Fan favorite Couples eyes Senior Open title

Fred Couples signs autographs at the U.S. Senior Open.

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SAMMAMISH, Wash. – What the heck is Fred Couples doing here, anyway? This isn’t the Skins Game.

Oh, I forgot. The Skins Game is history. There is a temptation to say Couples broke the Skins Game bank, winning so many times (seven) there wasn’t any money left.

Here at the U.S. Senior Open, Couples is the pre-tournament favorite, even though he is so mellow, so casual, and so understated, it is sometimes difficult to take him as seriously as the legions of fist-pumping, positive-talking golfers who populate the pro tours today.

Yet, if we had such an invention as a talent meter, few golfers would be able to match Couples. He is a natural-born golfer, and he has displayed the good sense of never making wholesale changes in his free-flowing golf swing.

At the Senior Open, he also has assumed the role of hometown hero. He grew up 20 miles away in Seattle, and he has been the most successful golfer ever to come out of the Pacific Northwest.

Couples, a shy 50-year-old, can’t be comfortable with all the attention. Still, he stands there and takes it like a man.

Let’s talk about the essential Fred Couples, the lovable guy who would rather stand to the side and let other golfers station themselves in the spotlight.

• The essential Freddie is the quiet guy who is famous for reclining on the couch and declining to answer the phone. Why not answer?

“There might be somebody on the other end,” he explained.  

• The essential Freddie is the guy who drove Ecco shoes sales off the chart after wearing colorful spikeless shoes in the Masters and other nationally televised events. “They feel like the tennis shoes I always wear,” he said.

• The essential Freddie is the guy who talks reluctantly about a new love in his life (four months, girls, so it’s serious).

His nameless flame works out at the gym every day, so Fred often accompanies her. She follows a heavy-duty exercise routine, and Fred watches. OK, he does more than that.

“I walk on the treadmill,” he said.

• The essential Freddie is the lucky guy who lost weight without really trying. “It just happened,” he said. “I guess it was all that walking at the gym.”

Couples grew up as a public course golfer. His father worked for the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department, and Freddie was a grassroots son of Seattle.

To this day, he is more like the rest of us than just about any professional golfer on earth. This is his secret – he acts and talks like a golfer who could carry a 16 handicap. There is nothing arrogant or pretentious about him.

The well-known Couples backache is back, he admitted Wednesday as he cautiously eyed Thursday’s 7:45 a.m. starting time with Tom Watson and Eduardo Romero.

“You know, everyone said, geez, you lost some weight, you get thinner, your back will get better. I feel more stiff,” he said. “It can always get better, but at this particular time this is how I feel most of the time.”

Sports writers and reporters are not supposed to root for particular teams or athletes. It’s part of the code of the business.

Regardless, dozens of writers in the media center have expressed their support for a Couples victory. Me, too.

There is something about this guy. Something very likable. Something very sensitive. Something very non-threatening.

So can this 15-time PGA Tour winner handle Sahalee Country Club and claim his first major championship as a senior? Of course, although he will need to be Steady Freddie in order to do this.

“It’s a par 70. It’s brutal,” he emphasized. “If you ask me what the lowest score would be this week, if you lay the line at 67, I wouldn’t go under it.

“They were the hardest greens on Tuesday that I’ve ever played. I didn’t really make a ball mark. I don’t think you’re going to see any crazy scores.”

What was the last tournament he won in the state of Washington, he was asked.

“The Washington State Open, 1976,” he answered. “I was an amateur.”

Now, 34 years later, he’s a pro’s pro, the kind of golfer mothers and fathers want their sons to duplicate on and off the course. What a guy. 

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