Couples, Watson show anything’s possible

Fifty-year-old Fred Couples is atop the leaderboard after a 6-under 66 in the first round of the Masters.

Fifty-year-old Fred Couples is atop the leaderboard after a 6-under 66 in the first round of the Masters.

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Are you kidding me?

Fred Couples, 50, is leading the Masters with a 6-under-par 66 in the first round? No way.

Tom Watson, 60, is tied for second with a 67? You’ve got to be joking.

Senior golf suddenly is where it’s at. In addition to Couples and Watson, two more seniors broke par. That would be Sandy Lyle (69) and Bernhard Langer (71), both 52.

After finishing his bogey-free round here on Thursday, Watson talked about the reaction to his near-victory at the 2009 British Open, when he was two months shy of his 60th birthday.

“A lot of them (senior amateurs) said, ‘You know, I’m not too old now. You’ve just proven to me that I’m just not too old.’ ”

If Watson has this effect on people, Couples should have an even bigger impact. He has a wider appeal than Watson, because most golf fans seem to identify with Freddie. He is always friendly and relaxed and even-tempered, and he makes others feel extremely comfortable around him.

Before the Masters started, Watson announced that his two picks were Couples and Lee Westwood. Talk about clairvoyance: Westwood joined Watson at 67.

The story of the day, of course, was the 50-year-old Couples. And the story behind the story – as it has been all year – was his short game.

In winning three straight tournaments on the Champions Tour, Couples has exhibited a finesse with his wedges and putter that simply wasn’t there a few years ago.

Couples has resurrected his game on and around the greens. Credit a belly putter for some of his success, but also credit his decision to play on the Champions Tour. Being a headliner and a star on the senior circuit has rekindled his confidence.

With his balky back under control, Couples practiced extensively in December 2009. He made a commitment to himself to bring his best effort to the Champions Tour.

Wow, mission accomplished.

Now let’s focus on putting. Couples was a mediocre putter on the PGA Tour. It was the one element of his game that never matched his other talents.

Suddenly, almost magically, he has become a solid putter. “It’s just happening,” Couples claimed. “I don’t practice (putting) much.”

In Thursday’s round, his seven birdie putts came from 4, 8, 2, 20, 7, 6 and 10 feet. Basically that reflects great ballstriking, being able to make six birdie putts of 10 feet or less.

So the Couples secret may be this: He is simply hitting the ball closer to the hole, eliminating some of the tricky lag putts that can be so difficult here at Augusta National Golf Club.

And how about those shoes? Throughout 2010, Couples has been wearing Ecco’s Golf Street Premier shoes. These hybrid shoes, with pre-molded traction bars in place of cleats, are designed to be worn both on and off the course.

Couples called them “tennis shoes” and said he never wears socks with tennis shoes. So he no longer wears socks on the golf course.

If baseball legend Joe Jackson was “Shoeless Joe,” then perhaps Couples should be “Sockless Fred.”

This superb play from Couples and his fellow seniors is terrific for golf and its image and reputation. Golf is redefining the age cycle.

The question of the day: Is 50 the new 30?

Tune in Sunday afternoon for that answer.

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