Tiger Woods and Mike “Fluff” Cowan crossing the Hogan Bridge on Masters Sunday in 1997.

Getty Images

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In his car, he had hidden a Tiger Woods golf bag.

And, in his mouth, a club sandwich. My lunch buddy, a man in his early 70s named Joe LaGrossa, thinks the bag in the trunk of his locked, Jersey-plate SUV was the one Woods used when he won the 1997 Masters. i.e. the bag that Mike “Fluff” Cowan carried for Woods that year.

Fluff, also in the early 70s, says he has the bag.

Joe LaGrossa is sentenced to life in the game. He was a caddy as a child. He owned a printing business for decades. For years, he served on the board of directors at the former LPGA stop in Atlantic City. He wasn’t looking for a payday or attention from me, he said. He was eager to get to the bottom of something.

We were in the dining room at his workman’s golf club in Burlington, NJ, on a cold, wet, damp day. Joe is Jersey, in the best sense of the word. He has seen many things in his life, good and otherwise. This golf bag thingy doesn’t have a high rank, but it does have a rank.

On the lunch table was a pale green folder marked “Tiger Bag.” It contained Joe’s letters to the Tiger Woods Foundation, IMG, the PGA Tour, various attorneys – and his winning $100 raffle ticket from November 1997. Blue paper, black ink, these words:

“FLUFF” CARRIES TIGER WOODS’ BAG TO WIN THE 1997 MASTERS! A chance for “The Bag”.

The raffle, hosted by a Hilton Head golf club of which LaGrossa was a member, was a fundraiser for a boys and girls club in South Carolina. Joe bought the first raffle ticket, of the hundreds sold. His name was drawn and he went home with the merchandise, a Titleist staff bag with Tiger’s name stitched on it, signed by Woods with a gold marker.

Tiger Woods’ bag from the 1997 Masters, left, and the bag now in the possession of Joe LaGrossa.

getty (left); michael bamberger

In 2007, LaGrossa said he was contacted by the sports division of a Dallas company called Heritage Auction Sports, which sold the bag, promoted as the one Woods used at the 1997 Masters, at auction for $89,500. Heritage sent LaGrossa a check for her cut, $67,500. But when he tried to deposit the check, he couldn’t. Heritage had put a stop payment.

After the auction, Fluff called and then sent the auction house a letter – handwritten and lined paper – saying he had the actual bag. Fluff called Joe.

“Fluff was very sweet,” Joe said. “But if he has the bag, he should prove it.”

We drove to the parking lot and Joe pulled out the bag. I saw hundreds of personnel bags at close range. I expected to see a golf bag that wouldn’t pass the smell test. But he did.

Joe’s bag had seen the action, that’s for sure. Its leather construction material, the black lettering of its Titleist stamp, its weight and its perfect balance – it was the real deal.

LaGrossa invited me to bring his Tiger bag and Tiger folder home and learn what I could. I drove home nervously, thinking the value of my car (an aging Augusta green Mini Cooper) was dwarfed by its contents. My trunk certainly was.

I would need a barrel of ink to tell you everything I learned, but let me cut to the money. If you look at a close-up photo of Tiger’s 1997 Masters bag, you can see that above the TIGER WOODS lettering and above the top zippered pocket, his bag has a loose, deflated quality. Staff bags of this era often had a large piece of firm foam stuck under the upper front pocket to keep that part of the bag inflated.

Tiger and Fluff en route to victory at the 1997 Masters.

Augusta National/Getty Images

Some players or caddies would remove this foam piece. The deflated nature of the Tiger’s Masters bag suggests that the part had been removed. Also, when you zoom in on the photos, there is a distinctive curved crease in the leather of the ’97 Masters bag, starting just above the zipper and about five inches above the O in Woods.

The Joe’s Tiger bag is inflated above the zipper and the internal foam piece is securely in place. Her bag doesn’t have the same curved fold, not in my eyes.

Fluff doesn’t want to talk about the bag. I was able to establish that Woods donated a signed staff bag to the South Carolina Junior Golf Association in 1997 after he canceled a scheduled appearance at a fundraiser in Columbia, SC, one featuring Hootie and the Blowfish on Monday after his first Masters victory. The wording on the raffle ticket is the wording of the raffle ticket. It is not a guarantee of authenticity.

The donated bag was auctioned off twice in different charity raffles in 1997, the first time to benefit South Carolina Junior Golf and (after a second donation) later to benefit a Boys and Girls Club of South Carolina South. A few years later, via IMG, Joe offered to return the bag to Woods, if Woods showed up at a First Tee fundraiser in Atlantic City. IMG refused.

I returned the bag and file to Joe at his house. He didn’t see the curved crease like me. He agreed that the Masters bag, as photographed in 1997, did not have the foam piece in place. “But couldn’t someone remove this piece and then put it back?” He asked.

Yes, someone could. But who would do that – and why?

Joe LaGrossa wasn’t convinced, and I can understand why. Either way, he has a distinctive golf bag.

Michael Bamberger welcomes your feedback at [email protected].

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Michael Bamberger

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Michael Bamberger writes for GOLF Magazine and GOLF.com. Prior to that, he spent nearly 23 years as senior editor for Sports Illustrated. After college he worked as a journalist, first for the (Martha’s) Vineyard Gazette, later for The Philadelphia Investigator. He has written a variety of books on golf and other subjects, the most recent of which is The second life of Tiger Woods. His magazine work has been featured in several editions of The Best American Sports Writing. He holds a US patent on The E-Club, a utility golf club. In 2016, he received the Donald Ross Award from the American Society of Golf Course Architects, the organization’s highest honor.