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Original Issue

Buddy System

If Phil Mickelson had picked his partner for the final round of the Masters, he couldn't have made a better choice than friendly Fred Couples, the ultimate pro's pro

They say you can'thave everything. Fred Couples has wealth, looks, the best walk in golf and aswing that will not quit. Okay, so he's not a great short putter. If Coupleswere better at the little ones, Phil Mickelson might have been the first personto congratulate Fred for winning his second green jacket, instead of the otherway around. ¶ Jack Nicklaus won his final major at Augusta 20 years ago at age46, and all last week, as Couples was denting flagsticks, people were wonderingwhether another 46-year-old could win golf's most luscious event. "The onlysimilarity between Jack Nicklaus and me is that he was 46 and I'm 46 now,"Couples said after finishing in a five-way tie for third, three shots back. Hestill has that unrushed voice and a way of wording things that makes him soundlike a cross between Yogi Berra and Jeff Spicoli. ¶ Nicklaus at 46 wasconsidered an old man, and his swing was starting to shorten. Couples isthinner now than when he won his only major, in '92. He's longer than Phil withthe driver, nips the iron shots like a sure-handed pickpocket and generally lagputts well. Unfortunately for Fred, stroke-play rules require the ball tofinish in the hole. There was no FedEx Reliability Zone in Nicklaus's day, butthe throw-up zone has been around forever, and Big Jack was a rock in it, whileBoom Boom is not. Still, Couples tied for third at last year's British Open atthe Old Course. He's been playing more of late--always in the sparklyevents--and has frequently been getting in the mix. Still, between now and theBritish Open the only events he'll play for sure are the Memorial, Westchesterand the U.S. Open. Whenever he plays, spectators, reporters and TV cameras lookat him not as a museum piece, but as a guy who's still relevant. ¶ It's a goodbet he'll be on the Ryder Cup team in September, making it on points or as acaptain's pick. (He's 13th on the points list now, and the top 10 automaticallymake the 12-man team.) Among other qualities, he's one of the best hang-outguys in the game. He knows the AL pitching matchups and is above-average inFoosball. ¶ Couples revealed a deep truth when he shut down any comparisonsbetween him and Jack. At 46, Nicklaus had been married to Barbara Nicklaus for26 years, and they had five kids and were ensconced in a big house at Lost Treein North Palm Beach, Fla., with a driveway crowded with balls and bikes.Couples loves kids and playing games with them, just like Jack, but his lifenever took root that way.

His firstmarriage, to the flamboyant Deborah Couples, ended in divorce in 1993, and shetook her own life in 2001. He became engaged to Tawnya Dodd during the '95Ryder Cup, but they never married. In '98 he married Thais Bren, and throughlast year he listed her two children from a previous marriage as his own in thePGA Tour media guide. But in the '06 guide there's no family reference inCouples's biography, and he and Thais are now going through a divorce. In hisyears on Tour, Couples has lived in West Palm Beach, Fla.; Dallas; Los Angeles;and Santa Barbara, Calif.

To his chagrinhe's had more success in golf's off-season cash grabs than in the game's mostimportant events. A balky back cost him more starts than his balky putter costhim wins. His parents died relatively young, and at different times he hasturned different Tour elders such as Ray Floyd, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson intorole models. Inside the ropes Couples has always made it look easy, but wedon't see the half of it. Asked about his easygoing demeanor, Couples says,"It's not easy if you ride in the car home with me." Especially aftermissing five putts of six feet or less, as he did on Sunday. But all the whilehe kept gliding down the fairways, occasionally throwing his cleft chin in thedirection of a yelped "Fred-dee!"

Couples andMickelson were chitchatting (Fred's word) around the course in the final round,having a good time. "He was standing up there and smoking those two drivershe has and I was hitting it with him and we were laughing about that,"Couples said. They're friendly, and Mickelson's longtime caddie, Jim (Bones)MacKay, and Couples's longtime caddie, Joe LaCava, are very close. At some Tourstops Couples, LaCava, MacKay and Davis Love III and his caddie, John (Cubby)Burke, are a regular fivesome at strip-mall Italian restaurants. WhetherCouples is waiting for a car or is on the driving range or in the clubhouse,you almost never see him alone. Last week his teacher, Butch Harmon, watchedhim hit hundreds of shots. Couples practices more now than he did 20 yearsago.

At 14 on Sunday,Couples gave what he called one of his "putting exhibitions." He had afour-footer for birdie to get within a shot of Mickelson, and he missed thatand the one after it, a five-footer for par. On the 15th tee Mickelson had athree-shot lead over Couples, and Fred's tournament was over. For the fourrounds only three players, Rich Beem, Robert Allenby and Sergio García, tookmore putts than the 125 Couples needed. Mickelson needed only 116. Couples saidthat if Mickelson had been putting for him, he might've won by two or threeshots. A wild understatement. "I didn't hit the ball like I was 46,"Couples said, "but I putted like I was 66."

Couples has beenusing a belly putter, with his hands close together and the butt end in hisstomach, for about five years. Sometimes he places the right hand low, which isthe conventional way for a righty, but more often he puts the left hand low. Hetakes the putter head on a slightly outside path on the backswing, as he doeswith his regular swing, which should promote a pull, but somehow he still oftenshoves it right. It's not a yippy stroke, but it's also not ayou-will-die-today-Bond stroke that helps men win major championships and RyderCup matches, although Couples did look awfully good while defeating Vijay Singhin singles at the last Presidents Cup.

Part of Couples'sappeal is that he's manly in the best sense of the word. He plays without aglove, rings, watch or arthritis bracelet. You see his two bare, tanned handson a golf club and you think of those old pictures of Mickey Mantle holding abat, the Mick's fingernails in the pine tar. Couples is not trying to hide hissilver hair or his bad putting, and when he nails one off the tee he'll tellyou he "hit it a mile." If there's heartache in his private life, itdoesn't show up in his play. He's at the point in his career at which he canplay well only on the courses he loves, and no one should be surprised if hecontends in the U.S. Open in June, at man-sized Winged Foot.

But his favoritecourse is Augusta National, and what he did last week was pretty close to hisbest, yet it wasn't enough. He was the picture of grace with Mickelson and thepress and his fans. And then he and four others rode off in his big whiteCadillac, headed for home. Home for the week, anyway.

Asked about his easygoing demeanor, Couples says,"IT'S NOT EASY IF YOU RIDE IN THE CAR HOME WITH ME." Especially aftermissing five putts of six feet or less, as he did on Sunday.


Photographs by Al Tielemans


At 46 Couples is longer than Mickelson and probably a better ironplayer.


Photographs by Al Tielemans


After sputtering on the greens (where he was fourth worst in the field),Couples said he "putted like I was 66."