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For first-round leader Couples, hopes for a Masters title at 50 are fading after 18-hole reality check

They say professional golf is an equal-opportunity sport. They are liars.

They say any great golfer can win the Masters. They are wrong.

The proof is in front of me now, on the 13th fairway at Augusta National, attempting to walk briskly to his ball, taking a painful detour through middle age.

Fred Couples stops, twists his back to the right, winces, twists his back to the left, winces, starts walking again, twisting, wincing, walking.

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“He’s like me out there,” says David Flamm, a stocky 50-year-old fan from Atlanta.

“Is he going to hold up?” says the man’s teenage son Elliott.

“What do you think?” Flamm says.

No, he didn’t. Of course he didn’t. The thousands of fans who surrounded the Masters’ first-round leader Friday knew it, feared it, tried to thwart it with their cheers, finally accepted it with their silence.

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A day after becoming the oldest man to the lead the Masters after one round, Couples, 50, became the latest older man to crumble here.

Hours after beginning his second round with a second-hole birdie, Couples finished it with three consecutive bogeys, the putter sliding unsteadily through his gloveless hands, the breaths coming hard and fast from his weary face.

A short putt on No. 16 was long. A short putt on No. 17 was wide. An average putt on No. 18 was pulled. A six under par became a three under par. First place became a tie for ninth place.

The cheers that greeted him coming down the final fairway were reduced to scattered sympathetic claps, then nothing. The man who regally stalked this course a day earlier suddenly looked stooped and slow. The trademark hair that flowed out of the back of his black cap suddenly looked gray.

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Couples wandered out of the scorers’ hut and down a path toward the media room when a green-jacketed official lightly touched his arm.

“No media room,” said the man.

“No media room?” said Couples, knowing that this was a confirmation of his collapse.

So he stood in front of a thin rope and answered the thinnest of questions from a handful of reporters.

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“As soon as I get home and lay down, I’ll be fine,” Couples said. “But right now I’m tired and [angry], to be honest with you.”

He was not alone. Others were feeling the same way after placing their hopes for this Tiger-tied tournament in Couples’ everyman hands. Many followed him Friday with the promise that perhaps he could deliver a dose of humanity to what is shaping up to be another historic Woods victory.

C’mon, Couples could have won this, right? He entered the tournament with three first-place finishes and one second in his four Champions Tour events this year. He was outhitting the younger guys. On a course where he won in 1992, he was outthinking nearly everyone else. Sure, he would be the oldest man to win a Masters by four years, but Tom Watson nearly won the British Open last year at 59. Couples could pull it off here, couldn’t he?

“To win Augusta at age 50 would be a pipe dream,” he smilingly admitted after his first round.

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He knew. The rest of us soon learned. Sure enough, on a clear, chilly Friday, the pipe burst.

“For older guys here, it’s just not easy,” said his playing partner Sergio Garcia. “They’re not as strong. This takes a lot out of them.”

On Friday, age first took it out of his back.

Couples has long struggled with back problems and has lately started playing with tennis shoes and no socks. But on Friday the ground was still wet from Thursday night’s rain, so he wore spikes and spent the day wincing and stretching in apparent pain.

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“For a while, I felt like I could go from first to last,” he said of the back.

Then, as it usually does, age took it out of his short game.

He missed par putts late, birdie putts early and truly showed his age on the final hole when, sitting on the fringe of the green, he hit an easier-to-control putter instead of a wedge. It was a wrong club choice, but he had no choice. The shot was duffed, setting up a par putt that was missed.

“Kind of not a whole lot of fun at the moment,” Couples said. “But that’s the way it is.”

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Indeed it is, the tournament led by 30-somethings Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter, Couples now sitting in the distance with another guy who struggled over par Friday, Watson.

They are in consecutive pairings Saturday, 110 years worth of hope against hope, the Pipe Dream team.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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