A Couples victory would be one for the ages

Fred Couples of the US finishes at the 18th hole during second round of the Masters golf tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 8, 2011 in Augusta, Georgia

Fred Couples of the US finishes at the 18th hole during second round of the Masters golf tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 8, 2011 in Augusta, Georgia

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Some men through the years have pulled down Magnolia Lane, admired the great beauty of Augusta National Golf Club, and a couple days later left having just removed all their hair. Think Tom Weiskopf. Tom Kite. David Duval. Those blond locks of Greg Norman? We’re guessing that’s a wig. For all its aesthetics and its manicured excellence, this cathedral of a golf course that sits tucked in the pines can be a real head-scratcher. 

And then there are those who take the turn off Washington Road and become renewed, fresh as new, their wounds – sometimes physical, sometimes their battered golf games – treated and repaired as if by some magical elixir. 

Count Fred Couples among Augusta’s “inspired” bunch. He’s 51 years old most weeks, but not here at the Masters, where cranky back and all, he remains forever young. He might as well be teeing it up in a time capsule. On a day when The National began to show some bite, Couples made five birdies, shot 4-under 68, and as was the case a year ago when he finished sixth, he heads to another Masters weekend in contention.

“I feel like I can still play this course,” Couples said, who added it’s probably the one Tour course where he still can win. “When January comes, I get excited for April. … I like seeing my name on the leaderboard here. It’s kind of fun.”

Fun for Freddy and fun for his strong legion of fans, too, who crowd in to line the holes he plays and pump him up with chants of “Boom Boom.” He won a green jacket in 1992, when he was 32 years old and No. 1 in the world, and in his heart he knows there was another Masters or two he left behind, such as 1998, when Mark O’Meara birdied the last to win. 

Couples is one of the few players on the grounds this week who actually was in the field 25 years ago, in 1986, when Jack Nicklaus turned back the clock and won at age 46. Couples was on the 18th green when Nicklaus birdied the ninth on that wild, final Sunday, and then he rushed to his rented home to catch the back nine on television. 

Forty-six, by the way, was considered pretty ancient at the time. So what would happen if a 51-year-old were to win upon golf’s grandest stage? Could Couples even fathom repeating Nicklaus’ feat of winning in 1986?

“Six years ago, maybe,” Couples said, laughing. “You know, I mean, could I win? Am I looking forward to playing tomorrow? You’d better believe it.”

Couples had to have a cortisone shot in his back to get through the Shell Houston Open last week in his collegiate hometown, and was pleased to get in four rounds. It was an exam passed. He has had troubling back pain for a long, long time, but since October he describes the pain as being “like a toothache.” But there’s no worrying about him finishing the weekend. Not here, not at this place, where he knows the course so well and becomes an inspired player just walking the hilly turf. 

“I would play here as a cripple,” he said. “I know I shouldn’t say that. I love this place.”

Others know the feeling, too. South African Trevor Immelman, who won in 2008, calls the Masters and Open Championship the two most fun weeks of the year. Ricky Barnes had a nice run at Augusta in 2003, when he was U.S. Amateur champion, but didn’t get back to the Masters until last spring. He made the most of his chance, making birdie at the 72nd hole to earn a return trip to a place that really seems to bring out his best. 

“Not being on the PGA Tour, that was probably the toughest thing to swallow,” said Barnes, 30, who is tied for fifth after rounds of 68-71. Barnes toiled on the Nationwide Tour until a runner-up finish at the 2009 U.S. Open helped him earn a PGA Tour card. “The competitor comes out in you and you say, I’m never going to play Augusta until I get back there as a pro. I was fortunate enough to do it last year, and hopefully we’ll keep doing it.”

As a past champion, Couples doesn’t need to worry about getting back to Augusta each April. Past champions can play here forever, and it’s a given that when the calendar turns, he’s already daydreaming ahead to Georgia. He knows every nook and cranny of Augusta National, and each hole warms him with memories. When he won in 1992, his tee shot at the windy 12th hole inexplicably stopped on the bank just inches from rolling back into Rae’s Creek. He’d get up and down for 3. Some called it fate. Does he still think about that? 

“Only every time I step on that tee,” he said. 

This week marks Couples’ 27th Masters, and he has five top-5 finishes. He missed only two cuts (2008-09), each time by a single shot. He knows he’ll need a big weekend to contend, but he’s excited to meet the challenge. At 51, Couples easily could say he has absolutely nothing to lose, but there’s one inherent problem in that: He would be lying to himself. 

“I have a lot to lose,” he said, “because I expect to play well.”

If he ever were to win, it would rock the golf universe off its axis, much the way Tom Watson’s near-miss came so close to doing at Turnberry at the Open Championship two summers ago.

“When Nicklaus was 46, to me, that didn’t seem to be unbelievable,” Couples said. “Watson, at whatever age, 59, at the British Open (Turnberry in 2009), would have been totally unbelievable.”

So then, what would it mean if he were to win somewhere in between those two?

“Retiring is what it would be,” Couples said. “I’d be gone. You know, it would be the biggest upset in golf history. Are you kidding?”

He certainly isn’t. Not this week. And with that, he made his way up the hill toward the clubhouse to change his shoes and go home. For one of the most laid-back men on the planet, there was some serious couch time awaiting. 

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