SAMMAMISH, Wash. – Fred Couples arrived at the U.S. Senior Open this week as a tournament favorite and a hometown hero.
The Seattle native is trying for his first USGA title at any level, playing just 20 miles (32 kilometers) from the Seattle public course where he learned the game growing up.
He hasn’t lived in Seattle for decades. Yet the region still considers Couples its own.
“To win here, it would rank right up there as any other tournaments probably besides Augusta,” Couples said Wednesday. “This is just like a U.S. Open; no one’s going to tell me any differently. It’s very tough out there. So to win here would be, you know, like winning a U.S. Open. And I’m from Seattle, so I would think it would be a great, great accomplishment. It would be very special for me.”
“I’ve been signing more autographs than paying any attention to the golf course,” he said.
His presence represents a perfect confluence of timing and luck. If the PGA Championship had returned to Sahalee this year as originally planned after the tournament’s lone turn as PGA host a dozen years ago, Couples would be an outsider trying to wedge his way into playing in his hometown through a special exemption.
Instead, the PGA pulled out and the USGA moved in bringing the Senior Open, which begins Thursday. This will be Couples’ first turn at a U.S. Senior Open. He turned 50 in October and became an active Champions Tour member this year.
And Couples is more than the hometown favorite. He just might be the tournament favorite, having won three times already this year on the 50-and-over circuit and finishing second twice.
“I think the important thing to know when you’re playing at home is that everyone is pulling for you, hoping the best for you,” Tom Lehman said. “That energy that they have is pushing you in a really good direction. You don’t have to live up to a certain expectation because they want the best for you. That helps you.”
But it’s also a challenge in balancing commitments and expectations. Couples served as the honorary chairmen for the event, although his main duty was putting together a youth clinic on Tuesday. There are interview requests and old friends trying to pull Couples in many directions, not to mention the endless stream of memorabilia to autograph at seemingly every turn.
“This honorary chairman stuff is a little mind-boggling but it’s over on Sunday,” Couples said.
The question remains whether Couples will be in contention come Sunday. The towering trees framing the holes at Sahalee are forcing many to rethink their strategies. Drivers off the tee are being replaced by fairway woods. Long irons are often the choice into greens that some say are the firmest they’ve seen.
Tom Watson said the greens were firmer than this year’s U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. Fred Funk didn’t believe they were quite that hard. Couples simply noted he didn’t make a ball mark on any green during his Tuesday practice round.
“It’s not a golf course where you fire at the flags,” Watson said. “It’s more of a chess match where you get in position for your next shot, and that’s what makes Sahalee such a difficult course to play.”