Augusta, Ga. | No club can suck the life out of a golfer like the putter. Usually the shortest club, it brings the longest face. It can fatigue the body more than a day of operating a jackhammer.
It can age someone quicker than an annual IRS audit. One stick can add two decades.
“I putted like I was 66,” said Fred Couples.
Couples actually is 46. He had an excellent chance to become the oldest person to win the Masters. This was big stuff in golf circles because he was in position to break Jack Nicklaus’ old-age feat for the ages 20 years ago.
Couples probably played better than anyone else tee to green in the final round. He repeatedly hit approach shots close. But he also repeatedly missed short putts.
“If Phil was putting for me, I would have been 9 or 10 under par,” Couples said.
That’s a pity for Couples because Phil, as in Phil Mickelson, won his second Masters in three years with a 7-under-par total. Couples would tie for third place at 4 under and be left wondering why his belly putter did a belly flop.
No club this side of a crooked driver can drain the drama out of a tournament besides the putter. It can function like a tube drawing blood. In this case the instrument belonged to an easygoing, smooth-swinging man who won the 1992 Masters and almost added another green jacket in 1998.
Couples’ misfortune was difficult to watch. He hit the ball so beautifully, so crisply in the final round. He hit an approach stiff at the first and tied Mickelson for the lead. He remained even when he hit an iron to 3 feet at the seventh and birdied. All this at his favorite tournament and on his favorite course.
But so often the blade appeared to be a foreign tool in his hands. He admitted to being nervous when he missed a 4-footer on the right for the outright lead at No. 2. He missed a 9-foot birdie try at the third. He three-putted the eighth, leaving a 12-footer for birdie short. That’s when he dropped behind Mickelson for good.
“To win this tournament, you have to putt well,” Couples said.
Rather, he said he was “hoping” over the ball at times. Hearing him, you’d figure if he ever decided to use two drivers like Mickelson, he’d take the putter out of the bag.
“I could’ve done a lot to separate myself and get ahead,” he said.
He’s right, he could have. But he didn’t for a couple of reasons. Mickelson, once prone to the occasional blowup hole or two, turned in a mistake-free performance. When did Lefty turn into Nick Faldo? He was the only player not to make worse than a par the first 17 holes Sunday.
Meanwhile, Couples couldn’t hide on the greens. This isn’t theater. You can’t run behind a curtain.
He three-putted the 11th, missing a 3-footer off the left lip that would’ve kept him a shot behind. It looked like he steered the blade, though he said he thought the stroke was all right. Still, some further emotional damage was done.
“That took a lot of steam out of me,” he said.
He was two back and thinking too much. Nothing pushes the mind into overactive drive faster than another missed 3-footer in a game where the brain needs to be quiet.
No club dials the sports psychologist better than the putter.
“You’re going down the 12th hole and you’re saying, ‘Man, this is kind of crazy, I should be here (more under par),’ ” Couples said.
The craziest had yet to come, though. Every sporting event has a crucial moment, and in the 70th Masters it came on the 14th green, the largest and most diabolical putting surface at Augusta National.
Couples hit yet another wonderful approach shot, this one to 4 feet. Now the Masters – on the edge of uneventful despite a Who’s Who leaderboard – looked like it was really going to get interesting. All Couples needed to do was to make that 4-footer to cut Mickelson’s advantage to one stroke. But he rammed the ball through the break on the right side. He struck the ball so hard, it rolled 5 feet past.
At that point, sadly, you could almost sense what would happen next. That’s right, Couples missed, again to the right.
Four feet, three putts. Three down, not one down. Masters drama came and went in a flash. Suddenly and shockingly, it was game, set, jacket.
“I was nervous and jumpy and hit it through the break,” said Couples, refreshingly candid. “That was the ballgame for me. The 14th was a killer, but there were several other putts. I couldn’t get one to go. It just wasn’t the 14th hole. I was a little tentative on a lot of putts.”
Who knows what might have happened had Couples made the first putt at 14? But this much is certain: Even the opposition disliked the view.
“I was sick,” said Mickelson’s longtime caddie, Jim (Bones) Mackay.
“If he knocks that first putt in, we would have had one heck of a time that final four holes, and I wanted to see that happen,” said Mickelson, who had knocked fists with pal Couples after each had birdied the seventh and 13th holes. “As much as I wanted to win, I was sorry to see that happen.”
No club draws sympathy like the putter. Or ruins friendly banter. Or turns golf into such a lonely game.
“I think I quieted down our talk for about 10 minutes,” Couples said. “I don’t think he wanted to get near me.”
Majors are won by guys who make 4- to 8-footers. We know that from decades of watching champions like Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. They are not won by guys who take 34 putts in the final round, as Couples did. As you might expect, no one in the field was worse.
Ironically, after the first round, Couples had said, “I feel pretty safe on these greens.”
He didn’t on Sunday. But more important, he was safe from himself.
“Fred is so easygoing, he’ll think about it, he’ll handle it well and it will be out of his mind before you know it,” said his longtime manager, Lynn Roach. “He’s not one to look back that much.”
In other words, nobody has to worry about him grabbing a sharp, dangerous object. Like his putter.