Freddie Couples, ageless wonder,
AUGUSTA, Ga. – Freddie Couples must have been here when this place was a fruit orchard. Maybe he told Mackenzie where to put a bunker. Had a peach cobbler with Bobby and Cliff. He rooted for Arnold, rooted for Jack, and played some himself. Enough to win it in 1992, The Day They Suspended Gravity, leaving the ball clinging to the bank at the 12th, just for him, just above the beckoning water.
finds way to Masters leaderboard
Freddie Couples was made for Augusta National, born to it, is possessed by it and possesses it. It must be a spiritual thing. Bobby Jones once put up his hand to stop Nick Price from shooting 63. Bobby Jones put up the same hand to wave Freddie Couples through. Here he is again, a force among senior golfers, but once again up on the Masters leaderboard, sore-backed and 51 among the 20-somethings.
Golf is a young man’s game? Freddie is ever young.
Really, now, can he challenge for this Masters? Well, the last time he challenged for the Masters, he was – well – 50. It was last year at this time, sore back and all, and he shot 9 under and finished sixth, seven shots behind Phil Mickelson,
Couples has shot 71-68, and is five shots behind Rory McIlroy -- and 30 years ahead of him.
“You know – I’m swinging,” Couples was saying. It was a short prayer of thanks, that his back allows him this much. “Since October, it’s been pretty much a toothache.”
Couples practices little and barely warms up. If he were a violinist, he’d be plucking the strings, sitting down. Most people with that kind of back are the color of old newsprint and walking close to something they can grab on to. Jack Nicklaus’ back used to go into spasm and knock him out of tournaments. Seve Ballesteros used to hang upside-down, like a bat, from his hotel room door. Couples strolls along, with posture mothers preach for and a disposition as placid as the pond at the 16th.
The Masters falls early in April, gently among the pastels of the azaleas, welcoming the new year. Phil Mickelson says the mere thought of the Masters reenergizes him.
“Well, I’m not reenergized,” Couples said, giving a little laugh, “but I wait the whole year to come back and play here. This is my favorite event. I’ve had great luck here. Had a couple other chances to win that I didn’t.
“Last year was a phenomenal year, and this year is looking the same way, no matter what happens. But I hate saying ‘no matter what happens,’ ” – he said, catching himself – “because that’s a bad excuse when you don’t do well.”
The Masters can be a frolic, if one brings a liberal imagination to the word. A great imagination – that’s what Mickelson has, Couples said, and so when he gets into a tough spot, he gets excited about manufacturing an escape. “He reeks confidence and electricity for this place,” Couples said. Couples enjoys a different kind of thrill, a simpler pleasure. “I get excited,” he said, “when those difficult shots are over, and I’ve kept it somewhere out of a creek or somewhere else.”
He’s done a lot of that at Augusta. He hears the song. In 26 Masters, he’s averaged 71.94 strokes per round, just a tad under the par of 72, finished in the top 10 11 times, and missed the cut just twice. But he rejects any claim to some mystical connection to these emerald acres.
“I think that it’s just that I’ve played so many times,” he said. “The course sets up very well. I still have a lot of length. But I know the course more than most people, and it helps.”
Sometimes you scratch a golfer and find a logician, as did the person who wondered why someone Couples’ age has never won the Masters, Nicklaus having been the oldest at 46.
“First of all,” Couples said, “there aren’t that many. Are there any other guys that are 50 to 55 that could win?”
Well, there’s Ian Woosnam, 53. Mark O’Meara, 54. Sandy Lyle, 53.
The answer’s no.
“I think I can go out tomorrow and shoot a very good score,” Couples said, “and then I’d have to do something crazy on Sunday, too.”
At Augusta National, in the soft April, belief sometimes has to be suspended. It was that way when Jack Nicklaus won in 1986, at the age of 46. And if Nicklaus’ accomplishment was unbelieveable, Couples was asked, what would it be if you did it?
“Retiring,” Couples said.
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