The hottest guy in golf and the coolest guy in golf are, not so coincidentally, the same guy. Fred Couples, no matter how old he is, remains all-world cool on anybody’s list and is a hall-of-famer in making any A-list gathering simply by strolling through the door.
“I can hang out with anybody,” he once said.
The ageless baseball pitcher Satchel Paige was known to ask anyone who was standing still, “If you didn’t know how old you were, how old would you be?” That being the case, Couples is at least 20 years younger than that old lying calendar shows.
If you’re under 20, you might think Camilo Villegas exudes cool. If you’re over 70, you might choose Arnold Palmer. But for everyone in between, Freddy’s got to be it. Couples doesn’t walk, he glides. You’d pay to learn how to walk like Couples. He moves languidly and his well-chronicled golf swing mirrors the way he gets from place to place. He’s disarmingly handsome and humbly charming. It’s really true what they say: Men want to be him and women want to be with him.
And, heading into the Shell Houston Open, where he is a former champion, Couples had won three straight events on the Champions Tour, going crazy low under par in each of the victories. The golf universe is unashamedly abuzz.
But all the drunken talk of Couples winning The Masters and possibly being a captain’s pick for Corey Pavin’s U.S. Ryder Cup team, well … just … stop. Tom Watson notwithstanding, the Champions Tour is no place to find either major champions or Ryder Cup players and everybody knows it.
Champions Tour courses are at least 500 yards shorter than those the regular Tour plays and the Stimpmeter reading on the greens on those senior courses are at least two feet slower – in other words, great holing speed for those whose nerve endings have been rubbed raw over the years of trying to compete against players half their age.
For anyone older than 50 to win The Masters is practically ludicrous even in the mention. Putting on Augusta National’s greens is golf’s version of performing delicate surgery. Only the perfect touch will do or egregious errors will follow. Just ask Tiger Woods, who putted off the 13th green into Rae’s Creek a couple of years ago.
And that assumes that you’ve hit a target on the firm greens the size of the hood of your daughter’s subcompact car. Otherwise, you are permanently on defense when attempting to wring a good score out of the most confounding greens on the planet. Just ask Kenny Perry.
The last time Couples competed for The Masters – which he won in 1992 – was in 2006, the year Phil Mickelson won his second green jacket. Mickelson and Couples were paired in the final duo on the final day and it looked more like a Tuesday morning at Whisper Rock than a Sunday afternoon at Augusta National.
Heads were down and business was tended to until Couples’ belly putter started to stutter, missing the short putts that would haunt most players’ psyche, but seem to roll right off Freddy’s back, just another demon that golf delivers even to the most even-tempered among us.
Couples was Mickelson’s biggest cheerleader over the final few holes that Sunday, and if he was the least bit damaged by stumbling down the stretch, you’d never have known it. In fact, it’s never clear whether Couples is 5-over or 5-under, when all you have to go on is the look on his face. The only time he showed significant emotion under duress was when he won the 2003 Shell Houston Open, bursting into tears on the final green while doing a television interview with Peter Kostis of CBS.
Otherwise, life is one big sofa for Couples, who can be found on the furniture every time a significant game is televised on the big screen. He is the guy who famously said when asked about phone conversations, “I don’t answer the phone because somebody might be on the other end.” Surely, Couples has a cell phone, but it’s not clear how much it’s powered on during a particular 24-hour period.
He was victorious as a Presidents Cup captain last year and it was just announced the he and Greg Norman – the International Team captain – will deliver an encore in 2011 in Australia. That’s his place this late in his career, not as a player on the Ryder Cup team.
Ten or so years ago, Curtis Strange was hitting balls on the range at Doral and to his left was Couples, so that when Strange was practicing, Couples was at his back. If you’ve ever watched Couples hit balls, you know that the sound the ball makes when struck by his irons is just way different from the sound a garden variety Tour player produces. It’s louder and crisper and the ball just explodes off the clubface.
Strange, distracted by this spring symphony, turned to watch Couples hit three or four balls. In between shots, he said, “Freddy, have you ever mis-hit a shot?”
Couples paused gently, looked toward the ground and rubbed his chin. He looked up, shook his head and softly said, “No.”