THE MASTERS : On the Verge of a Major Breakthrough : Many Say Couples Is Ready to Win One of the Big Ones

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fred Couples is generally considered the best golfer in the world now.

In the last 12 tournaments, the easygoing Couples has won three times, finished second twice and has been among the top six four other times.

Couples has earned $738,162 in nine events this year, far and away the leading money winner on the PGA Tour.

So it should come as little surprise that Couples is the favorite to win the Masters, which begins today at the Augusta National Golf Club.

Couples, who has not won one of golf's four major championships, is a reluctant celebrity.

When someone suggested that he is the best player in the world, Couples backed off.

"I'm not even close," he said. "People are talking about what I did a month ago. I'm not real used to it."

Tom Watson, who was in the interview room with Couples, interjected: "If you're not close, I want to know who the hell is."

Asked if he is due to win his first major, Couples said: "All I'm worried about is what I shoot, not what people think I'm going to shoot. Someone is picked for every tournament."

Couples, 32, has won eight tour events in a career that began in 1983, including the Los Angeles Open in 1990 and 1992.

Because of his fluid swing and immense talent, it has been said that Couples probably should have won more tournaments than he has.

Tom Weiskopf dismissed Couples a few years ago by saying: "Great talent, but he has no goals."

Couples said that he keeps his goals to himself and, though he is accommodating to reporters, says he feels somewhat pressured now.

"I'm not real used to it (media attention)," he said. "I'm not sure if I'm supposed to sit down with 30 people a week that say, 'Do you have 10 minutes?' or whether I should say, 'No, I don't,' and have them walking away thinking I'm an idiot because I'm not going to sit down.

"I think golf makes you more of a recluse because the better you do, the less time you have to yourself."

Such is the price of fame.

Couples and his golfing friend, Blaine McCallister, attended the NCAA basketball championship game at Minneapolis on Monday night and had seats on the floor, courtesy of CBS announcer Jim Nantz.

The three were once roommates at the University of Houston.

"I'm a sporting nut, but (the attention) was ridiculous," Couples said. "If I had a nickel for everybody that has worn me out the last two days, I'd be a millionaire."

John Daly, on the other hand, seems to thrive in such an atmosphere.

He has only won one tournament, the PGA Championship last August, but his prodigious tee shots have made him a favorite of galleries everywhere. And he has attracted large crowds for his practice rounds here.

Daly came into the interview room Wednesday smoking a cigarette, even though no smoking signs were posted.

No one asked him to put it out.

"It's exciting for me," Daly said. "It's my first Masters. It's everything I expected it to be. It has to be the greatest golf tournament that I've ever played."

Daly also drew a crowd at the driving range as he attempted to hit balls over a huge net about 300 yards away.

"I hit four or five into the net this week. I've ben trying like hell (to do it)," he said.

Daly was then asked what clubs he used for his second shots on some of the par-five holes in practice rounds. He casually said he hit an eight-iron into the green from the 500-yard 15th hole and used anywhere from a three-iron to a five-iron on the 555-yard second hole.

Even though Daly, 25, is relatively inexperienced, Jack Nicklaus, a six-time Masters winner, says that Daly has a good chance to win.

"I think the course is absolutely made for John Daly," Nicklaus said. "There couldn't be a course that is more made for him.

"You know what he has been hitting into the par-fives. I don't think he'll back off the golf course. I'm sure he'll make a birdie or two when he's out there. It's just a question of what other things he makes.

"When I came in here as a youngster, I had to learn to hit the ball right to left, and he does it naturally."

Golf Notes

It rained Tuesday, but the sky was clear Wednesday with temperatures in the 70s. Such weather is expected to prevail for the four-day tournament. . . . Jack Nicklaus said he has been on a weight program to combat fatigue in final rounds. "Fatigue causes you to lose your concentration," he said. Nicklaus, 52, was in contention last year but faded with a final round of 76. He said his game has been adequate lately. "I'm hopeful," he said of his chances of winning a seventh Masters title.

John Daly said he has not adjusted to the speed of the greens. "It is going to cause me some problems this week," he said. Daly said he will use a driver on every par four and par five except the relatively short third and 13th holes. . . . Sam Snead was injured in an automobile accident Tuesday in Waynesboro, Ga. He suffered cuts on his head and the right side of his face. "There doesn't seem to be anything broken," said Doug Ford, a former Masters champion and longtime friend of Snead's. There is some doubt whether Snead will be the honorary starter for today's tournament.

Tom Kite, the PGA Tour's all-time leading money winner, failed to meet qualification standards to participate in the Masters. However, Greg Norman, who failed to meet any of the qualifications required of American pros, was given a foreign exemption even though he has been playing on the U.S. tour for several years and lives in Florida.

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