BOCA RATON, Fla. – Eight months from his 60th birthday, Fred Couples returns to the PGA Tour this week. He wrangled a spot in the Genesis Open thanks to a sponsor’s exemption, but he’s going to Los Angeles with some reservations.
“I probably should go to Naples [Fla., for the Champions Tour’s Chubb Classic],’’ he said. “Sounds like bragging, but I won Naples a couple times [2010 and 2017] and still want to play in L.A. Riviera is one of my favorite events.’’
Couples won Los Angeles’ longstanding PGA Tour stop twice, in 1990 and 1992, and he was a three-time runner-up in the 1990s, so it’s understandable why he’d like to return to storied Riviera Country Club one more time.
With Couples, though, you never know where or when he’ll show up to play. That’s just the way it is.
No question that his career is winding down, but Couples is still competitive with the younger guys. Last October, during the same week when he turned 59, he played the PGA Tour’s Safeway Classic in Napa, Calif. That week, he said that tournament would be “my last PGA Tour event besides Augusta [the Masters, which he won in 1992 to earn a lifetime exemption].’’
Couples tied for 41st that week, dropping 26 places after shooting 75 in the final round, and that came after a solid T-38 in the Masters. In 2016, he skipped Augusta National, site of his only major championship, because of back problems.
“I physically couldn’t move,’’ he said between practice swings at the Oasis Championship. “Last year, I went basically wearing a back brace. I just didn’t want to miss the Masters again, and I made the cut. It felt like I had won the tournament just by making the cut.’’
Couples began 2019 with two events on the 50-and-older tour: a tie for fifth in the Mitsubishi Electric Championship in Hawaii and a tie for eighth Sunday in the Oasis Championship in Florida (scores). He was a late entry for the Oasis, the first full-field event of the season, in part because of back problems. That obviously has not always been the case.
“The process is just trying to figure it out,’’ Couples said. “I’ve been doing this a long time. I could play great one day, get in the car and drive to the hotel and get out and something could go wrong with my back. Or I can hit a driver as hard as I can and something could happen there. There’s no rhyme or reason, but I really feel pretty good at the moment, and I’m planning on playing a little more this year. Twelve, 14 events – that’s my goal.’’
Couples stopped short of predicting where he might play after this week at Riviera.
“I look at the schedule at the beginning of the year, and it’s a pipe dream,’’ he said. “I mark, like, 16 tournaments. I skip majors on our [Champions] tour because I don’t really feel like I should go play in them. That’s not the greatest thing, either.’’
To play, or not to play, in major championships? Being Fred Couples isn’t as easy as his classic swing looks, but he has found a scheduling formula that has worked – at least to some extent – for almost three decades.
“I know the year,” he said, tracing the origin of his back troubles. “I was 32 years old when it started happening. It was never really horrible except for the first time it happened. I was out for, like, seven months and thought, Am I going to be able to play?”
Play, he did, and Couples has built a resume that features 15 PGA Tour victories (the most recent in Houston, where he played college golf, in 2003) and 13 Champions Tour titles (the most recent in 2017).
“Since I came back, I’ve taken it easy because all my buddies are young kids,’’ Couples said. “I tell them, ‘Don’t worry about missing a cut or having two bad months of golf. This isn’t a sprint. This is a marathon.’ That’s how I really wanted to treat it. Knock on wood, I’ve lasted.’’
Len Ziehm spent 41 years as the golf columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times before his retirement in 2010. He is in his ninth year as golf columnist for the Daily Herald chain of Chicago suburban newspapers and in his 29th year as golf columnist for Chicagoland Golf, a monthly publication. He also contributes to Chicago District Golfer, the Illinois PGA website and operates lenziehmongolf.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @ZiehmLen