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Official: Tiger fires Fluff

Ending two weeks of speculation that began when Tiger Woods asked an old school buddy to carry his bag in a $5 million tournament, Woods said Monday he has ended his 2½-year relationship with caddie Mike "Fluff" Cowan.

"Fluff and I have discussed this over the past few weeks, and we both feel it is in our best interest to part ways," Woods said in a statement released by International Management Group, which represents the world's top-ranked player.

"I appreciate the support which Fluff has provided and recognize the contributions Fluff has made to my success as a professional. But it is time to move on and I feel confident we will remain friends."

Steve Williams, who has carried Raymond Floyd's bag the past 12 years and has also worked for Greg Norman, will be Woods' caddie in the Bay Hill Invitational next week in Orlando, Fla.

From the start, they were an odd couple on the course -- the sleek, young, powerful Woods, and the round, furry hippie nicknamed "Fluff." Woods often referred to him as a friend as much as a caddie, and the partnership produced the most heralded debut since Jack Nicklaus.

Woods won two times in eight starts as a 20-year-old in 1996, became the youngest Masters champion the next year with a record victory and won three other tournaments.

But the on-course relationship between Woods and Cowan was strained recently.

"Is there friction? Yes," Butch Harmon, Woods' coach, said last week. "They have some issues to work out. But it's nothing more than what goes on with players and caddies all the time."

Woods used Byron Bell, whom he has known since junior high school, last month in the Buick Invitational, which Woods won for his first PGA Tour victory since May.

Cowan returned to the bag in Los Angeles a week later, but Woods kept his own yardage and excluded Cowan from other strategy decisions, such as putting lines.

They reportedly had a misunderstanding during the third round of Nissan Open, and Woods asked Bell that night to caddie for him in the Match Play Championship, which offered $1 million to the winner.

During the week of Match Play, where Woods lost in the quarterfinals to eventual champion Jeff Maggert, he refused to say whether Cowan would be on the bag in the Masters.

In a column last week for his own web site (clubtiger.com), Woods said he was getting tired of what he called "Caddiegate" and that he and Cowan were still friends.

"There's nothing wrong between us," Woods wrote. ``People are blowing the situation way out of proportion."

IMG said Harmon received Floyd's permission to talk to Williams, then Woods consulted with Floyd and the caddie before hiring him.

"I insisted that this be handled the proper way," Woods said. ``I did not want it to seem as though we were going behind anyone's back.

Cowan left Peter Jacobsen for Woods in 1996 when Woods turned pro. He gave Woods tour experience the 20-year-old lacked, knew all of the courses and was a steadying influence.

But Woods has been taking stronger control over all aspects of his career. He fired agent Hughes Norton last year.

TRW