One in a series of previews for the April 6-9 Masters
By Adam Schupak
NAPLES, Fla. – Fred Couples has had a constant reminder that his favorite tournament is fast approaching. Last year, he watched every shot of the Masters on TV at home as his chronically bad back sidelined him from playing at Augusta National for the first time in 22 years.
"Probably one of the worst decisions I've ever made," said Couples, lamenting the fact that he didn't at least go to the Champions Dinner and see Arnold Palmer one last time.
His eight buddies who traditionally join him at the Masters were none too pleased, either.
"I said, 'Look, the house is paid for. You've got tickets. You guys go.' But nobody went. So, they let me know how many days there are until Augusta," Couples said before the Allianz Championship in February. "I don't want to miss any more of Augusta. Maybe a couple more years and then probably stop playing there, too. It's a long, hard course."
Next week’s Masters marks the silver anniversary of "Boom Boom's" lone major championship. Who can forget the way he avoided disaster at the par-3 12th hole when his ball stuck like Velcro to the grass just above Rae's Creek and he salvaged par?
Couples is 57 and coming off a season in which he missed a total of eight months with myriad injuries. How did he handle his extended layoff? "I don't even know where my golf clubs are," Couples said at the Ryder Cup in October.
Couples resumed playing late last year and is off to a torrid start this season. But he has tempered expectations that this could be the season when he finally wins the Charles Schwab Cup on the PGA Tour Champions.
"I don't make goals anymore. I can't play enough nor stay healthy enough," Couples said before winning the Chubb Classic in February. "I would like to play 12 or 14 tournaments and have, for me, a semi-full schedule and feel good."
During his layoff last year, he came to peace with the fact that he's in the winter of his career, and his time on tour is running short. If he throws out his back again, he said he's done.
"I could end it today on the seventh hole and be out another five months, and I'm not doing that anymore," he said.
Nor could he bare the humiliation of showing up and regularly finishing among the also-rans. "A lot of guys will play to 60 and just kind of drag on,” he said. “I don't have the personality to drag on.”
His life has revolved around shooting the lowest score for 37 years. That's really all that Couples, a World Golf Hall of Fame member who won 15 times on the PGA Tour and 12 on the senior tour, knows. What will Couples do when he hangs up the spikes? He tossed out a variety of endeavors, but none sounded convincing. He said he would like to give back, perhaps start a foundation "where I can pay attention to it, not just say I have one, which I don't," he said. "It will be normal stuff; walk around at the mall, have lunch, chip a few, hit a few. And the next thing you know, it's 4 o’clock and it's dark in the wintertime."
Oh, how those of us in the media will miss his beautiful mind. Fortunately, the back is merely stiffening and there's still life in Freddie's game. In addition to his victory, he hasn't finished worse than a T-6 in four starts this season on the senior circuit.
"I've been putting incredibly well for me, for anyone," Couples said.
That alone is reason not to count out Old Man Couples at Augusta.
"I still feel like I'm going to do well there," he said.
Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @adamschupak