Like old times, Couples in contention at the Masters

By Rex HoggardApril 12, 2013, 10:09 pm

AUGUSTA, Ga. – The “cool jerk,” his words not ours, is at it again.

For all those who tuned into the season’s first major title bout don’t adjust your channel, you haven’t stumbled onto a Champions Tour event, although a quick once-over of Friday’s leaderboard had a distinct over-50 feel.

Fred Couples, all 53 years of smooth swinging swagger, “butchered” the seventh hole, rebounded with birdies at Nos. 8, 12 and 18, and enters the weekend chasing history – again.

Last year, the king of cool entered the weekend tied for the lead but faded with a 75-72 finish. In 2010, he began the back nine Sunday with visions of a second green jacket dancing through his often misunderstood mind only to finish alone in sixth place.

“It seems like the same old course for me,” said Couples, who posted a 71 Friday and was tied for the lead.

And the same old Freddie.

The Masters and Couples is, in every way, a perfect marriage, complete with good times and bad.

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In 29 trips down Magnolia Lane, he’s missed the cut just twice and is one of the few players to ever hit for the cycle at the peach tree park – having finished first (1992), second (1998) and third (2006).

If there was a senior division at the annual invitational at Augusta National Couples would be a stone-cold lock, but behind the smooth exterior is a competitor that has his gaze fixed on the championship flight, regardless of his status among the AARP set.

“When he comes here it is a course that just fits his eye,” said Couples’ caddie, Cayce Kerr. “He’s so happy, it’s exhilarating. He enjoys the walk.”

And we enjoy the watch. It’s impossible not to.

If Jack Nicklaus’ historic victory at the former fruit nursery in 1986 was one for the ages, a Couples championship on Sunday would be one for the ageless.

Blame it on technology, which has allowed Boom Boom to maintain a respectable driving average this week (he’s currently ranked near the top of the field with a 284-yard average); genetics; Anatabloc, the anti-inflammatory medication that Couples’ endorses; or, maybe most importantly, experience.

On a day that featured swirling winds that baffled many younger players, the ageless sage seemed unfazed.

“My caddie has a wind chart and the wind was blowing downwind on No. 2 so three hours later, you go back and you stand on the 12th tee. You can’t stand there and say I know it’s coming into my face, but I’m not really sure. But I feel pretty comfortable on some of these shots,” Couples said.

Whatever the tonic, Augusta National is the ultimate anti-aging cream for a man who will enter the World Golf Hall of Fame next month.

There was no surprise as Couples completed his round in gusting winds that kept the field guessing on Day 2. Not from Freddie, not from the Masters masses who so easily shun the status quo when it comes to Couples.

Not that Couples gave himself much of a chance of making history earlier in the week. During Wednesday’s Par 3 Contest, he hit the ball so badly he did the unthinkable – racing to the practice tee for an emergency session that lasted 45 minutes. The turnaround, said Kerr, was nothing short of miraculous. The result, at least through two laps, has been downright magical.

If a 53-year-old champion is not exactly the norm, Augusta National has a history of honoring its elders, and it’s not just Couples. Just three spots down the leaderboard sits 55-year-old Bernard Langer, who has posted matching 71s this week and is tied for 13th.

“I always thought Freddie with his length could win it,” Langer explained. “We’re just as good as ball-strikers as the young guys, just not as long.”

If a Couples/Langer shootout on Sunday is enough to send 50-somethings everywhere into a frenzy, know there will be collateral damage if such a scenario – however unlikely – plays out. Just a hunch, but the long putter – which both use – likely wouldn’t survive the weekend if those two defied the odds.

Couples, however, has made conventional wisdom a five-stroke underdog at Augusta National. As strange as it may seem that on the same day a 14-year-old was issued a one-stroke penalty for slow play a 53-year-old would race into the hunt, it is what we’ve come to expect from Couples.

In a moment of déjà vu, Couples was asked what he would do on Sunday if he shattered the grey ceiling on Sunday and collected his second green jacket 21 years after donning his first.

“I’d quit,” he smiled. “Play golf, but not this hard.”

That’s funny coming from a guy who has always made it look so easy.

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Langer not playing to pass Irwin, but he just might

By Tim RosaforteJanuary 16, 2018, 1:40 pm

Bernhard Langer goes back out on tour this week to chase down more than Hale Irwin’s PGA Tour Champions record of 45 career victories. His chase is against himself.

“I’m not playing to beat Hale Irwin’s record,” Langer told me before heading to Hawaii to defend his title at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai. “I play golf to play the best I can, to be a good role model, and to enjoy a few more years that are left.”

Langer turned 60 on Aug. 27 and was presented a massage chair by his family as a birthday gift. Instead of reclining (which he does to watch golf and football), he won three more times to close out a seven-win campaign that included three major championships. A year prior, coming off a four-victory season, Langer told me after winning his fourth Charles Schwab Cup that surpassing Irwin’s record was possible but not probable. With 36 career victories and 11 in his last two years, he has changed his tone to making up the nine-tournament difference as “probable.”

