At 51, Fred Couples in contention at the Masters

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Fred Couples is 51, has a back that hasn't stopped aching since October and for a time wouldn't travel anywhere he couldn't drive.

Yet there he was Friday at Augusta National, cruising along in his accustomed position within arm's reach of the midway Masters lead.

"Here, I would be playing even as a cripple," the 1992 champion quipped after a 4-under-par 68 moved him into a tie for seventh place, five shots behind leader Rory McIlroy. "I love this place.

"I wait the whole year to come play here. This is my favorite event. I've had great luck here; had a couple other chances to win that I didn't. It's just a place where I feel very comfortable."

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Except for a couple of years in which he missed the cut, seeing Couples hanging around the top of the leaderboard has been as much part of the Augusta National landscape as pimento cheese sandwiches.

Last year Couples led after an opening 66 and never fell out of the top 10. His perennially cranky back was feeling decent then, but it started acting up again in October, to the point where he describes it as a constant "toothache."

In February, he said it was less painful to drive from his California home to the Phoenix Open than to join his Champions Tour peers in Florida. As recently as Sunday, he told a reporter his back was "shot."

"He laid around for two days and was in bad shape. Couldn't play a practice round with us," buddy Davis Love III said. "It's just amazing. This place does something to him; it energizes him."

Photos: 2011 Masters tournament

Well, as much as the laid-back Couples can be energized. And, yes, he thinks he has a chance to don another green jacket.

"You better believe it," he said. "This would be the only [PGA] Tour event that I probably could still win. … Yeah, I think I can go out tomorrow and shoot a very good score — and then I'd have to do something crazy on Sunday too."

Tom Watson, who nearly won the 2009 British Open at 59, wouldn't put it past his fellow old-timer.

"It's not out of the realm of possibilities," Watson said. "It can work. Freddie knows the golf course very well."

Hail the looper

The Augusta National patrons long have been gracious to former champions as they play the Masters in their later years. Friday, they saluted a different longtime icon — a caddie.

Carl Jackson completed his 50th Masters, taking the bag around once more with two-time champion Ben Crenshaw.

"The people were so gracious and so sweet to Carl," Crenshaw said after a 77 that included a birdie at No.18. "It's so heartfelt. They're seeing something that's not going to happen again. He's a huge part of this place."

Jackson, 64, caddied his first Masters in 1961 as the looper for former U.S. Open champion Billy Burke, having dropped out of school a year earlier. He drew Gary Player in 1970, helping the future Hall of Famer to a third-place finish.

He also spent seven years as a personal assistant to former Augusta National chairman Jack Stephens, before starting a long-term affiliation with Crenshaw in 1976. He was on the bag when Crenshaw won in 1984 and again in '95.

"This is one of the toughest little guys you've ever seen," Jackson said. "He's got a great big heart, and he's proved it time and again."

Said Crenshaw: "He can go another 10 [Masters], it seems to me. He's just great."

On Thursday night, Jackson was the man of honor at a dinner party organized by Crenshaw. Then they went out and worked their 114th Masters round together.

How many more will be up to Crenshaw. The Texan turns 60 next year and never was all that long a hitter to begin with.

"I'll just do some thinking and make my own decision," Crenshaw said. "But the main thing is that it's Carl's 50th here."

If Crenshaw wants, though, Jackson will be happy to make it 51.

"I've said I would carry it as long as I could," he said.

Still in the hunt

Alvaro Quiros knew it would be tough to sustain the momentum from his opening 65 at the Masters.

The Spaniard's 73 on Friday still allowed him to accomplish his primary goal — making the weekend — and kept him within four shots of the lead.

"Obviously I'm very happy," a smiling Quiros said.

"I was a little bit guessing about how it's going to be, the level of my game. The last few months, they have not been a big moment of confidence for me. Even when I play well, I wasn't believing it."

It's not as though Quiros has been in a deep slump. Just two months ago, he won the Dubai Desert Classic against one of the European Tour's best fields. But he has been inconsistent enough to leave questions.

Not long ago, he made a not-so-flattering comparison of himself to Seve Ballesteros, the two-time Masters champion who set the bar for each succeeding Spanish generation.

"Seve has the hands of an artist," Quiros said. "I have the hands of a bricklayer."

His hands have been good enough thus far, aided by a booming driver that may be the longest in the 99-man Masters field. Nor has he been bothered by breaking in a new caddie.

Gareth Lord not only is working his first tournament with Quiros, he's getting a crash course in yards-to-meters conversion. Lord has always worked in yards; Quiros likes the metric system.

"I didn't know that," Quiros said when a reporter relayed the tidbit. "After that, I'm going to pay more attention to the yardage. … But we didn't miss any yardage, today or yesterday."

O captain, my captain

At this point, Love and Jose Maria Olazabal probably could pick out each other's head covers. The Ryder Cup opposing captains played in the same group last week in Houston — and Thursday and Friday at Augusta National before missing the cut.

Coincidence? Nope.

"We've gotten used to it," Love said. "We struggled both weeks, but it's always fun to be out with him."

Love said the two did not talk much about the Ryder Cup that will be played outside Chicago at Medinah in September 2012.

"We did in a practice round Wednesday," Love said. "He's not much of a talker when we're competing and I'm not either. We'll have plenty of time for that."

With the United States vs. Europe competition 17 months away, Love is selecting designs for bags and head covers. The wardrobe comes next.

"It's all stress-free until Jose and I have to do our speeches," Love said in reference to the Thursday night before the matches begin. "The rest of it's pretty easy. The golf is the nerve-racking part."


Reigning U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell had to take the walk of shame after hooking his tee shot into the shrubs on No. 12. McDowell, Tiger Woods, their caddies and a Masters official could not find the ball, so McDowell had to re-tee. He made a four on his second ball, good for a triple-bogey six. He rebounded with an eagle on the 13th. … Tom Watson on missing the cut with a 79-72: "This course is getting longer, and I'm coming up shorter and shorter." … Amateur Lion Kim, who will graduate from Michigan in June, wore a visor with a prominent M logo. "I think I heard 'Go Blue' about 10,000 times this week," he said after shooting 76-72. Kim's father began calling him Lion to distinguish him from other junior golfers. "I'm sure my parents got the idea from Tiger Woods," he said.

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