Couples shines with star group

NEWPORT BEACH — Fred Couples used his golf club for much more than striking the ball in the first round of the Toshiba Classic at Newport Beach Country Club.

He held it straight above his head Friday, constantly stretching out. He also held it behind his shoulders in the stance that Bo Jackson made famous in a poster about 20 years ago, holding a baseball bat.

Couples' relevance is not limited to that time span. He's the defending champion here, winning the title last year as part of a banner first year on the Champions Tour. But Couples, the 2010 Champions Tour Rookie of the Year, came into this year's tournament as a question mark – at least in his own mind – with a back that doesn't always want to cooperate.

"If [Thursday] was any indication, I won't break par unless I putt like a crazy man," Couples said after Thursday's Pro-Am finished up.

On the first day of the actual tournament, Couples didn't need to putt like a crazy man. He's still one of the biggest drivers on the 50-and-older tour, and he fought through his back stiffness to post a five-under par 66. He's tied for sixth, six strokes back of Nick Price, who shot a Champions Tour-tying record 60 in the sunny, but mild conditions.

A La Quinta resident, Couples used to live in Newport Beach but said last year was the first time he played Newport Beach Country Club. He's in contention again this year, scheduled to tee off at 12:14 p.m. in the second round, with Andy Bean and Rod Spittle.

Couples attracted a big crowd in the first round because he's the defending champion, yes, but also because he was in a great group with Tom Watson and Ben Crenshaw. The three golf legends have won 73 events on the PGA Tour and 17 on the Champions Tour, the lion's share of those (13) by Watson.

Couples, 51, entertained the large gallery of a few hundred people in the first round. He wore a tan hat, sweater and slacks as the day began, but took off the sweater for a green shirt by No. 3. Couples wants to earn plenty of green again this year, and he birdied two of the first three holes, including the par-five No. 3. On that hole, Couples found the front left sand trap but managed to blast a shot to about eight feet, calmly making the putt for birdie.

He also heated up on the back nine, where he had five of his seven birdies and was four-under.

On No. 15 Couples had a great save after his drive went off the fairway and far to the right, not where he wanted on the short par-five. But he hit his second shot to right below the green, and his third shot to about six feet of the hole. He birdied the hole, his second straight birdie.

Watson, who also played with Couples in the first round of the Toshiba Classic last year, was more up and down. He was two-under on the front nine but even-par on the back nine. The 39-time PGA Tour winner is tied for 30th after a round.

He did provide a moment one spectator will never forget on hole No. 14. Watson's tee shot veered way left and plunked a man in the right shoulder. Watson was gracious about the incident, immediately giving the man an autographed golf ball and chatting it up with the fans.

"I've been hit once in my life," Watson, 61, told the gallery.

"Where?" someone asked.

"Right in the [behind]," Watson deadpanned, drawing big laughs.

But the crowd wasn't laughing but gasping in amazement after watching Watson on No. 18. His tee shot again went left, but Watson somehow guided his second shot between about four trees. He saved par.

It was a tougher day for Crenshaw, who has never won a Champions Tour event. The two-time Masters champion finished at three-over and had three straight bogeys from No. 5-7. After double-bogeying No. 17 he appeared to have a great chance for a birdie at No. 18, but he missed a short putt and had to settle for par.

A woman asked Crenshaw, 59, to go to a skybox after the round but he politely declined.

"I'm not in a very good frame of mind," he said. "It was embarrassing. It was just an awful day. There's days like that when you play golf."

Still, Crenshaw enjoyed being a part of the standout group of the first day of competition.

"It was an honor," he said after turning in his scorecard, as he headed to the putting green. "It was an honor … it's a wonderful tournament."

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