AUGUSTA, GEORGIA | The first time the wide world of golf took full notice of Fred Couples occurred in the 1983 Kemper Open at Congressional. How could you not pay attention when his then wife Deborah leaped into his arms on the 18th green after he completed the first victory of his PGA Tour career.
Last week at Augusta National, virtually everyone on the pretty property could have jumped into his arms after a dazzling display of shot-making and clutch putting in the second round Friday, leaving him tied for the 36-hole lead with much over-shadowed Jason Dufner.
That memorable day, Couples once again captured the imagination of golf aficionados around the globe when he cruised around his favorite course on the planet with a score of 5-under 67. It was the lowest second round Masters score posted by a man of his age, now 52 seemingly going on 32, and Couples became the oldest player ever to lead the tournament going into the final two rounds.
This was not the first time he had done this. In 2010, he led after the first round with an opening 66, then followed that with a second-round 75. He played the weekend in 6 under and climbed back to solo sixth.
A year ago, in fact, he came in with a second round 68 and had the same 36-hole score, 5-under 139, he took into the weekend this year. Sadly, he played the final two rounds in 1-over par and tied for 15th, in a group that also included Rory McIlroy, apparently one of his greatest admirers.
“He’s just cool,” the 22-year-old Irishman said Friday. “I hope I’m that cool when I’m 52. Yeah, he’s just a cool guy, and he’s good fun. I’ve gotten to know him a little bit over the last couple of years and you know, he’s laid back and relaxed and just a really nice guy.”
Couples, celebrating the 20th anniversary of his 1992 victory here, had seven birdies on his card, and several brilliant saves of par. At the 18th hole, he lofted a lovely chip shot from behind a greenside bunker and watched it stop three feet from the cup for a fabulous finishing four.
“I just feel like I’m very young when I get here,” Couples said. “I don’t feel old on this course just yet.”
Asked to explain his recent success here, Couples said, “I stand out there and say ‘what the hell’ a lot. What do I have to lose here? Go for the flag on this shot. But once you really get cruising around, then it becomes play a smart shot.
“Can I win? I believe I can.”
In the end, it was another terrific tease, but definitely fun while it lasted. He didn’t win, finishing xxxxx when he xxxxxx. Julius Boros will remain the oldest major winner – 48 when he prevailed at the 1968 PGA Championship. And Jack Nicklaus is still the oldest Masters champion, 46 when he earned his sixth and final green jacket in 1986. Couples played in that event and tied for 31st, with four rounds in the 70s.
Couples was competing in his 28th Masters last week, so he obviously knows the golf course, a huge advantage for a man who can still hit the golf ball a long way when his chronically balky back cooperates.
“I don’t feel too much stress,” he said. “When you’re playing here, I’m not going to let too many things bother me. It’s so beautiful. You can’t say it’s your favorite place and then break a club on the fourth hole on Saturday. I just love the week. And if I don’t do well, I leave here with the attitude of I’ll come back next year and do well.”
Couples was in prime position to win two other Masters titles, but failed to seal the deal, mostly because of a problematic putter. He led after the first three rounds in 1998 and tied for second the year Mark O’Meara prevailed by a shot, with three birdies in his last four holes. In 2006, he was solo second going in to the final round, shot 71 and tied for third the year Phil Mickelson won the second of his three green jackets.
Still, Couples insists he has no regrets and would prefer to look ahead, not back. When he was asked on Friday how his overall career might be assessed if he did happen to win, Couples smiled and said, “They’d probably never see me again.
“It would be a walk-off. I am dead serious when I say that. What a way to go … I will never play another tournament – well, I’ll play here.”