Couples turns back clock at Riviera

Fred Couples celebrates his nearly 100-foot eagle putt on the first green in the second round of the Northern Trust Open PGA golf tournament in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles Friday, Feb. 18, 2011.

Fred Couples celebrates his nearly 100-foot eagle putt on the first green in the second round of the Northern Trust Open PGA golf tournament in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles Friday, Feb. 18, 2011.

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LOS ANGELES – Fred Couples was being shuttled down the hill at Riviera in a cart when he received a text from Tiger Woods.

Couples didn’t share the message, only the reply.

“I texted him back when I was coming down here,” Couples said after a 5-under 66 gave him a two-shot lead in the Northern Trust Open. “I said, ‘I do love this place, but if you played here, you’d win 10 times.’ And he didn’t send me too polite of a text after that.”

Woods stopped playing Riviera after 2006. As much as he loves the course, he only had one good chance to win.

“I’m shocked that he doesn’t play here, but I guess he doesn’t play well here, which I don’t know why,” Couples said.

That clearly isn’t the case with Couples.

Even at 51, with a back so tender that it hurts to stoop over a short iron, Couples can play Riviera. He showed that over the past two days, opening with a 68 and then doing even better Friday before the rain arrived. With an eagle putt of nearly 100 feet, and two birdies of at least 30 feet, he made it around without a bogey to build a two-shot lead.

Rain and wind in the afternoon, long after Couples had left the course at 8-under 134, made it tough on everyone else.

When the second round was completed Saturday morning, Couples remained on top by two shots. It was his first 36-hole lead on the PGA Tour since 2004 in the old Buick Classic at Westchester.

Aaron Baddeley birdied the 18th hole for a 69, while Spencer Levin parred his last four holes for a 69. There were at 6-under 136 along with J.B. Holes and John Senden, who finished their rounds of 69 on Friday.

The group at 5-under 137 included a strong efforts by Stewart Cink and Trevor Immelman, who each shot 67 in the worst of the weather. Immelman didn’t make a par over the last five holes – instead, he made four birdies and a bogey.

But the show belonged to Couples, who is playing this event for the 29th time and says, “I feel like I can play this course blindfolded.”

Some of his peers couldn’t believe what they saw.

“He played like he was my age,” said 25-year-old Anthony Kim, who was paired with Couples and was nine shots behind. “He was loose, swinging hard. He hit some quality shots, some aggressive shots. It doesn’t hurt that he’s won here a couple of times. He just knows what he’s doing out here.”

Couples first played Riviera three years before Kim was born. He won in 1990 and 1992, back when his hair was brown, not mostly gray, and when he didn’t have to get up at 4 a.m. to stretch out his back so he could make it to the first tee.

Paul Casey, who had a 67 and was four shots back, played in the group behind Couples. Asked how it felt to trail a 51-year-old who can barely bend over to tie his shoes, Casey started laughing.

“Every time I looked ahead, he’s stretching his back, his hand is on his hip,” Casey said. “We all know Freddie. He looks like he doesn’t care. He looks like he’s in pain. He could be on any score. And the fact he’s on 8 under is brilliant.”

Phil Mickelson struggled with his irons on his way to a 70 that put him seven shots behind, although not terribly worried.

“I’m not pleased being in the position where I’m at, but it could be a lot worse,” Mickelson said. “And I should be within striking distance if I can go out and shoot some hot round tomorrow.”

That he would be trying to catch up to Couples was surprising given his age and his health.

Such is his affection for Riviera that Couples didn’t think twice about playing this week – even though he is the defending champion at the Champions Tour event in Naples, Fla.

“I don’t think anyone is mad. Besides Augusta, it’s my favorite spot,” Couples said. “I don’t think it’s a slap in the face if they just look where I live and my schedule and how I play here. It would take two seconds to figure it out.”

Couples not only has two wins at Riviera, he has four top 10s in the past decade and nearly had a chance to win two years ago until he butchered a 9-iron into the 18th with a chance to put pressure on Mickelson.

He was 49, and that figured to be his last chance to win on tour.

Yet here he is again, twisting and stretching, taking left-handed baseball swings with his putter while trying to keep loose. The hardest part for Couples after his round was climbing the 100-foot hill toward the clubhouse to sign his card.

When the tour asked him to visit The Golf Channel’s booth, Couples said, “Can’t do it.”

“I’m ready for a nap,” he said.

Riviera can make him feel young, but not to the point where he’s going to act like he belongs in this generation.

Couples still doesn’t know what Facebook is all about. Remember, it was only two years ago that he started sending text messages.

As for Twitter? Uh, no.

“If I did Twitter, would I tell people that I’m heading home and then going to eat at California Pizza Kitchen? Is that what you do? Or do you actually tweet information?” he said. “Well, what information do I have for my 500,000 followers? I’m 51. I live in the desert. They all know that already.

“If you guys write well enough, they’ll know that I’m in good shape going into tomorrow. I don’t need to tweet anybody.”

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