Putting, not puttering, Fred Couples shares Masters lead


AUGUSTA, Ga. — First paragraphs of stories about Freddie Couples should always include the words “like fine wine.” He is the Opus One of the pro golf tour.

With a golf club in his hands, Couples is 52 going on 30. He shot a five-under 67 at the Masters on Friday and shares the 36-hole lead at five-under 139 with Jason Dufner. In senior citizen centers all over the country, they were high-fiving each other with walking sticks and demanding extra warm milk.

The problem here is that there are 36 more holes to play. Couples has a golf swing that is poetry and a back that is a dangling participle. He started having back spasms during a tournament at Doral in 1994 and hasn’t stopped since.

In his news conference after his round Friday, he was asked what it would take for this to last two more days.

“A lot more birdies, a lot more putts,” Couples said.

From the back of the room came the real answer, from ESPN writer and wag Rick Reilly.

“Advil,” Reilly added.

Couples assured all that he would take his medicine, actually something he called ATI Block, and try to dish out some medicine of his own to his opponents, most of them old enough to be his sons.

“Can I win? I believe I can, yes,” he said.

Couples still hits it as far as the other guys. He just doesn’t go out dancing as much afterward.

“This is very shocking,” he said, “and it was a great day.… Five-under was an incredible round, a very, very good round.”

It is somewhat less shocking that a senior citizen has the halfway lead here, because Couples and the Masters have had an ongoing love affair. It goes back to 1983, when he came, loved it, tied for 37th, pocketed $2,900 and has been back every year since. The affair was really consummated in 1992, when he won his only major title. But Couples and the Masters have never really stopped being intimate, as indicated by his 11 top-10 finishes, including a second and a third, in those 28 years. He has earned a total of $2,154,776 amid the magnolias.

Couples played 23 Masters before he missed his first cut, in 2008. He missed again in 2009, his only other failure.

“I feel like I’m very young when I get here,” Couples said. “I feel like I really, really enjoy playing here.”

Couples said he isn’t the only one, that many of the players love to come here. He used three-time winner Phil Mickelson as an example.

“I say this about Phil because I feel the same way about me,” Couples said. “I feel like this is a park for Phil, and he walks around and there’ a lake over there, and if he’s got to carve it across a pond, then do this or that; I feel the same way.”

Mickelson carved a few nicely enough to shoot a four-under 68, including four birdies on the back nine that got him to two under and within striking distance of the leaders.

Besides Dufner, the unheralded 35-year-old playing in just his second Masters, Couples is doing battle with five players a shot back, none of them as close to AARP membership as he. Louie Oosthuizen, 29, tagged a 72 on top of his 68; Lee Westwood, 38, faltered a bit from his opening 67 with a bogey on No. 18 and a 73; Sergio Garcia, 32, overcame his general dislike of Augusta National for a day with a 68; Bubba Watson, 33, dazzled the crowds with his booming drives and shot 71; and budding superstar Rory McIlroy, 22, remained steady with a 69.

When Couples last won the Masters, McIlroy was 2.

McIlroy said he liked Couples a lot and has had a chance to chat with him a few times during tournaments, but added that he really didn’t know him that well.

“By the time I got here,” McIlroy said, “he was pretty much on the Champions Tour.”

Were Couples to win here, there would be comparisons to Jack Nicklaus doing so in 1986, at age 46. Were he to stay in the hunt to the end, it could stir the same emotions stirred by Tom Watson’s run and near miss in the 2009 British Open, just two months shy of his 60th birthday.

There is no question that Couples is taking the stress-free approach.

“I stand out there,” he said, “and I say, ‘What the hell?’ a lot. What do I have to lose?”

A better question is what he, as the pied piper of the rocking-chair set, has to gain.

White hair would become fashionable. Millions are in play as a spokesman for hip replacements. Wrinkles would be the rage.

Sunday TV viewing for a back-nine run at the Masters title that involved Couples would be without precedent. Nap time worldwide would be suspended.

Picture millions of tendinitis-hampered arms, gesturing encouragement at the TV screen.

As in all tournaments, there will be key moments. For Couples, it will be when he bends over to tie his golf shoes.

Go get ‘em, Freddie. Here’s to you and ATI Block, whatever that is.