Couples' new roll model

Times Staff Writer

There's a new putter in Fred Couples' bag for the Northern Trust Open; he just forgets what it's called . . . besides putter, of course.

But forgetting stuff is probably what happens when you're 48, your aching back sometimes feels 88 and you can't remember what it feels like to be comfortable on the greens.

Couples long ago switched to using a belly putter, which earned its name because you anchor the thing in the middle of your stomach.

His new putter is 44 inches long. Couples picked it up from putter-maker Rick Hamilton of San Diego in time to play the Wednesday pro-am at Riviera.

That's about 1 1/2 inches longer than the one Couples used to use.

And that is important because if you've got a back as tricky as Couples does, a longer putter means you don't have to bend over as much.

It takes about as long to play the front nine at Riviera as it does to actually say the full name of the new putter: Hamilton milled manganese bronze off-set hosel with tungsten heel and toe weight.

It's a got an ounce of tungsten, a metal, in the back heel and toe to stabilize the putter through the hitting area. Plus, it's supposed to sound better on impact and improve the feel.

It's a prototype. Meanwhile, Couples is a proven commodity.

Couples has spent more time at Riviera than a lot of the trees. This is his 24th year of playing this tournament in Eucalyptusville, and 26th year locally, counting the 1983 event at Rancho Park and the 1998 edition at Valencia.

The last time he played the tournament, in 2006, he was fourth and could have won if he had putted better.

Couples had a belly putter then too, but it had obvious drawbacks, lacking manganese bronze and tungsten.

Maybe Couples is on to something this week with the way he's working the greens.

After consecutive rounds of one-under 70, Couples is feeling all right on a lot of fronts, including his back. And that means he's on track for his biggest mission this year -- being in contention at the Masters.

Couples one-putted 11 holes Friday. He has made 126 feet 5 inches worth of putts, and no one has done better through two rounds.

One-putts at Augusta National would serve Couples well, and he knows it. He wants to extend his expectations to something beyond making the cut there, something he has done every year he has played, 23 in a row, the same number as Gary Player.

Couples is not happy that he made the cut last year at eight-over 152, but that was because his back was aching.

"I couldn't even hit the ball, but I went out and got it around," he said. "So you know, I felt pretty good about that. . . .

"My goal last year was to make the cut, but this year, [it] will not be."

In the meantime in L.A., Couples is adding to a large column of numbers in his personal tournament index.

Since he first played it in 1982, the event has been known under six names (Glen Campbell-Los Angeles Open, Los Angeles Open, Los Angeles Open Presented by Nissan, Nissan Los Angeles Open, Nissan Open and now the Northern Trust Open).

His total number of rounds has reached 95 and he has played them in 120 under par. He has won twice, in 1990 and 1992, and was second three times, with 12 top 10s.

There's an oil painting of Couples in the Riviera clubhouse. There should be trees and hills in the background, because Couples is part of the landscape.

He says he intends to keep playing Riviera even after he turns 50.

Or, in FredSpeak: "I'm not going to not play."

Translation: "They are going to have to keep me from not playing."

The first of Couples' 15 PGA Tour victories was the 1983 Kemper Open, where he won a playoff over T.C. Chen, Barry Jaeckel, Gil Morgan and Scott Simpson -- all of whom are either retired or on the Champions Tour.

Couples isn't there yet; there's still business to do. Besides, he hasn't putted out.

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thomas.bonk@latimes.com

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