His place in golf history is assured, and the joint had better
have a big-screen TV and a remote, or Fred Couples will not be
happy. No, Couples is not the greatest player of all time. What
he is, is the coolest. Probably only Johnny Miller belongs on
the same shelf in the refrigerator. When Couples earned the job
as the world's No. 1 player in 1992, he quickly discovered that
he didn't want it. Now that's cool.
Couples, 38, has settled for being one of the better players
among a pretty good group of golfers his age. Now that he's
happy and reasonably healthy (for a guy with a back that needs
more maintenance than a '74 Fiat, anyway), he has also become a
recycled candidate for best U.S. player. That slot had been
ceded to one of the Generation Next golfers--David Duval, Justin
Leonard or Tiger Woods--but since Couples beat all of them on
his way to an impressive four-stroke victory last week in the
Memorial Tournament, his second win this year and the 14th of
his career, consider that title up for grabs.
In addition to his wins, Couples has also had several close
calls this season--seconds at the Masters and the Nelson and a
third in Houston. They made his 17-under-par blistering of
Muirfield Village Golf Club, in suburban Columbus, Ohio, seem
less surprising. "Fred was due to blow one out," said Davis Love
III, who was three shots behind Couples going into the final
round and wound up tied for fifth, seven strokes back. "He's
enjoying playing again, and he's playing well. When he gets his
confidence, he's very hard to beat. It's been a long time since
he has played like this for a stretch of tournaments."
Part of what makes Couples seem so cool is that when he's
playing well, he makes the game look effortless. Last week he
eagled both of the par-5s on the back nine on the first day, hit
16 greens in regulation during both of the weekend rounds and on
Sunday never made a putt longer than four feet yet shot 69
despite two storm delays and tough conditions. "He has played
well since Day One this year," says Joe LaCava, Couples's
caddie. "He's in a groove."
Couples is not the same player who struggled through the last
three or four seasons, distracted and burdened. Neither is he
the smooth superstar who looked unbeatable in the spring of '92.
"I think I can play as well at 38 as I did at 32," Couples says.
"I had one great year. People keep trying to get me back [to
1992], and, you know, it's not easy to do. I've had a great two
months, but two months does not make a good year."
Since winning the '92 Masters, Couples has been divorced, exited
one serious relationship and entered another, and lost both his
parents to cancer, all while playing with a chronic back
disorder. Not only was golf not fun anymore, nothing else was
either. He entered '98 with his personal problems finally behind
him and won his first start, the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. "My
golf is better because my life is better," says Couples.
Just as his comeback reaches a peak, Couples is curtailing his
schedule. The only tournaments he plans to play for the rest of
the year are the three remaining majors, the NEC World Series of
Golf, the Las Vegas Invitational and the Tour Championship. Why
so few appearances? "Because too much is not good for me," he
says. "This is my third week in a row, and I'm exhausted. Some
guys play five weeks, take a week off, then play five more. I'm
done after three. I've practiced and played pretty hard the last
few months, and it's paid off. Physically, I just can't play
Couples flew in his back specialist, Dr. Tom Boers, from
Columbus, Ga., for some stretching and manipulation sessions
last week. Boers also works with Love, who was paired with
Couples in the final twosome on Sunday. Love's back got so bad
after his consecutive victories in April, in the MCI Classic and
then in a tournament in Japan, that he took three weeks off
during which he didn't touch a club, focusing instead on
back-strengthening exercises that Boers recommended. The
Memorial was Love's first start since Japan. "If this was any
other tournament, I probably wouldn't be here," he said. "You
don't want to miss Jack's tournament or Arnold's or Byron's. My
leg was dragging the last 18 in Japan, but I've made progress.
I'm 75 percent better than I was."
Love arrived at Muirfield Village with no expectations and was
pleasantly surprised when he opened with a 66. A second-round 73
was a setback, but another 66 got him in the final pairing with
his old World Cup partner. Maybe it was Sunday's winds, his back
acting up or the lack of practice catching up with him, but Love
couldn't make a run at Couples.
No one put much pressure on Couples in the final round, although
the leader board was full of big names. Jim Furyk, who was
second to Tom Watson the week before at the Colonial, birdied
three of the first five holes and shot 68. The trouble was, he
was seven strokes behind going into the round. A quadruple-bogey
7 on the 16th hole on the first day was the obvious blemish on
his week. "Stuff like that shouldn't happen, but that won't be
the only quad of my career," said Furyk, who finished fourth,
six shots behind Couples. "I had to forget about it on Thursday
night. Guys like Fred and Davis and David aren't the kind you
want to chase. They're explosive and can birdie eight or nine
holes in a day. I played with Fred the first two days in Dallas
[at the Nelson]. He was seven under par and easily could have
been 14 under. He didn't finish like he wanted to there, but
great players come back and win the next one, like he did."
