NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. – Fred Couples moved into position for his second straight Champions Tour victory, shooting a 7-under 64 on Saturday to take a two-stroke lead in the Toshiba Classic.
Couples, making his third start on the 50-and-over tour, had a 12-under 130 total on the Newport Beach Country Club course. He won the ACE Group Classic on Feb. 14 in Florida and finished second behind Tom Watson in the season-opening event in Hawaii. Last week, Couples tied for 14th in the PGA Tour’s Phoenix Open.
Tom Lehman (65) and Taiwan’s Chien Soon Lu (67) were tied for second. Loren Roberts (67) and Ronnie Black (67) followed at 8 under, and defending champion Eduardo Romero (69), John Cook (66), Bob Gilder (66) and Mark Wiebe (71) were 6 under.
Couples and Lehman are first and second in driving distance for the event, though they are vastly different in driving accuracy. Lehman is tied for eighth, while Couples is 73rd out of the 78 players.
Apparently, Couples didn’t need to hit fairways to score. He hit five of 14 fairways, but only made birdies on two of those holes, Nos. 2 and 7.
“I drove it in the rough several times,” Couples said. “I wasn’t blasting them all over the golf course, but yes, I was three or four steps in the rough several times.”
Play started two hours early to try and avoid rain, but there was still a suspension of 71 minutes because of a downpour early in the day.
That actually helped the leaders because the delay was before they teed off and when they began play, the greens were noticeably softer and much more receptive.
The softer greens, though, were tempered by gusty wind.
“It was hard, it was cold,” Couples said. “You are trying to draw them into the wind, then I just started hitting them hard. I was driving it so good yesterday.”
Couples began the second round a stroke behind but was tied by the second hole after a 1-foot birdie putt. He took the lead with an eagle on the 549-yard, par-5 second, reaching the green with a 2-iron in two shots and making a 12-foot putt.
His birdie on No. 9 was set up by probably his best shot. He found the rough on the right off the tee and had several trees between him and the green. Couples then hit an 8-iron through a small gap in the trees that came to rest 4 feet from the cup.
Couples’ driver cost him on 10, leading to his lone bogey of the day.
That allowed the field to creep closer and when Couples reached the 14th hole, there was a four-way tie with Lu, Lehman and Roberts. Couples broke the logjam with a 5-foot birdie putt on the par-5 15th and extended increased his lead to two when he made a 20-footer from above the hole on No. 16.
Couples kept the margin at two when he made a 15-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole. It was one of only 12 birdies on the hole that yielded 41 birdies in the first round.
Couples is 50-under par on the Champions Tour and every one of his eight rounds has been 68 or lower.
Lehman’s first full year on the Champions Tour is going equally well. He has eight rounds in the 60s and is 40 under through eight rounds, but catching the tour’s hottest player will be difficult.
“I know he is going to be 20 or 30 yards past me on every tee shot,” Lehman said. “It’s good to see him playing well.”