There are questions about Fred Couples right now that not even
Fred Couples can answer: questions about his back, his career,
his life and his place in golf history. Not that he ever wanted
a place in golf history. So when he arrived for the 77th PGA
Championship last week at Riviera Country Club as a supporting
actor on the Hollywood stage he once owned, a part of him liked
his new role. Judging by the look on his face and his
get-me-out-of-here attitude, the limelight had the feel of acid
But like it or not, Couples is back in the limelight. On Monday
captain Lanny Wadkins made Couples a wild-card selection to the
U.S. Ryder Cup team. And with good reason. When healthy, Couples
is one of the top five players in the world, and at Riviera he
appeared to be healthy and mentally recharged. A final-round 66
helped convince Wadkins that Couples was ready, and the Ryder
Cup invitation was extended by telephone. "I think it's the most
I've heard Fred talk," Wadkins said. "I couldn't get him off the
Talk about turnarounds. When Couples skipped the British Open
last month at St. Andrews, there was speculation that his latest
back injury was career-threatening. Six weeks earlier Couples
had sent a strong message himself when, during the Kemper Open,
he indicated he was considering a five-year vacation from
tournament golf. "I'd only be 40 or 41," he said. "For me to
come out and make $6,000 every week, it's just not fun. I could
take five years off and make $100,000 in a week if I'm healthy.
I refuse to go out there and embarrass myself."
The following week, at the U.S. Open, Couples missed his third
consecutive cut for the first time since 1990. He snapped at Jay
Haas in the Shinnecock Hills locker room and threatened to fire
caddie Joe LaCava. The outbursts were uncharacteristic of the
easygoing Couples, who counts Haas and LaCava among his best
friends. "If he wants to throw some heat at me, that's fine.
It's part of the job,'' says LaCava. "The thing that bothers him
the most is playing bad golf. But I don't blame it on bad golf.
I blame it on a bad back.''
The only person who got through to Couples was Tawnya Dodd, the
woman he lives with in the north Dallas suburb of Plano. They
have been together for almost three years, since Couples
separated from his wife, Deborah. "I give her a lot of credit,"
says Couples. "If I don't play good golf, I'm miserable. But if
it wasn't for her, I'd probably go bananas."
A July 12 visit to the Hughston Clinic in Columbus, Ga., changed
Couples's outlook and disposition. Physical therapist Tom Boers
loosened the tightness in his back during a 45-minute session.
And at the Canadian Skins Game last month in Woodbridge, Ont.,
Couples was back to being his old self. When a photographer
suggested that Couples lie on his back with his head propped on
his golf bag, he was happy to oblige.
Couples was happy and relaxed because for the first time since
the Nissan Open in late February, he could fly fairway bunkers
with his trademark high, hard fade. He picked up $90,000 in
skins game money, told Tawnya she could buy the patio furniture
he had promised her and talked about his frustrations. "I've
never been much of a fighter on the course, but I'm not going to
play golf and not be competitive," he said. "It bothers me. I'm
paired with great players. I watch them hit the ball. I hit it
well about every other hole. People say my game looks pretty
good, but I'm just getting the ball around. I haven't had the
strength to hit the hard fade or the low two-iron. I just swing
and hit the ball, and I haven't done that for 15 years. If I
have a par-5 I know I can reach in two, I want to hit it as hard
as I can. Sometimes I feel great and I do. There are other days
when I don't have any strength."
At the Buick Open two weeks ago, Couples had enough strength and
confidence to shoot 16 under and finish sixth. He might have won
if not for a balky putter. Couples was using a conventional grip
for the first time since late 1992, and on Sunday he missed
short birdie putts on the 15th and 18th holes to finish two
strokes out of a playoff. At Riviera he hit the ball well enough
to contend, but his putter let him down again. On Saturday,
despite making birdie on the last two holes, he only shot 74. On
Sunday he was seven under through 12 holes before slipping with
a pair of bogeys. This wasn't the Couples who closed out
tournaments in 1992. Maybe it was rust. Maybe he never will be a
dominant player again. Maybe a part of him wouldn't mind that.
When Couples ascended to the top of the golf world in 1992, the
walls closed in. He won three tournaments in seven weeks,
culminating with his first major, the Masters. He won the money
title, the Vardon Trophy for the lowest scoring average on Tour
and Player of the Year honors. But the only place he felt
comfortable was inside the ropes. There nobody could ask for an
autograph or an interview. He was just an athlete being an
athlete. That's why, when Couples first hurt his back at Doral
in 1994, many of his closest friends considered it a blessing.
