AUGUSTA, Ga. – The most interesting man in golf is turning this into the most interesting tournament since, well ... last year’s Masters.
If the sheer number of players vying for a green jacket down to the wire defined the 2011 Masters, the only number that seemed to matter on Friday was Fred Couples’ age, 52. Well, that, and his opening salvos of 72-67 for an unlikely share of the lead.
The Couples cool was on full display Friday. The 1992 Masters champion rolled in enough birdie putts to cover the length of Magnolia Lane, outplayed playing partner Ryo Ishikawa – who was born the year before Couples collected his green jacket – by 14 strokes through two rounds and sent roars across the property with a par save at the last for the day’s best round.
That he did it on one of the most demanding days in recent memory at Augusta National with the look of a man on a Sunday stroll only adds to the legend.
“He’s just cool,” gushed Rory McIlroy. “I hope I’m that cool at 52.”
Truth is most of us wish we were that cool at 22, which is about the age Couples feels every time he wheels a right off of Washington Road and rolls down Magnolia Lane.
Since turning 50 in 2009 he’s finished sixth (2010) and tied for 15th (2011), led after Round 1 in ’10 and in 27 Masters starts has 11 top-10 finishes, just two missed cuts and the Win, Place and Show Slam – win (1992), runner-up (1998) and third-place (2006) finishes.
“I feel like I’m very young when I get here,” said Couples. “This is a park for Phil (Mickelson) and I feel the same way. When I’m playing here I don’t feel too much stress.”
Stress-free would be the best way to describe Couples’ week.
Other than his par save at the last, and a 7-footer for par at the 11th, Couples was at his laissez faire best on a blustery Thursday, jump-starting his round with short birdie putts at Nos. 3 and 4 and pulling into a tie with Jason Dufner at 5 under with 20-footers at Nos. 7 and 16.
It also helps that Couples arrived in Georgia happy, healthy and on form, having played decent in two PGA Tour events this year (Northern Trust Open and last week’s Shell Houston Open) and is fresh off a victory at the Champions Tour’s Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic on March 25 that featured a clutch birdie putt at the last to win by a stroke.
“Where was that 10-footer for birdie when I was working for the guy?” joked Joe LaCava, Couples’ longtime caddie on the same day his new boss, Tiger Woods, won at Bay Hill.
But as Couples climbed the hill at No. 18 for he estimates the 150th time it was his new long putter, and the absence of LaCava, that were the only things missing since his golf ball was miraculously suspended on the bank at No. 12 in 1992 on his way to his only major championship.
Everything else remains virtually unchanged, the syrupy swing, the deliberate air and the sheepish smile are still quintessential Couples. Even the way he worked his way around Augusta National with abandon that bordered on indifference seemed plucked from 1992.
“Standing out there I say, ‘What the hell,’ a lot,” he said. “Go ahead and go for it, you’ve got nothing to lose.”
And golf has everything to gain.
In historical context contemplating a Couples victory, however premature, treads on hallowed ground. Jack Nicklaus’ last Masters victory in 1986 at 46 is the benchmark, considered by many the ultimate Masters moment.
And Tom Watson’s improbable run at the 2009 British Open at 59 still resonates with many, particularly Couples. “Tom was 59, that was miraculous,” he said.
When it was suggested that his status as a 52-year-old frontrunner may be just as miraculous Couples shrugged, perhaps grounded by the notion that his oft-ailing back is better equipped for 54-hole championships of the senior circuit variety than a Masters marathon.
Or maybe it was his affinity and acumen on the Georgia gem that stunts his ability to objectively consider the possibility. Even at 52 he is long enough to compete with the modern six-pack abs set on the PGA Tour and his mastery of the former fruit nursery is unrivaled.
“I don’t feel old on the golf course just yet,” Couples said. “I came here knowing that if I played like I know I can I can contend . . . I’m certainly not Rory McIlroy or Phil Mickelson, but I know this golf course pretty well.”
He also knows exactly how he would handle the unthinkably historical chance that at 52 he could collect his second green jacket.
“They would probably never see me again. It would be a walk-off,” Couples smiled. “What a way to go.”
Leave it to the most interesting man in golf, to make things so interesting.