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A Hit at the Hope Fred Couples, having survived a traumatic 1997, was a popular winner in Palm Springs

Why do we love Fred Couples? The answer used to be so easy. Easy
like Couples's languid swing, his laid-back cool or the way he
sets certain segments of the gallery to swooning with his good
looks. In 1992 Couples even won a Masters the easy way,
Velcroing a ball to the bank above Rae's Creek on the 12th hole
of the final round, an outrageous defiance of the laws of
gravity, not to mention Augusta National. For Couples, life had
always been a gimme, a fascinating prospect to the rest of us.

Beginning in March 1994, though, Couples's carriage turned into
a pumpkin. Since "the grenade went off" in Couples's back (his
imagery) on the driving range before the last round of that
year's Doral-Ryder Open, he has not been the same player.
Heading into this season, Couples had won only twice since the
injury, a depressing downturn for the Tour's third alltime money
winner. Life away from golf has left its scar tissue too with a
divorce and a broken engagement both played out in public. Last
year was the most wrenching yet: Couples lost his father to
leukemia on Thanksgiving Day, and his girlfriend, Thais Bren,
was found to have breast cancer. Overwhelmed with caring for his
loved ones, Couples played in only 15 events, the fewest of his
career, and finished 55th on the money list, his third-poorest
showing in 17 years on Tour.

Couples's talent has never been questioned, but his desire often
has, and whether he would right himself in the face of such
adversity was one of the big questions going into this season.
At last week's Bob Hope Chrysler Classic in Palm Springs,
Calif., Couples provided a definitive answer as he shot a
sizzling 28 under par for five rounds and then trumped Bruce
Lietzke on the first hole of a playoff. The performance was one
of the most compelling of Couples's career, and it presented his
many fans with an entirely new Fred Couples to love, one who is
world-weary and hell-bent on grinding out success as he heads
into the final phase of his life in golf.

"This is not the greatest win I have ever had, but it was a
great time to win," Couples said of his 13th Tour victory. "It
wasn't a big deal to me how I played last year. This year it's a
huge deal. This proved to me that I can still win, and I plan on
winning more tournaments. I plan on having a great year."

Says Bren, "I know '98's going to be a great year because there
can't ever be another one like '97." Couples and Bren met last
March around the time of the Nissan Open in Los Angeles, where
Bren lives with her two children. Couples's season was off to a
flying start at that point--the Nissan was his third top 10
finish in as many tournaments. Perhaps because of his father's
condition, Couples was particularly concerned about an offhand
comment Bren had made regarding her health. "I had been
suspicious for a while that something might be wrong, but I was
told not to worry, that I was healthy," she says. "Fred was the
one who really encouraged me to get a proper diagnosis. He told
me that I had to be sure."

Couples was with Bren when she received the grim news. They had
been dating for little more than two weeks. "She said, 'You
don't need this. You can be with a healthy woman,'" Couples said
at last year's British Open, the first time he spoke publicly of
Bren's condition. "I didn't feel that way at all. I'm not going
to spend all my life playing golf and going back to the room

Couples began shuttling between L.A., his father's house in
Seattle and his own home in Dallas. That left little time for
the Tour, and during one 13-week stretch from March to June he
played in only three tournaments. It was just as well because
being between the ropes offered little respite. "I was thinking
about other things every single round I played last year," says
Couples. "There were rounds when all I wanted to do was get it
over with and get out of there. The golf felt so unimportant."

The feeling was even more acute during a bittersweet summer as
Bren continued her recovery (she is now, in her words, "100
percent fine") and Tom Couples became increasingly ill. "There
were a lot of good days because my girlfriend was getting
better," Fred says, "but how happy could I be because at the
same time my dad was getting worse."

Couples had been introduced to the game by his father, who
worked in Seattle's parks and recreation department, but Tom
Couples's love was baseball, not golf. He had knocked around the
minor leagues, just as Fred's older brother, Tom, would. "My dad
didn't give me a lot of advice about golf," says the 38-year-old
Couples. "When I used to call him, he'd always have only one
thing to say: 'Jesus Christ, you're not playing enough. Get out
there and play some better golf, would ya.'"

