At various times over the years, his temperamental back has acted up more than a terrible 2-year-old child. He is 53 years old, about five years grayer than the oldest major champion. He hasn’t played a full schedule on the regular tour since last decade. And a couple of weeks ago he said he didn’t have a chance at the Masters because he was playing horribly.
But there is Fred Couples, back in the mix at Augusta National, prompting all those “Fred-eeeee!” cries hole by hole, waking up the echoes and acting like he’s still playing back in the 1990s.
Less than a month before his induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame, Couples again played here more like contemporary champion than golf relic. A year ago, he was the oldest Masters midway leader before fading. And this week has brought similar success, for his 5-under-par 68-71–139 has him one shot off Jason Day’s 36-hole lead, has onlookers marveling and has him trying like hell to retire in grand style.
“I’m going to quit when I win this thing,” Couples said. “I swear to God, I’m going to retire. It’s probably not ever going to happen, but I’m going to retire.”
Couples not only is defying age, he is trampling upon his own words of late March. After shooting 78 at the Tavistock Cup at Isleworth in Windermere, Fla., he grumbled about his form and maintained he had no chance at Augusta.
But something gets into him here. He perks up, revs up, gets up. Everything’s up except his scores.
“Age doesn’t make a difference,” said playing competitor Branden Grace of South Africa. “He still plays like a 20 year-old. He hits it a long way, his putting was great and you can see he doesn’t have a hassle out here. He just cruises on.”
Couples hardly was perfect, for he “butchered” the seventh hole, making a double bogey after he hit an approach over the green and “gashed” a chip into the gallery. But he followed with a two-putt birdie from about 100 feet at the eighth, hit a beautiful 8-iron close in birdieing the 12th and converted from about 6 feet at the last, where the wind blew his ball a couple of feet closer moments before he marked it.
Couples’ caddie, Cayce Kerr, gushes about how the boss expertly maneuvers his way around the former turf nursery as if he were playing world-class chess. Couples knows where to place his ball and how putts break.
“He loves this course,” Kerr said. “And I think the course likes his game.”
Couples is playing his 29th Masters. His lone major victory came 21 years ago here. Besides that career highlight, he has 10 other top 10s on these grounds. Moreover, he finished in the top 15 in the last two years, his chances of winning sabotaged by scores of 147 and 145 on the weekend.
If he keeps driving and putting as well as he has, he’ll be in contention Sunday again. For the moment, he says the National “seems like the same old course to me.” But he knows men in their 50s normally don’t string together four solid rounds in majors.
In fact, it was Couples himself who posed a question many were thinking. “Am I good enough to play four good rounds in a row on a (difficult) course like this?” Couples said.
He did not answer. The next two days will tell. What is certain is this: Couples has played two good ones in large part because he broke routine and came in early, on Sunday, to work with longtime instructor Paul Marchand because he was “playing so poorly.” He changed his posture at address, standing taller and finding more clubhead speed. Marchand walked a practice round with him and said things like, “Do this.” By Thursday, Couples felt he could actually play well.
“Sometimes it does catch on,” Couples said. “I got better fast. I’m hoping it keeps going tomorrow and Sunday.”
He admitted he is surprised by his current position but added, “I’m not like, you know, I’m going to freak out over it.”
That shouldn’t surprise anyone. The laid-back Couples doesn’t much freak out about anything. He has led the PGA Tour in shrugging things off for years. He figures he has broken maybe 3-4 clubs over the last three decades-plus.
The nonchalance is part of his cool persona. So are his handsome look, that hip walk and those twisting mannerisms he makes when moving his shoulders and neck.
“You know, I’m cool, but I can be a jerk,” said Couples after he was asked why people think he’s cool. Then he played it cool when talking more about cool, drawing yet more laughter.
“I don’t know some of the (Tour) guys that aren’t too cool for a reason,” he joked, “because they are not cool guys like the rest of us.”
Should he somehow slip on a second green jacket, though, he’d take it to a new level. There’s cool, and then there’s beyond.