KAUPULEHU-KONA, Hawaii – Fred Couples and Tom Watson are featured on the larger-than-life Mitsubishi Electric Championship posters that greet travelers at tiny Kona International Airport.
While Watson is identified as a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, Couples has a more humble title underneath his smiling mug: “rookie.”
There’s no mention of his 15 PGA Tour titles, 1992 Masters win or 2009 U.S. Presidents Cup team captaincy.
“It’s just a different deal,” Couples said. “Everyone seems like a winner out here. Even the guys that didn’t play on the regular (tour) come and do well.”
Couples and U.S. Ryder Cup captain Corey Pavin will make their first official starts on the Champions Tour on Friday in the season-opening Mitsubishi. They each received sponsor exemptions, making them the first players to make their tour debuts at the winners-only event.
“It’s nice to be a rookie, but it’s also nice to feel extremely comfortable out here as well,” Pavin said. “When you’re a rookie on the PGA Tour, your eyes (are) wide, and trying to figure out what to do. Out here, I have a pretty good idea what I have to do. The guys have been incredible in welcoming me out here.”
Both players turned 50 late last year, have 15 PGA Tour wins and are fitting right in. They were loose and smiling as they chatted with players whom they haven’t seen in years – or ever.
“I’ll soon get to know a few of those guys, although right now I don’t have any idea who they are,” Couples said.
But the players know who he is.
“We need Freddie to come out and play, and Corey, and Paul Azinger, those kind of guys,” said 2006 champion Loren Roberts, who is coming off his second Charles Schwab Cup title in three years. “We need guys that are major champions to come out here and play on this tour.”
Couples made his senior debut last weekend, teaming with Nick Price to finish third in the Champions Skins Game at Kaanapali.
Thirty-six players are entered at Hualalai, one of the easiest courses on the tour that features generous fairways and immaculate greens. It is the first of 26 events on the 2010 schedule, which is one more than last year.
“On this golf course right here, it’s about the putter,” Roberts said. “Unless it’s just a hurricane around here, you’re going to hit a lot of greens; you’re going to hit a lot of birdie putts.”
Roberts won in 2006 by shooting a final-round 61.
Last year, Bernhard Langer held off Andy Bean by a stroke, winning the Mitsubishi for the first of his tour-high four 2009 victories. This season, Langer is going for an unprecedented third straight player-of-the-year honor.
Pavin is hoping for some similar success. The 1995 U.S. Open champion plans to play six events on the PGA Tour and 18 on the 50-and-over circuit.
“I certainly want to get in a position where I can win some tournaments and I think I have a better chance of that out here than on the regular tour,” said Pavin, coming off a tie for 52nd at the Sony Open.
He said there’s a noticeable difference on the two tours.
“How should I say this? The guys (here) understand the big picture really well,” Pavin said. “They understand the sponsorships and what makes this whole tour tick. It’s really nice to have everybody understand that and work together as a team. But obviously when we go out, we’re competing against each other and it’s pretty serious competition and tough competition.”
Couples, meanwhile, aims to play 12 events on the PGA Tour and 10 senior events. Next year, he plans to concentrate on the Champions Tour.
“People want to know a goal. It’s not winning. It’s really to see if I can play that many tournaments,” said Couples, long troubled by back problems.
At the driving range, Couples seemed just as determined to master a hang-loose “shaka” sign and some Hawaiian words than he was his booming drive.
He got a couple of tips from Curtis Strange, who taught Couples to say, “alooooooha.”
That’s where all the tips started and ended.
“Freddie doesn’t need any tips,” Roberts said. “C’mon, now. These guys that hit it 320, I’m not going to give them any tips.”