“If I could continue a few more years on that ratio, I could get close or pass him,” Langer told me from his home in Boca Raton, Fla. “It will get harder. I’m 60 now. It’s a big challenge but I don’t shy away from challenges.”

Bernhard Langer, Hale Irwin at the 1991 Ryder Cup (Getty Images)

Langer spent his off-season playing the PNC Father/Son, taking his family on a ski vacation at Big Sky in Yellowstone, Montana, and to New York for New Year’s. He ranks himself as a scratch skier, having skied since he was four years old in Germany. The risk of injury is worth it, considering how much he loves “the scenery, the gravity and the speed.”

Since returning from New York, Langer has immersed himself into preparing for the 2018 season. Swing coach Willy Hoffman, who he has worked with since his boyhood days as an as assistant pro in Germany, flew to Florida for their 43rd year of training.

“He’s a straight shooter,” Hoffman told me. “He says, 'Willy, every hour is an hour off my life and we have 24 hours every day.'"

As for Irwin, they have maintained a respectful relationship that goes back to their deciding singles match in the 1991 Ryder Cup. Last year they were brought back to Kiawah Island for a corporate appearance where they reminisced and shared the thought that nobody should ever have to bear what Langer went through, missing a 6-footer on the 18th green. That was 27 years ago. Both are in the Hall of Fame.

"I enjoy hanging out with Hale," Langer says.

Langer’s chase of Irwin’s record is not going to change their legacies. As Hoffman pointed out, “Yes, (Bernhard) is a rich man compared to his younger days. He had no money, no nothing. But today you don’t feel a difference when you talk to him. He’s always on the ground.”

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McIlroy: Ryder Cup won't be as easy as USA thinks

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 16, 2018, 1:18 pm

The Americans have won their past two international team competitions by a combined score of 38-22, but Rory McIlroy isn’t expecting another pushover at the Ryder Cup in September.

McIlroy admitted that the U.S. team will be strong, and that its core of young players (including Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler) will be a force for the next decade. But he told reporters Tuesday at the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship that course setup will play a significant role.

“If you look at Hazeltine and how they set the course up – big, wide fairways, no rough, pins in the middle of greens – it wasn’t set up for the way the Europeans like to play,” McIlroy said, referring to the Americans’ 17-11 victory in 2016. “I think Paris will be a completely different kettle of fish, so different.”

At every Ryder Cup, the home team has the final say on course setup. Justin Rose was the most outspoken about the setup at Hazeltine, saying afterward that it was “incredibly weak” and had a “pro-am feel.” 

And so this year’s French Open figures to be a popular stop for European Tour players – it’s being held once again at Le Golf National, site of the matches in September. Tommy Fleetwood won last year’s event at 12 under.

“I’m confident,” McIlroy said. “Everything being all well and good, I’ll be on that team and I feel like we’ll have a really good chance.

“The Americans have obviously been buoyant about their chances, but it’s never as easy as that. The Ryder Cup is always close. It always comes down to a few key moments, and it will be no different in Paris. I think we’ll have a great team and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.” 

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Floodlights may be used at Dubai Desert Classic

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 16, 2018, 12:44 pm

No round at next week’s Dubai Desert Classic will be suspended because of darkness.

Tournament officials have installed state-of-the-art floodlighting around the ninth and 18th greens to ensure that all 132 players can finish their round.

With the event being moved up a week in the schedule, the European Tour was initially concerned about the amount of daylight and trimmed the field to 126 players. Playing under the lights fixed that dilemma.

“This is a wonderful idea and fits perfectly with our desire to bring innovation to our sport,” European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley said. “No professional golfer ever wants to come back the following morning to complete a round due to lack of daylight, and this intervention, should it be required, will rule out that necessity.”

Next week’s headliners include Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia and Henrik Stenson. 

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Ortiz takes Tour clubhouse lead in Bahamas

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 16, 2018, 2:19 am

Former Tour Player of the Year Carlos Ortiz shot a bogey-free, 4-under-par 68 Monday to take the clubhouse lead in The Bahamas Great Exuma Classic at Sandals Emerald Bay.

Four other players - Lee McCoy, Brandon Matthews, Sung Jae Im and Mark Anderson - were still on the course and tied with Ortiz at 6-under 210 when third-round play was suspended by darkness at 5:32 p.m. local time. It is scheduled to resume at 7:15 a.m. Tuesday.

Ortiz, a 26-year-old from Guadalajara, Mexico, is in search of his fourth Tour victory. In 2014, the former University of North Texas standout earned a three-win promotion on his way to being voted Tour Player of the Year.

McCoy, a 23-year-old from Dunedin, Fla., is looking to become the first player to earn medalist honors at Q-School and then win the opening event of the season.