The injury came on the heels of his ugly divorce from Deborah,
and it gave him a chance to escape.
As Couples now describes it, life had become a maze. Getting
around required going through too many people who wanted a piece
of him. Walking from the locker room to the courtesy car became
an adventure. There were days when he would practice at another
course rather than deal with the demands of stardom at the
tournament site. That meant hitting old balls with driving-range
stripes rather than new softcover balatas. But to Couples that
was bliss. It helped him forget about those times when he would
appease apparently every autograph hound, only to hear an
overlooked somebody curse him for not having a third hand
available as he headed to his car with his arms full.
That he took personally. He tried to do his best, but he grew
tired of being portrayed as a bad guy and began thinking the
back injury wasn't so bad after all.
"I didn't really enjoy [the celebrity status]," Couples said.
"All I wanted to do was play golf. I happened to play great for
nine months, and that changed everything. I have a different
lifestyle than a lot of people. I just like to be by myself.
When I'm on the golf course, I'm out there by myself. I'm not
out to put on a show for the 40,000 people who are watching. I
didn't seek that. I just happened to play really well, and it
came along with it.
"It's not much fun when you struggle, either. You still answer a
lot of questions, but instead of about how you won, it's about
why you played so poorly. That wears on you. Now I understand
it. I fully accept a lot of the things you have to do.''
His recent struggles have made him appreciate what he lost. He
opened 1995 with back-to-back victories on the PGA European Tour
in Dubai and in the Philippines, against strong fields on good
courses. That followed an off-season during which he won just
about everything. It looked like 1992 was going to happen all
over again, that Couples was healthy and ready to rejoin the
fray atop golf's heap. But with one swing of a seven-iron on the
17th hole at the Nissan at Riviera in late February, all that
changed. Couples felt the twinge, withdrew from the first two
events in Florida and lost all his momentum. "This year," he
admits, "has kind of been a waste."
A pairing with Don Pooley at the Motorola Western Open in early
July might help him salvage something out of '95. Pooley, no
stranger to back pain, suggested that Couples visit the Hughston
Clinic. At the time, Couples shrugged the suggestion off. "We
were on the 5th hole," he recalled. "I said, 'Don, I can't feel
any better than I'm feeling right now.' By the 14th hole, I
about had to crawl in."
Couples has disk problems, but surgery is avoidable. Yet, when
he skipped the British (at Boers's suggestion), concerns about
the severity of the injury increased. "Yeah, I'm worried about
Freddie," Ray mond Floyd said at St. Andrews. "It's unfortunate
to see a world-class player go through what he's going
through." Added Ben Crenshaw, "He's at a crossroads."
The truth was, Couples had never felt better. He wanted to be in
Scotland, and he second-guessed his decision not to go. But
instead of walking the hard fairways of St. Andrews, Couples was
practicing and playing out of a golf cart in Dallas. And at the
Canadian Skins, Crenshaw and Nick Price saw things in Couples
that they hadn't seen since February. One was a smile.
"Maybe the time away was something he needed," says Price. "May
be he got back his desire and intent to play. Now he's ready.
You can see that he's very focused."
And when Couples is healthy and focused, does anybody make the
game look easier? "When he's playing well, he makes it look
ridiculously easy," says Crenshaw. "His thought processes are
clear, he executes distinctively, he's not bogged down by a
bunch of technical stuff, and he's got an exquisite touch. It's
amazing people don't sense that in him, because he's got the
softest hands in the world around the green. He can do wonderful
things, and he seems positive. But only time will tell."
Yes, time will tell with Couples. Since winning the 1992
Masters, he has finished in the top 10 in only two of 12 majors
and has won just two PGA Tour events. Last week's PGA at Riviera
was the first major in three years at which he wasn't the
highest ranked American on the Sonys. The Ryder Cup looms. And
the questions just keep getting tougher.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID WALBERG He may be laid-back, but Couples remains prone to an outburst here and there. [Fred Couples lying in grass]
COLOR PHOTO: JACQUELINE DUVOISIN Couples struck a blow for his Ryder Cup chances with a strong finish at the PGA Championship. [Fred Couples]
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID WALBERG When it comes to being steered in the right direction, Fred takes his hat off to Tawnya. [Fred Couples and Tawnya Dodd]