NAPA, Calif. – Fred Couples still glides down fairways, swings his effortless swing and rocks his sock-less look as his 60th birthday beckons later this week.
On the final hole of his second round at the Safeway Open on Friday, he stiffed a sand wedge from 84 yards that even his fellow competitor Joel Dahmen applauded.
“He’s still got it,” said Dahmen, a 31-year-old Washington native, who reacted to his first pairing with his childhood idol like a school girl about to meet her favorite pop star.
Couples failed to survive the 36-hole cut, but it was telling that he chose to play against flatbellies more than half his age rather than duke it out with his contemporaries at the PGA Tour Champions Pure Insurance Championship down the road at Pebble Beach.
“Listen, I didn’t come to Napa to drink fancy wine and eat good meals. I’d rather eat McDonald’s. I’m here because I love to compete,” Couples said.
The golf course always has been where Couples is most comfortable, but he concedes that his time competing is winding down. His balky back continues to give him pain and he says if he throws it out again he’s done. He presses on because his life has revolved around shooting the lowest score for nearly 40 years. That’s really all he knows. What will Couples do when he hangs up the spikes? He turns 60 on Oct. 3 and it remains a mystery, maybe even to himself.
This year, he’s made three starts on the PGA Tour and another 10 on the senior circuit. He’s recorded five top-10 finishes this season on the Champions Tour, including runner up at the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open. He says he couldn’t bare the humiliation of regularly finishing near the bottom of the field. “A lot of guys will play to 60 and just kind of drag on. I don’t want to finish 30th just because I want to play in a golf tournament. I don’t have the personality to drag on,” he said.
Couples won 15 times on the PGA Tour during a Hall of Fame career, including a memorable Masters title in 1992, and another 13 titles on the PGA Tour Champions. Who knows how many more wins he would have accumulated if his back hadn’t gone kaput in his prime?
Couples said he doesn’t plan to make a big deal about celebrating his 60th other than using his four tickets for Game 1 of the Los Angeles Dodgers playoff game with 55,000 of his closest friends.
“That’s what I’m going to do when I’m done. I’m go to attend a lot of sporting events and relax. I’ve never been to the Australian Open tennis. I’d like to go there. But mostly, I’m going to go hang with Jim wherever he’s working,” Couples said.
“Jim” would be Jim Nantz, the CBS Sports lead announcer and Couples’s roommate at the University Houston. Couples says standing in Nantz’s TV booth is easy on his back, and he nearly went to a New England Patriots game recently.
“Jim told me, ‘Come in early. We’ll talk to Belichick and Brady and we’ll have dinner.’ Tony Romo says that’s what it’s like every week,” Couples said.
“Fred has a lifetime free pass to join me as a guest at any one of my games at any time,” Nantz said. “I hope he will play as long as he can find joy in the act of competing. There is that one tournament down in Augusta that gets him excited every spring. He could play there for a long time if he wants to. I believe he will set the record one day for the lowest round at the Masters by a sexagenarian.”
Couples built homes in Palm Springs and Newport Beach in the last few years, plays Pickleball, and co-designed Twin Dolphin in Cabo San Lucas, giving golf’s Joe Cool another cool address to hang. “It will be normal stuff; walk around at the mall, have lunch, chip a few, hit a few. And the next thing you know it’s 4:00 and it’s dark in the wintertime.”
It’s also getting late in the twilight of a great career.