Good to be back in LA

By Randall MellFebruary 19, 2011, 5:25 am

Northern Trust Open

LOS ANGELES – The ache in his back never really goes away.

Since the day Fred Couples crumpled in pain on the driving range before the final round of the Doral-Ryder Open in 1994, his back’s never been the same.

“Fred never uses it as an excuse, but I’ll tell you flat out, his back’s worse than people know,” says Joe LaCava, Couples’ long-time caddie. “A lot of people have nagging injuries, but his back’s bad.”

That’s why LaCava loved the text message Couples fired off to him when Couples decided to play the Northern Trust Open this week.

“In 21 years working with the guy, he’s probably told me three times that he’s playing well,” LaCava said. “He texts me last week, and he says `I’m playing LA. I feel like I’m playing well. I really want to play.’ So I was kind of excited to come out here, and obviously he is playing well.”

Couples is plagued this week by the same ache that’s been bothering his back for 17 years, but it’s rarely hurt so good.

With a bogey-free 5-under-par 66 Friday, Couples shot to the top of the leaderboard at the Northern Trust Open. At 51, he’s bidding to win this event for the third time.

LaCava knows what Couples can do at Riviera with a lot of confidence in his game.

That’s why LaCava wasn’t surprised Couples passed on defending his title in Naples on the Champions Tour this week. He knows what Riviera means to Couples and how much he’d like to win here again.

“I think they all understand,” Couples said of his Champions Tour colleagues. “This is my favorite place to play. The people in Naples, I don’t think they are upset. I’m sure they want me there, but I would rather be here. Even if I miss the cut, I’d still rather be here. This is a very special spot to me, and I love playing here.”

Couples got off to a fast start Friday with an eagle at the first hole. He made a 94-foot putt.

“It’s the longest putt I’ve ever seen anyone hit, let alone make,” said Anthony Kim, who played alongside Couples.

Couples gave Kim a clinic on how to play Riviera.

“He was playing like he was my age,” said Kim, whose nine shots behind Couples. “He’s young in his mind.”

Couples said he feels good over most shots. Surprisingly, his back doesn’t bother him when he takes a big swing with his driver. It bothers him when he’s over a short iron or pitching wedge.

“He knows he has to bend over more, and he knows he’s going to take a divot,” LaCava said.

Midway through the second round, Couples was seventh in the field in driving distance, averaging 298 yards a wallop.

Mostly, Couples’ back bothers him when he’s just standing around waiting to hit a shot or away from the course. It also affects his sleep.

“Standing here,” Couples said while fidgeting in front of a microphone after his round, “it feels like a toothache. By 8 tonight, you’re just ready to hit somebody.”

Couples is planning some special new treatment on Monday, but he’s being mysterious about the nature of it.

Surely, though, a victory this weekend will feel like healing medicine.

“I feel like I can play this course blindfolded,” Couples said. “It doesn’t mean I’m going to shoot a good round . . . I’ve played 150 rounds on this course, probably. I don’t think anyone in this field has played as many rounds as I have. So that’s an advantage for me.”

Actually, Couples has now played 101 round in this event at Riviera, but that is more than anyone else in the field. Corey Pavin’s played 96 here.

Couples won four times on the Champions Tour last year, and he said the confidence gained winning there helps him this week. He’s seeking his 16th PGA Tour title, his first since the 2003 Shell Houston Open. If he wins at Riviera, he won’t be the oldest winner of a PGA Tour event. Sam Snead won the Greater Greensboro Open when he was 52 years and 10 months old. Still, winning would do a lot for Couples as he prepares for the Masters in seven weeks. Couples won his only major in ’92 at Augusta National but showed last year he can still be a factor there by finishing sixth.

If Couples wins this week, anything will seem possible going to Augusta National, a place he finds as enchanting as Riviera.


Follow Randall Mell on Twitter @RandallMell

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Watch: McIlroy gives Fleetwood a birthday cake

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 19, 2018, 2:58 pm

Tommy Fleetwood turned 27 on Friday. He celebrated with some good golf – a 4-under 68 in Abu Dhabi, leaving him only two shots back in his title defense – and a birthday cake, courtesy of Rory Mcllroy.

While giving a post-round interview, Fleetwood was surprised to see McIlroy approaching with a cake in hand.

“I actually baked this before we teed off,” McIlroy joked.

Fleetwood blew out the three candles – “three wishes!” – and offered McIlroy a slice.  

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DJ shoots 64 to surge up leaderboard in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 1:48 pm

Dustin Johnson stood out among a star-studded three-ball that combined to shoot 18 under par with just one bogey Friday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Shaking off a sloppy first round at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, Johnson matched the low round of the day with a 64 that put him within four shots of Thomas Pieters’ lead.

“I did everything really well,” Johnson said. “It was a pretty easy 64.”

Johnson made four bogeys during an even-par 72 on Thursday and needed a solid round Friday to make the cut. Before long, he was closer to the lead than the cut line, making birdie on three of the last four holes and setting the pace in a group that also included good rounds from Rory McIlroy (66) and Tommy Fleetwood (68).

“Everyone was hitting good shots,” McIlroy said. “That’s all we were seeing, and it’s nice when you play in a group like that. You feed off one another.” 

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, Johnson is searching for his first regular European Tour title. He tied for second at this event a year ago.

Johnson’s second-round 64 equaled the low round of the day (Jorge Campillo and Branden Grace). 

“It was just really solid all day long,” Johnson said. “Hit a lot of great shots, had a lot of looks at birdies, which is what I need to do over the next two days if I want to have a chance to win on Sunday.” 

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Closing eagle moves Rory within 3 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 12:57 pm

What rust? Rory McIlroy appears to be in midseason form.

Playing competitively for the first time since Oct. 8, McIlroy completed 36 holes without a bogey Friday, closing with an eagle to shoot 6-under 66 to sit just three shots back at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

“I’m right in the mix after two days and I’m really happy in that position,” he told reporters afterward.

McIlroy took a 3 ½-month break to heal his body, clear his mind and work on his game after his first winless year since 2008, his first full season as a pro.

He's back on track at a familiar playground, Abu Dhabi Golf Club, where he’s racked up eight top-11s (including six top-3s) in his past nine starts there.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy opened with a 69 Thursday, then gave himself even more chances on Day 2, cruising along at 4 under for the day when he reached the par-5 closing hole. After launching a 249-yard long iron to 25 feet, he poured in the eagle putt to pull within three shots of Thomas Pieters (65). 

Despite the layoff, McIlroy edged world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, by a shot over the first two rounds. 

“DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now, and one of, if not the best, driver of the golf ball," McIlroy said. "To be up there with him over these first two days, it proves to me that I’m doing the right things and gives me a lot of confidence going forward.”

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Duke to fill in for injured Pavin at CareerBuilder

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 12:25 pm

Ken Duke will fill in for Corey Pavin for the next two rounds of the CareerBuilder Challenge – with nothing at stake but his amateur partner’s position on the leaderboard.

Pavin was 4 over par when he withdrew after 17 holes Thursday because of a neck injury. Tournament officials contacted Duke, the first alternate, and asked if he would take Pavin’s spot and partner with Luis Lopez for the next two rounds, even though he would not receive any official money.

Duke accepted and explained his decision on Twitter:

Playing on past champion’s status, the 48-year-old Duke has made only four starts this season, with a best finish of a tie for 61st at the RSM Classic.

Pavin received a sponsor exemption into the event, his first PGA Tour start since the 2015 Colonial.