PACIFIC PALISADES, CALIFORNIA | Oh, Riviera, glorious, historic Riviera, off Sunset Boulevard, in a canyon a mile from the Pacific, with Ben Hogan’s statue next to the putting green, photos of Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy lining the walls and a celebrity picture of Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby outside the men’s locker room.
“Hogan’s Alley,” is what they still call Riviera, because Ben won a U.S. Open and three L.A. Opens here in the 1940s. These days a more timely designation might be “Couples’ Corner.”
Fred Couples didn’t win the 2011 Northern Trust Open, which is the latest incarnation of the Los Angeles tournament that began back in 1926. In fact, stumbling along after a double-bogey six on the seventh hole Sunday, he dropped from first to third and eventually to a tie for seventh.
Aaron Baddeley, the Australian, was this year’s champion, and a deserving one, two strokes in front of 48-year-old Vijay Singh. But Couples provided what every great Hollywood story needs, a male lead with a name and, in this instance, a game.
He also provided another memory in a setting of memories, a club where Humphrey Bogart sat under a sycamore tree near the 12th green sipping whatever from a thermos; a club where Howard Hughes took lessons; a club where W.C. Fields was accused of taking liberties with the daughter of a police officer; a club with a par-3, the sixth hole, which has a green with a bunker in the middle where the late, great columnist Jim Murray – a member – made a hole-in-one.
There have been a lot of teases the last few years from guys who, as the adage goes, think age is only a number. At 53, Greg Norman hung on until near the end of the 2008 Open Championship. A year later, Tom Watson, then 59, only gave up the Open in a playoff with Stewart Cink. And at this Northern, Couples, 51, was in front not only after two rounds but after three holes of the final round, each of which he birdied. Then reality stepped forward.
Freddie loves Riviera. “I feel like I can play this course blindfolded,” was his assessment. The Riviera galleries love Freddie. This was his 30th appearance. He has won twice. He chose to play the Northern instead of defending his title at the Champions Tour ACE Group Classic in Florida, explaining, “I’m sure they understand.”
What we all understand is how difficult it is for someone in his 50s to play four consistent rounds of golf on a course as tough and, after the great storm hit, as long as Riviera.
How difficult it is to compete with someone 20 years younger? Baddeley will be 30 in less than a month. He was 2 years old when Fred Couples won the Kemper Open in 1983. This is Baddeley’s Tour. Fred was merely a visitor, although a very acceptable one.
What happened at Riviera the last few hours of the Northern Trust may have been a disappointment for those who dream but it wasn’t a surprise.
However, the could-haves and might-have-beens are not so easily erased. The PGA Tour folk, recognizing the possibilities, pointed out Couples, 51 years 4 months, would have been next to Sam Snead at 51 years 10 months, and Art Wall, 51 years 7 months, the third oldest man ever to win a Tour event.
The gap between his first win and this, a bit more than 28 years, would have been the third longest, behind Snead and Raymond Floyd.
So many opportunities. None of them realized.
Yet Couples, with that creaky back which forces him to arise before dawn and endure a stretching routine, which prevents him from hitting irons in practice, could handle what befell him. He had touched the past but was unable to grasp it.
A birdie-birdie-birdie start to the final round raised him to 12 under for the tournament and into the sole lead. But Fred bogeyed the sixth, the par-3, then doubled the seventh when he drove into the rough, knocked his second into a fairway bunker and couldn’t get to the green on his third.
“I didn’t feel the same after that,” conceded Couples. “I didn’t injure myself, but I didn’t hit a shot after that.” Even with a birdie on 11, the par-5, he had a 2-over 38 on the back nine and a 2-over 73 for the round.
For three days plus three holes he had kept us in thrall and in laughter. After he became the second-round leader in any tournament for the first time in seven years, Couples went about discussing his inability to adjust to the new technology.
“To be honest with you,” sighed Fred, “I don’t want to sound stupid, I went to see ‘Social Network’ because Justin Timberlake was in it. I don’t even know what I watched. I don’t even know what Facebook is. And then Twittering, I don’t know what that is. I mean, I do but I don’t.”
All he needs to know is win or lose, he’s a star at Riviera, the course of stars.