Duval, who finished second in the Memorial in 1995 and '96,
threatened to add to his quickly built collection of five
victories, but two mistakes held him back. After a disappointing
first round (74), he looked like the man to beat when he shot
66-67 despite finishing last Saturday's round with an ugly
double bogey. He tried to hit a seven-iron onto the green from
the rough, but his ball stayed in the long grass. He needed two
shots to reach the green. "It was really stupid of me to try to
hit it near the green," Duval said. "That's probably the worst
decision I've made this year."
With a birdie at the 8th hole on Sunday, Duval moved into a tie
for second, four shots behind. Then he tried to knock down a
nine-iron shot at the 9th. He knocked it down, all right, right
into the water fronting the green. That cost him another double
and any chance of catching Couples.
Brandel Chamblee and Andrew Magee were also in the chase.
Chamblee, a good wind player from Texas, found himself in second
early on the back nine, four shots behind Couples, but he
three-putted the 14th and bogeyed the par-5 15th from a
greenside bunker. "When I went out the door and saw it was
windy, I thought I had a chance," Chamblee said, "but Fred is
the wrong guy to be chasing. He doesn't seem to have any nerves.
It's hard to beat that boy."
Magee, whose last victory was in Tucson in 1994, didn't make a
bogey on the back nine all week. On Sunday he came close to
holing a 50-foot eagle putt at the 15th. "I thought, If I can
make one of these things, I might give Freddie something to
think about," he said, "but he made another birdie and kept
lengthening his lead. Then it was a fight for second."
The biggest fight, it turned out, was getting the tournament
finished on Sunday. The storm first halted the action at 4:16
p.m. but blew right through, allowing play to resume about 45
minutes later. The second wave of the storm stopped play at
6:28, with Couples having already teed off at the 17th hole. The
tournament didn't resume until just after 7 p.m.
Stiff back and all, Couples's first shot after the last delay
was a sand wedge that he left within a foot for an easy birdie.
His most impressive shot of the day--from a buried lie in the
pot bunker left of the 8th green--led to a save. "There were 71
guys who made the cut, and maybe 10 could've got up and down
from there," says LaCava. "I heard some guy in the crowd say,
'Good save.' No, it was a great save."
Not that you could tell from Couples's reaction. He was
typically nonchalant, bordering on oblivious, which is part of
his cool. Last Friday night he and his girlfriend, Thais Bren,
finally erased their names from the short list of humans who
haven't seen Titanic. The movie was awesome, said Fred, who was
surprised that the film began in modern times, with the
exploration of the wreckage. "I didn't hear anything about the
movie, but I thought the ship sank in 19-something. Then this
old lady showed up, and they backed into the story."
Wait a minute, Fred. You had no knowledge of the biggest
blockbuster of all time? Maybe so. SportsCenter doesn't air
clips, so how was a sportsaholic like Couples to know?
Three fourths of the way through Titanic, Couples felt a
migraine coming. He woke up on Saturday with a splitting
headache and stayed in bed until noon. He looked more
uninterested than ever during his round, yet shot a 67, with a
32 on the back nine, to take a three-stroke lead. He didn't bend
over to line up putts--that made him dizzy--and bemoaned the
enthusiasm of the fans. "I wish they'd been quieter," Couples
said. "My head was pounding."
He felt much better on Sunday. He was still in the scorer's tent
when Duval, who had finished two groups earlier, popped in to
offer his congratulations. It was a classy gesture of respect,
and clearly appreciated by Couples. Mostly, it was kind of cool.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM GUND [Fred Couples golfing]
COLOR PHOTO: CRAIG JONES/ALLSPORT [David Duval golfing out of bunker]
FIELDS OF DREAMS
This year David Duval (left) played in Jack Nicklaus's Memorial
but skipped the other two Tour events hosted by golf icons:
Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Invitational and the Byron Nelson
Classic. Still, as the chart below shows, when it comes to
attracting top players from the World Ranking, Arnie was the
TOURNAMENT FIELD TOP 10 TOP 50 TOP 100
Bay Hill 120 7 33 53
Nelson 156 6 23 46
Memorial 104 7 26 53