USGA had turned the monstrous 670-yard 16th into a test that required some decision-making, some finesse, not a carnival strongman's brute force.
"The tee was 100 yards up," Furyk said. "I know the USGA gives us a memo saying that they play from multiple tees, but there's no way to prepare for 100 yards. I was unprepared and didn't know exactly where to hit the ball off the tee."
So Furyk had a conversation with his caddie about how to deal with the hole that doglegged right to left.
"Jim wanted the ball to end up where he couldn't see it around those trees," Cowan said, "and it made plenty of sense to me. That 3-wood is maybe the easiest club in his bag to hit that shot with, and he asked me if I liked it and I said that I did."
Furyk let rip with his 3-wood, and the moment he realized he had snap-hooked his drive into the trees the same way Arnold Palmer had in blowing the 1966 Open at Olympic, the leader released his club in disgust and let it fall to the ground.
The USGA blazers had gotten to him.
"But the rest of the field had the same shot to hit today," Furyk said, "and I'm pretty sure no one hit as [crappy] a shot as I did. I did the worst job of handling it, and I have no one to blame but myself."
Furyk couldn't recover from the bogey. He failed to birdie 17 out of the sand and then flew his approach at 18 into a bunker, compelling him to jam the shaft of his club sideways into his mouth. Needing to hole out to tie Simpson at 1-over, Furyk smacked a line drive way past the stick and then watched McDowell misread a putt on his own failed bid to drag the Open into Monday.
Furyk was so distraught over his finish, over the fact he'd let Simpson win the tournament from 4 shots back, he called in Cowan for help on his final, irrelevant putt. "On the back nine," Furyk would say, "it was my tournament to win."
Stuck with a haunting memory and a fourth-place check, Furyk conducted some interviews while his caddie was being given a history lesson in the back of Olympic's locker room. Cowan was told about Palmer's hook into the trees at 16 in '66, about Arnie's 7-shot meltdown on the back nine, and about a scene in this same room following Palmer's playoff loss to Billy Casper.
The runner-up and his caddie, Mike Reasor, grew emotional over the devastating defeat. Palmer threw his arm around Reasor as the partners tried to deal with the pain.
"Mike Reasor?" Cowan said. "I'll be damned. I knew Mike Reasor, and I never knew he caddied for Arnold in that Open.
"But hey, I'm not crying now and I'm not about to. There's no point in me whining over this. It's already in the books. "
The history books. A player who attended Wake Forest on an Arnold Palmer scholarship won the 2012 U.S. Open, and Cowan's man did not.
One fateful choice cost Jim Furyk just about everything Sunday, and there was no mulligan to fall back on. If only because golf is so impossibly cruel, Furyk will take that 3-wood and that swing to his grave.