Hate to be Rude: Don’t overlook Couples
The table setting a week before the Masters is about as delicious as possible. Tiger Woods is returning from scandal and rehab. Ernie Els has won twice in March. Fred Couples has gone 2-1-1-1 in his four Champions Tour starts. The highly-ranked likes of Steve Stricker, Jim Furyk, Geoff Ogilvy, Dustin Johnson, Ian Poulter, Hunter Mahan and Camilo Villegas have won this year.
- Ernie Els 23%
- Tiger Woods 28%
- Phil Mickelson 11%
- Fred Couples 10%
- Other 28%
1399 total votes.
Several others, including Paul Casey, have been in good form. And this week’s Shell Houston Open figures to launch more onto the Masters short list. About all that is needed is for Phil Mickelson to finally fire.
At the moment, Mickelson, a two-time Masters champion, is bookmakers’ second choice, behind Woods. But the left-hander needs to find something fast. He teased us at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last week when he was just a stroke off the lead after 36 holes. But he shot 75-77 on the weekend and tied for 30th.
The details are messier. In the final round, Mickelson rinsed two shots in triple-bogeying the 434-yard third and also made a pair of 6s. Mickelson had five penalty strokes and hit only 28 of 56 fairways and 37 of 72 greens for the week.
The surprise wild card – and sentimental favorite – is Couples. Yes, he’s 50. Yes, his back acts up now and then. Yes, the old guys who contended in half of the last six majors didn’t win. Yes, Couples is making his noise on the Champions Tour. Yes, the senior courses are shorter and easier.
However, comma, Couples bears watching because his game is incredibly sharp, his confidence is sky high and he knows how to play Augusta National, winning there in 1992 and coming close in ’98 and ’06.
“I think I can be a factor,” Couples said Wednesday by telephone.
What’s more, Couples figures to get another boost this week at Houston, where he’s nothing if not comfortable. He went to school there, won his last Tour title there (2003) and has finished T-3 and T-4 there on the course currently used.
Not that his esteem needs a spike. His high score in 12 rounds in the 50-and-older league is 68. And his statistics are stupid good. He leads in scoring, driving distance, eagles and all-around. He’s second in greens in regulation, birdies and sand saves. He’s third in putting.
“I’ve been playing maybe better than I’ve ever played,” Couples said. “I’ve driven it extremely well and putted well. For my game, that’s a good combination.”
The part of his finely tuned game that jumps out is putting. He says he’s putting so well that “it seems like I’m birdieing every other hole.” He says he’s not sure why he’s rolling the ball better, other than the fact he’s “more relaxed.” Point is, when Couples putts well, he’s a threat anywhere. That means Augusta, too. Maybe especially Augusta.
Could he win? Yes. Will he? He’d need a remarkable week and a good start. Bad starts have been known to invite disinterest. Bottom line: It should surprise no one if he contends.
• What a difference a year makes. Unlike 2009, Kenny Perry is one player who isn’t Masters-ready.
Perry, of course, bogeyed the final two holes of regulation and then lost to Angel Cabrera in a playoff a year ago. This year, he pronounces himself as a “mess’’ and a “wreck.”
Since tying for sixth in the season-opening SBS Championship, Perry has finished no better than 45th in four stroke-play tournaments. Coming off a missed cut at Bay Hill, Perry is dealing with a scratchy game and ailing body.
“I knew it was going to be a rough year when it’s five minutes before my tee time at (the SBS) and the head snaps off my putter,” he said. “I was in shock.”
Perry has made swing compensations because of elbow tendinitis and says he can’t practice for hours at a time to work out the swing kinks.
“The elbow’s killing me,” he said at Bay Hill. “I’m swinging flat and inside-out with a closed clubface. I’ve never had the injury bug, so this elbow thing has thrown me for a loop.”
Perry turns 50 on Aug. 10 but says he’s not sure how he’ll carve up his schedule between tours. He does figure this: He’ll feel good returning to this year’s Masters.
“I’ll have a smile on my face,” he said. “I played beautifully for 70 holes and then started playing conservatively. Cinderella just didn’t get the slipper.”
• Yes, anyone would want to win this week against a strong field at the Shell Houston Open. Victories are hard to come by. The money spends well and long. But it might not help one’s Masters chances.
Only four players have won the week before the Masters and then gone on to win at Augusta: Mickelson in 2006, Sandy Lyle in ’88, Art Wall in ’59 and Ralph Guldahl in ’39.
The game’s hottest player, Els, is playing Houston, but somewhat reluctantly. After winning at Bay Hill for his second Tour title in 16 days, a tired Els half-joked about hoping for one of those bogus injuries so he could get some rest before the Masters.
“I’d like to have a knee problem or a back problem,” he said. “But I’m going to go there. I can’t withdraw now. I’ve committed.”
But he didn’t sound like a guy who’s dying to win there.
“I could work on a couple of flaws I’ve shown under pressure,” Els said. “If I’m in contention, it will be great. And if I’m not, that’s also fine. I just want to have a nice, easy week, play golf and get ready for Augusta.”
• Tour rookie Rickie Fowler received criticism for laying up from 230 yards out (210-yard carry over water) on the par-5 No. 15 when one stroke behind at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. He failed to birdie after hitting a poor wedge shot and lost by one.
Asked at Bay Hill what he’d do with a mulligan, Fowler gave the impression of reconsidering.
“I would like to go back and go for it, but it’s a completely different situation,” he said. “At the time I played my wedges really well, so I felt like giving myself a wedge there with birdie holes in front of me. But yeah, sure, if you’re going to put me back in the situation, I’ll go for it right now and give myself a different shot at it.”
Fowler, a great kid who made a bad decision, has been often compared to Hall of Famer Lanny Wadkins because of his fast swing and aggressive style. But Wadkins said he was “shocked” when Fowler played short of the water under lift-clean-place conditions.
“If you smell victory, you have to put everything forward,” Wadkins said. “I would’ve hit 3-wood and gone for it. The thing that disturbed me is that you could put your hand on it and now you’ve got a perfect lie.”
Not that watching that was the most painful thing for Wadkins lately. He recently suffered a herniated back disk and figures to have surgery. He already has had double-fusion surgery in his back, held together in part by “rods and screws.”
“I’ve been hurting so bad,” the Champions Tour player said. “It’s some of the worst pain I’ve had in my life.”
• Something of a rarity, players widely praised the course makeover on a Bay Hill course switched back to a par 72. In particular, they liked the less-penal rough and chipping areas around greens, a combination that made for more options in shotmaking at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
One clear sign the course was much came in the form of this unsolicited review from Paul “Sunshine” Goydos, 1996 champion at Bay Hill and not an easy critic to please.
“Every hole is better,” Goydos said. “The splashing of the bunkers makes it look like a course in Florida. Aesthetically it looks tremendous.”
Jeff Rude’s “Hate To Be Rude” column appears on Golfweek.com on Wednesday, the same day as his video show of the same name.