AUGUSTA, Ga. – Rory McIlroy knocked on the small window, then peered inside. He may be the golf’s world current heartthrob, but he would have to wait in the hallway. Fred Couples, the current king of Augusta, was holding court.
He was describing to the media how, yet again, he defied age at Augusta National. Couples, even as a Champions Tour player, is a constant contender at this tournament that so emphasizes its tradition. On a week that was supposed to be a heated duel between golf’s leading men, this senior citizen, 20 years after his lone victory here, worked his way into the lead. A 67 Friday, a round he described as “very shocking,” had him tied with Jason Dufner with two rounds remaining.
“I feel like I’m very young when I get here,” Couples, 52, said. Some past champions who’ve passed 50 play the Masters to remember the good old days. Couples is still living them here. The health of his back, not the soundness of his swing, seems to be the only factor that can keep him off the giant white leaderboard near the 18th green. He compared playing here to a day at the park, in spite of all the tricks and treachery that stress out much younger men.
“I’m not going to let too many things bother me,” he said. “It’s so beautiful. I believe there are a lot of guys that play well here because they feel very comfortable on the course.”
His presence is pleasing to patrons of every ilk. LPGA player Sandra Gal, 6 years old when Couples won the Masters, tweeted, “Freddie put a smile on my face seeing him on top of that leaderboard.” He is a trendsetter for middle-aged men who envy the even tempo of his golf swing and pulse. “He’s just cool,” McIlroy said. Couples also is a sympathetic hero, the gifted athlete with the broken body. For all the years his back betrayed him, it would be sweet redemption for him to win one in his career’s overtime.
A Sunday run at a second green jacket, like Tom Watson’s near-triumph at age 59 three years ago at Turnberry, would give an aging legend an opportunity for a flashback victory at the site of his signature moment. It was at Turnberry that Watson once outdueled Jack Nicklaus in one of golf’s greatest weeks. Augusta National was the site of Couples’ lone major. His visits here haven’t been without heartbreak or regrets, though.
“I wish I would have won it again. I didn’t,” Couples said. “I wish I would have beaten Mark or Phil one of those years.”
Those are references to close calls in 1998 and 2006. He led the first three rounds in ’98 before Mark O’Meara’s 20-foot birdie on the 72nd hole left Couples one shot short. He played in the final pairing eight years later, starting the day one off Phil Mickelson’s lead. A three-putt from 4 feet on the 14th hole painfully ended his chances. He finished three behind Mickelson. Just two years ago, Couples held the 18-hole lead here. He shot 139 over the opening two rounds last year and was just five shots off McIlroy’s lead. Couples finished sixth and 15th, respectively, in those two weeks. He has 11 top-10s in 27 appearances here, and is tied with Gary Player for most consecutive Masters cuts made (23).
Like it was for Watson, the putter will be a liability for this week’s protagonist. Three of Couples’ seven birdies Friday came on putts from 4 feet or less, a testament to his timeless ballstriking skills. He birdied the 15th after striping a hybrid to 25 feet over the water-guarded green. The other three birdies were on putts of 20 feet or longer. It’s not the long putts that have given him trouble over all these years, though. It’s those 6- to 10-footers that are so crucial at a major championship. Such limitations come with age. Perhaps they can be overcome by Couples’ love for this layout.
“I’m certainly not Phil Mickelson or Rory McIlroy, but I do know this course pretty well,” he said.
Maybe this time that will be enough.