It is something of a paradox that Tom Couples is going to get
his wish this year. In addition to limiting his '97 schedule of
official events, Couples missed the numerous Silly Season
exhibitions he usually feasts on (hence his nickname, Mr.
November). In fact, from the Las Vegas Invitational at the end
of October until the Hope, Couples hardly touched a club. The
time off was great for his arthritic back. According to Couples
he has a degenerative condition that cannot improve, not even
through surgery. "I wake up in the morning, and I walk like a
60-year-old man," he says. "My back bothers me whether I shoot
64 or 104. If Casey Martin gets a cart, I'm next in line."

Still, Couples looked positively spry throughout the Hope,
despite the tournament's torturous format of five long
rounds--four of them with amateur partners--on four courses
(though all of them are cake). Couples opened with a bogey-free
64 at La Quinta Country Club. The next day at the Palmer Course
at PGA West, Couples had a letdown, bogeying four of the final
five holes to shoot a 70, a potentially killing score at the Bob
Hope Desert Birdiefest, the nickname Paul Stankowski hung on the
event. However, Couples rebounded with back-to-back 66s to stay
three shots behind the coleaders, Lietzke and Andrew Magee,
heading into the final round. After Saturday's 66 at Bermuda
Dunes Country Club, during which Couples hit 17 of 18 greens and
averaged 293 yards a drive, his longtime caddie, Joe LaCava,
said, "He's hitting the ball as well as I've ever seen him hit
it. That's pretty scary considering how little golf he's played."

On Sunday at Bermuda Dunes, Couples played in the final
threesome and was nearly flawless while both Lietzke and Magee
sputtered. Couples did catch a Craig Stadler-sized break on the
9th hole, when his duck-hooked drive clanged off an NBC golf
cart and back toward the fairway. Couples promptly stuck his
approach to within 10 feet of the hole and drained the birdie
putt to make the turn only two back. On the 13th and 14th
Couples showed off a dazzling combination of length and touch.
He reached the 564-yard par-5 13th with a two-iron for a
two-putt birdie, and then at the 14th uncorked a gorgeous flop
shot over a grove of trees for a gimme birdie that drew him to
within one of Lietzke.

The tournament was decided on the watery par-5 18th--twice. The
first time around Couples hit the prettiest three-wood approach
you've ever seen, a laser from 250 yards that settled 15 feet
from the flag. He left the eagle putt just short, though.
Lietzke could have closed the door with a birdie putt from 12
feet, but he burned the edge. Lietzke and Couples went back to
the tee and did it again. (Magee missed out on the playoff after
rimming out his 18-footer for birdie at the 90th hole.)
Couples's drive put him in practically the identical spot he had
been in minutes before, but this time he hit his approach over
the green. An indifferent chip left him with a four-foot
knee-knocker for birdie. When Lietzke just missed his 14-footer
for birdie, it was all up to Couples. There was never any doubt.

"You got to feel very, very good for Freddie," a gracious
Lietzke said afterward. "This is going to be a popular victory
among the players. The Tour needs people like Freddie Couples."

Even though Couples plays a charity tournament every summer in
honor of his mother, Violet, who died in 1994, he's not the
sentimental type. Standing on the 18th green, just moments after
his victory, he said, "Sure, my dad was on my mind out there,
but I'm not one to say I did it for someone, and I don't
dedicate victories, either. I did it for myself. I just hope he
was watching."

Bren was, and she was glowing. She has attended only a few of
Couples's tournaments, but it wasn't difficult to pick her out
of the gallery, or at least it wasn't at the Hope--she was the
one Couples kept smiling at. He even introduced her at the
champion's press conference, a thoroughly embarrassing moment
for Bren.

When the interviews were over, all that was left for Couples to
do was fight his way to the parking lot, past a million frantic
autograph seekers. There was new urgency to their pleas, and it
sounded good. It was the sound of an old hero being welcomed back.

Finally Couples slipped into the sanctuary of Bren's gold
Mercedes, conspicuous for the oversized winner's check of
$414,000 that was propped up on the backseat, and sped away. It
seems almost unnecessary to point out that they drove off into
the sunset.

COLOR PHOTO: EDWARD M. PIO RODA Couples celebrated his first victory in 22 months. [Fred Couples]

COLOR PHOTO: J.D. CUBAN Bren is glad she listened to Couples and got a second opinion. [Thais Bren]